Monday, February 14, 2011

Boo Radley ate my homework



I MET a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ozymandias of Egypt



Now that Mubarak has gone, now that the Egyptian military are
ensuring they will remain the people who run the country, now that the Egyptian people have less representation than before their protests (in fact, none at all), we can look back on the events of the past [however many days it was] and ask ourselves what really happened. How was it that Malcolm Gladwell could ruin his reputation so thoroughly, by the simple act of writing five pages of tosh for the New Yorker?

To put it another way, when was your tipping point? Perhaps it was reading Ari Melber's succinct analysis in the Nation. Or perhaps you developed an awareness of Gladwell's essential toshiness much earlier, before the present crisis. Perhaps, like me, you perceived the overarching theme of tosh in all his work long ago; if so, we can share the satisfaction of watching the world waking up to the knowledge we have have held so long.

Perhaps for you, as for many, it was the Stephen Pinker review:
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aper├žus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
Of course, Pinker is like Gladwell in that he is a popular author on subjects of the mind, but Pinker has a job at MIT and knows Noam; moreover, this flaming was published in the New York Times, Gladwell's own paper; moreover still, and perhaps crucially, Pinker has hair which is even more eccentric and bigger than Gladwell's.

Perhaps you tipped when you read the Nation's meta-review by Maureen Tkacik:
The Economist was astute to observe that the sheer obviousness of Outliers' core ideas, which were "unlikely to take even the least reflective reader by surprise," marked a departure from The Tipping Point. But when the magazine described The Tipping Point's chief attraction as its title concept's capacity to lend "the power of apparent inevitability to almost any argument," it failed to mention that the concept was central to Outliers as well--this despite that the purported aim of Outliers was to remind readers that "success," for most of us, is anything but inevitable. Such are the contradictions that seem to riddle not just Gladwell's thinking but the thinking on Gladwell's thinking, and perhaps even the thinking on thinking on that, and it is precisely these slippery but substantive contradictions that have allowed Gladwell to tout his revolutionary "big ideas" without couching them in anything so mundane as a logical, well-supported or otherwise sound argument. In this failing, he is not unique among either media mavens or the intelligentsia, but he is, perhaps, outstanding.
Or perhaps you were an outlier: you read one of the many generic hagiographies of Gladwell published in business magazines and took it the wrong way; perhaps you read something like this from Fast Company
But nowhere is Gladwell's influence being felt more than in business. Starbucks' Howard Schultz publicly attributed his company's success to the tipping-point phenomenon. The public- relations agency Ketchum created what it infelicitously named an "Influencer Relationship Management" database that emulates Gladwell's model of connectors, mavens, and salesmen. One tech company even named itself TippingPoint Technologies Inc. The mere mention of his name to creative directors or product developers results in nouns not typically associated with business thinkers: He's a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud.
Suddenly, in a blink you realised that Gladwell serves the interests of the truly deplorable, the people who gave the world the raspberry mocha chip frappuccino.

Perhaps, like me, you are one of those people who are accustomed to reading literature, rather than oh-wow books that attempt to explain everything in the terms of some simple dictum. Perhaps the Gladwell frenzy passed you by: you were reading Turgenev at the time. But then you read Issac Chotiner's demolition in The New Repubic of Gladwell's interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird:
Here is Gladwell's analysis of one of American literature's (and American cinema's) most moving scenes. For starters, he seems to be confusing or conflating political passion with personal passion. Must all civil rights heroes yell and scream? Must all southern gentleman be weak-kneed appeasers of racism? And how does keeping silent--as opposed to "brimming with rage"--show a more concrete desire for radical change? What does the disposition of Atticus Finch have to do with a bias toward "hearts and minds" rather than the law (which is a false distinction anyway). It must also be said, again, that Finch is a lawyer.
You have little or no idea who this man is or what he wants, but you find yourself offended that Gladwell speaks as if he has access to some store of knowledge about the book of which we know nothing, that he appears to claim to know more about the motivations of the book's characters than anyone else, including Harper Lee. You think to yourself, this man is an imposter. He is making it up.

Today, gentle reader, you know you are not alone.


1 comment:

Stephen Stratford said...

I have always thought he was a fool. An intelligent, literate fool who can negotiate book contracts, but a fool all the same.

Sometimes one is vindicated.