I mentioned this before, but I find quotes a strange thing.
Yesterday I visited a conference/lecture series at a fancy place in Berlin – or at least I tried to do that. I just survived two lectures and then I had to leave. Maybe the nice weather played part in my decision to go somewhere else, but to be honest, it was more the academic style of the two lectures that drove me away. Especially one of the two talks was just a collection of quotes and it remains unclear to me, whether there was actually a unique idea hiding somewhere in this talk or not.
“He said this, and he said this, then she said this” … what is the point of a talk like this? Of course, in academia, people are supposed to quote in the right way and using as many names as possible during your talk, you might be seen as someone who knows the texts you are supposed to know. Not only do you prove your literacy, but maybe you can show off your great ability in memorizing.
Besides that, what’s the point? Very often, while talking to friends and colleagues, the term academia or academic is used in a negative way, describing the thing I am trying to talk about above. Many academics seem to see their role in being hard to understand to appear prolific. The problem seems to be that philosophy and other genres of cultural science are inherently open to everyone. Everyone could ask questions about the things philosophy or sociology are talking about. And everyone might be able to find answers. Maybe not everyone finds good answers, but who could be the judge if one answer to an abstract question is “better” than the other.
So the answer to the problem of openness of the field seems to be to make it artificially more difficult to participate. That might be called professionalization. Art seems to do the same thing. Since, in theory, everyone could produce art, the response is, to make the field less accessible and make references more crucial for your role as an artist. Even art in high-school does the same thing. You want to talk about art? Well you better know you Picasso, Cezanne, or Beuys, or you are not qualified to participate in the debate. Of course this is the problem on a very basic level. Once you enter academia, your “Picassos, Cezannes and Beuyses” are different and definitely more complex.
Along with this come certain texts you are supposed to know, certain thinkers you need to admire – or hate – and certain quotes you need to know by heart. IF you want to participate in the debate. Very often in such debates the actual content seems not to be that important.
This now might sound cheesy, but I do believe that most ideas could be explained in an easily understandable way. Not too complex and not too boring. Maybe one two paragraphs should be enough. But sure, if you are judged by the size of books you publish, or you are paid by the number of words you write… then it might be another story. I am not calling for a tabloid newspaper style of writing and actual events might be very complex and thus require extensive analysis. I am talking about text that take hundreds of almost indecipherable pages to explain one simple idea the author happened to come along.
But the problem I see is multi-layered. Why is it, that someone who wishes to be worthy of participating in philosophical conversations is supposed to know much about the history of philosophy? One might argue that you should know where ideas come from, or who came up with a certain concept first. I think this is bullshit. Just because an idea or concept has a name attached to it, it is not important who thought about what first. All that is to it is that this is some kind of eternal branding – once a philosopher has uttered a word and someone wrote it down, it seems as if there is now a weird copyright to a thought – a copyright that never expires. That is wrong on many levels.
This is connected to the issue I am having with quotes. Why do ideas need to be branded? Why is there no need to quote everything? Like:
“Wipe your ass till the paper is clean, or your butt hurts.”
Mom ca. 1981
Only the “important” ideas need to be properly addressed? I don’t like that. If a concept is good, there is no reason why just one person should come up with it. Plus, everything I know, every thought I have every concept that guides me through live is to at least 99.99% a composite of things I have experienced through other people. And the same was true for folks like Immanuel Kant or Karl Marx.
The Internet, our possibility of a constant access to all human knowledge, just makes things here more and more difficult. With the help of Google, every idea could easily be identified as plagiarism. Even the sentence with the ass wiping (without the quotation marks) results in something like half a million results – so it seems possible that my mum was plagiarizing the concept of butt wiping.
I’d say, let’s try to engage in conversations about interesting things, not giving a shit, where certain ideas might have come from – once they fit into your argument or your view on the world, they have already become entirely yours. I know it is hard, I myself have been conditioned by academia to follow the weird rules and hunt for mis-attributed quotes others use.