While some individual TED talks are interesting and even useful in the classroom (I especially love that many are subtitled in numerous languages), there I totally understand what Nathan Jurgenson is talking about when he says that “TED talks fuse sales-pitch slickness with evangelical intensity” in a way which “necessarily leaves out other groups and other ways of knowing and presenting ideas.” But where Jurgenson merely points out the problem, I thought Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker piece on the TED conference did a great job of getting at the nub of the problem in a way which highlights some of the underlying issues involved in popularizing academic ideas. Unfortunately the piece is currently hidden behind a paywall, so I’ve taken the liberty of quoting the relevant passages at length:
Two very different ways of thinking about ideas shape intellectual life today, and TED’s sentimental gestures arise from efforts to obscure the difference between them. One way is to see ideas as entities that speak for themselves, that can be harvested, that inspire and uplift people who handle them—sunflowers of the mind. Research science, technology, and business enterprises tend to perceive ideas this way, partly because their products are frequently self-contained: the software works, the vaccine finally exists, and the stalk of specialized inquiry that got us there no longer matters. (Technology demonstrations, or phrases like “One recent study found”—both key TED-isms—are essentially sunflower-picking exercises.) A sunflower, after all, is a thing that you can carry around for quite some time. Its form and beauty hold after it has lost its roots. It can be given to a friend or set in a vase to add some substance to a desultory room.
Yet not all ideas are sunflowers. Some, particularly on the softer side of the academy, are more akin to bougainvillea—thick, interlocking vines whose blooms are shaped much like their leaves. The most vibrant ideas here depend on precedent for structure: in order to understand why C is brilliant, you must be aware of A and B. Most specialists in the university today are trained to think of their fields in this way. Of course, bougainvillea flowers are hard to separate and carry with you. Try to “use” an idea from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas quickly on a TV talk show, and you’ll confuse many people and irk those who are not confused. This isn’t because the viewers are stupid, or because Levinas’s ideas aren’t useful. It’s because their usefulness is clear in a specialized context; beyond that, the blossoms crush and wither. You cannot put a bougainvillea flower in a vase.
The sunflower people and the bougainvillea people come together well enough in universities, but outside—where most of us make our lives—their coexistence is awkward. More Americans than ever before are taught in school, by specialists, to think about “the world of ideas” in a cumulative, contingent sense. (College enrollment in the United States has more than doubled since 1970, over which period academic specialization has intensified, too.) And yet, in the realm of industry, it’s a plug-and-play model of ideas that yields rewards. What to do?
I thought the metaphor was useful in thinking about the topic, something we have discussed a lot on this blog, and which has also consumed much of the discussion on other anthropology blogs. (See “Thomas Friedman’s Lessons for Anthropologists” on Neuroanthropology.)
One of the defining features of modern anthropology is the attempt to reproduce the complexity of the ethnographic encounter in the written ethnography. Words like “assemblages” are deployed with the express purpose of emphasizing the bougainvillea-like nature of lived complexity. It is almost as if Anthropologists have it out for sunflowers. Just take a look at Roy Wagner’s HAU article on “The chess of kinship and the kinship of chess.” Not that this is all we have. David Graeber’s current fame is due in no small part to his attempt to create a sunflower, as he wrote about in his post “Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?” (Although even there I think he’s run into some difficulty with reviewers looking for sunflowers in places where he’s provided bougainvilleas.)
Perhaps anthropologists are best at providing sunflowers when we step away from our own ethnographic work and look at things historically or comparatively. I found Marshall Sahlins’ “What Kinship Is” (part one, part two) to be thoroughly enjoyable to read and rather sunflower-like under all the Sahlinsesque flourishes of his own erudition. [The Sahlins articles were available outside a paywall on the JRAI site, but I can no longer find that link, perhaps it has expired?]
In the end I am not clear why ethnographic writing is necessarily less sunflower and more bougainvillea. One would think that ethnography would be well suited towards a particular TED style, in which personal stories replace statistics. But perhaps there is a need to write against the grain, to show the “other ways of knowing” which Jurgenson felt TED left out. If so, perhaps we need to move away from a system of training in which everyone’s first book must be an ethnography. Perhaps we should encourage more junior anthropologists to write big books about big ideas without having to first go through the initiation ritual of writing an ethnography? Maybe we should be cultivating the growth of sunflowers among our bougainvillea?
[Thanks to @BiellaColeman for pointing out the NYkr article!]