Jun 17, 2024, 06:24AM

The Work of Not Reading

The purest takes arise from minimal engagement with the material. 

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Let me lay a hot tip for composing hot takes on you: it’s easiest to write or podcast about public intellectuals if you’ve never read beyond their book or article titles. In 2024, you simply can’t post well (and post “big league”) unless you use this method. In our age of information overload, mastery isn't about depth; it’s about breadth—superficial, lighter-than-air breadth, to be precise.

The great chat-show hosts showed us the way. Think about Terry Gross’ entire career as an interviewer—she never went past the book title. “Sexual Personae? Who are these personae, Dr. Ms. Paglia, and why are they sexual?” This technique, while seemingly superficial, serves as a powerful tool for navigating and dominating intellectual discourse without the cumbersome burden of actual reading.

Or consider the following meaningless mash-up of intellectual heavyweights: “As Christopher Lasch has written, this is a culture of narcissism. A genuine case of sickness unto death, to quote Kierkegaard, and an instance of Zizek’s Big Other doing the work in what Bauman dubs ‘liquid modernity.’ The only way out is to deschool society, argues Illich. The alternative is simply more of what Foucault labeled “discipline and punish,” built into what Bourdieu refers to as our habitus.”

There you go, kids. Pop that junk into ChatGPT alongside a current events lede, and then lather, rinse, repeat. Do this long enough and you can award yourself a PhD. That’s seven-eight years of humanities graduate work in the books.

Before we go any further, let’s examine that paragraph. Christopher Lasch’s critique of contemporary society as a “culture of narcissism” is often distilled into this single phrase, even though his analysis spans thousands of pages across multiple books and delves into the intricacies of psychological and social dynamics. To quote Alfred E. Neuman, “what, me worry?” The phrase is catchy and resonates with the zeitgeist, making it perfect for quick, impactful references. Who has time to delve into Lasch’s detailed exploration of the historical and cultural underpinnings of narcissism when a headline alone suffices to juice the discourse?

Moving on to Kierkegaard, the “sickness unto death” is a profound existential concept that takes on new life in our soundbite culture. Originally, Kierkegaard’s work explores the depths of despair—spiritual despair, not physical death, is the real peril to be feared in life—and the human condition’s relationship with faith and self-identity. However, in our fast-paced world, this complex philosophical idea is easily reduced to a metaphor for any pervasive societal malaise.

Then there’s Slavoj Zizek’s “Big Other,” a concept borrowed from Lacanian psychoanalysis. Zizek uses it to critique ideology and societal norms. This idea—referring to the symbolic order of society encompassing laws and norms, which provides structure and meaning all while remaining illusory (as it is self-imposed and unattainable in its ideal form)—more frequently functions as a buzzword in pseudo- intellectual discussions. There, it’s deployed as a term that signals an awareness of psychoanalytic theory and social critique without necessitating a look into Lacanian or Zizekian thought. It’s a kind of intellectual shorthand waved at the unseen forces shaping reality, a cursory nod to complexity without the commitment to understanding it fully.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity captures the fluid and ever-changing nature of contemporary life. This concept, fleshed out with deeper insight across his oeuvre, can be invoked to describe the instability and uncertainty of modern existence in just a few words. It’s a term that fits neatly into half-baked discussions about the fleeting nature of relationships, jobs, and identities in the 21st century. Why read Bauman’s extensive work when a single phrase can convey the essential point?

Ivan Illich’s call to “deschool society” advocates for a radical rethinking of education and its role in society. His work critiques institutionalized education systems and proposes alternative, more holistic ways of learning—methods my mother utilized in my own strange course of home schooling. However, in the age of hot takes, this idea works better when boiled down to an anti-establishment slogan. It’s a rallying cry for those disillusioned with traditional education, encapsulated in a memorable term rather than a detailed analysis.

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a seminal work on the history of prisons and the broader implications of disciplinary mechanisms in society, which have evolved from punishing the body to controlling the mind. Yet, in many discussions, it’s reduced to a generic critique of surveillance and control. The nuance of Foucault’s historical and discursive analysis of evolving power relations and societal structures is lost, merely used to indicate that ours is a society that is “carceral,” obsessed with punishment and control, and so on.

Finally, Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “habitus” explores how social structures are internalized and shape individual behaviors. The habitus constitutes a complex interplay of social, cultural, and personal factors. However, it’s often used as a catch-all term that, at best, signifies ingrained habits and social norms. More often than not, though, it’s primarily employed to show that the speaker has some passing awareness of Bourdieu, an important thinker whose convoluted work is something we lack the time or energy to think about.

There you have it. By assembling these fragments as I’ve done, one can navigate and perhaps even dominate conversations without the burden of any reading whatsoever. This method isn’t about ignorance but about strategic engagement. It’s a way of projecting erudition and insight without the need for the slightest bit of study.

Such superficial engagement allows us to keep pace with the rapid flow of information and remain active participants in what passes for the lofty discourse of our time. It enables us to make quick, impactful-sounding contributions to conversations and debates, leveraging the cachet of big names and complex ideas without getting bogged down in details.

This approach aligns perfectly with the demands of modern low-information “information work,” where speed and efficiency, not depth of thought, are paramount. By quickly assessing, categorizing, and synthesizing information, we can keep beating the odds, evens, and imaginary numbers. When someone demands a take, you’ll always have some punchy nonsense at the ready, even if nothing you muster will ever match Donald Trump’s impromptu eulogy for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


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