Commodification of Intellectuals

Some time back, I posted a few comments along with a quote from Jacques Barzun–including one factual error and, in the quote, a bit of mistyping.  Someone connected to the scholar quickly contacted me and corrected me.  I thanked him and made the changes; that kind of vigilance is useful to all of us.

But that sort of vigilance, I fear, is going to become more the exception than the rule.  The estates of scholars are becoming more concerned with protecting financial possibilities than with ensuring a continuing contribution to intellectual discussion.  Their work has become “intellectual property,” widgets of no more intrinsic importance than any other items put up for sale.

In another instance, I mentioned in a post a different intellectual from the 20th century.  I won’t mention his name–if I do, the sequence of events I am about to describe will likely be repeated (the automated part, that is).  Anyhow, the guardian of his work has established a ‘bot seeking his name and leaving a canned comment with links to his site.  The comment, stripped of identification, reads like this:

We are a not-for-profit educational organization,… and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition… [the author] made a series of [videos]…. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours….  A must for libraries and classroom teaching….

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

The comment was signed with the name of someone who had co-authored a book with the original scholar.

As I moderate comments on this blog, I was able to simply delete this one.  But the ‘bot wasn’t satisfied, and the comment was offered a second time.  Not wanting to continue the cycle, I wrote to the author, asking that this stop, writing “It doesn’t help anyone.”  He (or someone writing in his name–I came to think I was corresponding with an intern quite quickly) responded, “Sorry.  Nor hurt anyone, as it’s a invaluable bit of learning.”

He’s right.  It doesn’t hurt anyone, but it is an imposition, a stepping into the space of another.  I wrote back: “You can pinch someone and then excuse yourself by saying it doesn’t hurt, but that really is the decision of the person being pinched.”  He responded (and this is why I don’t think I was corresponding with the named person, but a minor underling): “Your ignorance is exceeded only by your audacity!”


There’s a quote from Robert Hutchins with the signature line of each email from this person:

Justice and freedom; discussion and criticism; intelligence and character–these are the indispensable ingredients of the democratic state.  We can be rich and powerful without them.  But not for long.

So true.  But when these become commodities themselves, as that last comment from the guardian shows us, we no longer have them.

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