Inevitably we were talking about bad practice, companies that treat their websites as afterthoughts or, as Sam put it, as mere "guided tours for the brand."
I was struck by what happened to my half of the conversation. I began to roll out the scorn. When talking about bad website design, I would relish how really bad it was. I would hold the brand up for "how stupid can someone be" excoriation.
Now, the linguists can tell us what is happening here. This kind of talk has a meta-pragmatic function. It builds solidarity between the speakers. (The mechanics: scorn presumes that we both understand a topic is risible. This presumption claims a commonality. This commonality builds a solidarity. Or something likes this, more or less, give or take.)
Solidarity is a good thing especially with one’s colleagues, but in this case it didn’t sit right. In fact, I found myself recoiling from scorn even as I manufactured it.
The problem is that this scorn must, I think, interfere with the dispassion with which we are, I believe, obliged to talk about contemporary commerce and culture. It really gets in the way. At the very least, we have confused the issue. More specifically, we are using our talk to build solidarity when we ought to be using it to think about the world.
But set the solidarity issue aside. If we go into the mechanics of the meta-pragmatics of scorn, we see a deeper problem. Scorn depends upon a presupposition, and this presupposition has the effect of making us assume the very things we are supposed to be surfacing for study. More exactly, when we are congratulating one another for "getting" why a website is risible, we are assuming, not demonstrating, why it’s risible. Worse, we have submerged the very problem solving that is supposed to happen not sub rosa but "under glass."
Much of this discourse of the postmodernist camp is presuppositional in just this way. In moving from the Harvard Business School to McGill, differences in discourse became extra clear. At HBS it had been considered perfectly ok to ask for clarification. Routinely, faculty meetings would stop while the speaker repeated himself. And sometimes the listener would actually vocalize his or her understanding of the point at issue, to show/see if they had got it right. There was no shame in these requests. Very smart people were expected to interrupt other very smart people, when they did not understand.
But in the cultural studies world at McGill, questions of this kind seemed to happen. No one ever asked for terms to be defined or arguments to be clarified. There was a prevailing feeling that "we all get this" and that a request for clarification was therefore unnecessary, even gauche, perhaps even a declaration of intellectual deficiency.
What made this difference odd is the fact that at HBS, people speak in a plain style (a remainder of the Protestant roots of the institution, perhaps). In fact, several meetings would go by before I heard anyone use a metaphor! That’s how plain speech was. (This is an interesting conundrum for Deidre McCloskey who insists that economics is rhetoric before its economics.) At McGill people spoke in the abstract language of a high altitude postmodernism, complete with rhetorical stunt flying that never seemed to inscribe anything legible in the heavens above. Even if McGill students wanted to, it’s hard to know how they would ask for clarification. I mean, where would you start? (This reminds me of a wonderful moment in which Ernest Becker having listened to a long, convoluted comment, paused for a Vaudevillian beat, and said, "Huh?")
But there I go getting all scornful again. And that’s wrong. I think it’s fair to say I am not harboring a 19th century scientist’s regard for objectivity. On the qualitative side of things, we want to be subjective, we want to use every bit of our "selfhood" to solve problems. And I believe I am not attacking scorn as a rhetoric device. Christopher Hitchins’ new book, God is Not Great shows us what it can accomplish in the right hands.
It’s this presuppositional thing that gets me. Scorn submerges what we are supposed to expose to view. But this is the very moment in which many intellectual bets are off. Capitalism is changing at light speed. Commerce is changing, it seems, every quarter. And of course our culture is now something like a blur. This is not the moment to be congratulating ourselves on the things we "get," the things we "share," the things that are "obvious" and "ludicrous." This is perhaps a time we want to be a little less Mr. Smarty pants, and a little more Martian.
Thanks to Barb Henry on Flickr for the image of the Siamese kitten. Why did I use it? No idea.