22 June 2008

Putting the "Dis" in "Intermediation"

This is just a short observation. As an academic by nature, I could go on (and on, and on, with virtually endless footnotes, exceptions, snide remarks, etc.) with this theoretical discussion — certainly long enough to lose the point. As I don't wish to lose the point, I won't do so; that will make what follows seem rather conclusory.

Formal logic defines two ordinarily opposing fallacies, among many others: the ad hominem attack and the argument from authority. The ad hominem attack asserts that the person making the argument is unreliable (all too often, simply because of irrelevant personal characteristics), and that therefore the argument is unreliable too. The attacks on "liberal media elites" (and, conversely, on Fox News and the Washington Times) are relatively mild examples; a more disturbing example is the claim that believing any of Hitler's (sadly, well-documented) claims that Stalin was untrustworthy is morally repugnant because Hitler was, himself, such a monster... or, for that matter, vice versa. Conversely, the argument from authority asserts that the person making the argument is so well-trusted that the argument must, therefore, be true. One common example of this is the blurbs one finds on books... many of which are written by persons of no critical acumen whatsoever, but whose names may well be highly "trusted" in that category (consider a hypothetical blurb offered on a space opera by Edward Smith).

This reaches into both publishing and politics through the process of intermediation and disintermediation... "brand association," if you will. On the one hand, most of this "branding" has little or nothing to do with the true qualities of the material in question — only with its marketability and marketing strategies (if the usual chaos that passes for marketing in the publishing and entertainment industries can be shoved into a box labelled "strategy"). Consider, for example, the sleazy crap put forth through American Idol... and I'm including the judges in that, too. Conversely, some form of intermediation really is necessary as shorthand; it's a lot easier to throw a whole bunch of largely incompatible theories into a box called "liberterianism" for the sake of discussion, especially if the purpose of that discussion is to dismiss them.

My point here, really, is this: It's all well and good to cut through irrelevant detail to get to overarching themes, particularly in general discussions about both politics and the arts. One must be very careful, though, to ensure that the omitted details really are irrelevant... and that the blade one is using to cut through does not predetermine its path. Ultimately, when one is relying upon an "editor" or other intermediary to do that job for one, one really is accepting an argument from authority... and even legendary editors like Maxwell Perkins made a helluva lot of mistakes. Even slavishly trusting Einstein on physics was not good enough ("God does not play dice with the universe" — wrong). In short, one must think for one's own self, based upon the evidence at hand.

This hifalutin' cogitation brought to you by cognitive dissonance, the number 2.71828182845904523536..., and Linear B.