Some Small Ideas About Big Ideas

At first, I thought that Neal Gabler was singing my song in his ode (and eulogy) to the “Big Idea”. Part of his argument turns on a familiar theme at this blog, that overspecialization has its costs, and that one of those costs is the fragmentation and overproduction of knowledge.

But not so fast. There are Big Problems with Gabler’s view of the Big Idea. The first I suspect is going to turn up in critical responses around the Web today, namely, that he turns to a trite-and-true villain to explain the decline of the Big Idea, the Internet. The argument goes something like this: the Internet makes too much information available to too many people and doesn’t require the users of information to actually know or master that information themselves.

This common sentiment seems particularly beloved among middlebrow intellectuals of an older generation, the sort who harbored ambitions of appearing on The Firing Line and then going to dinner at Elaine’s and having Norman Mailer wave to them. They would have done it too, if it weren’t for those darned online kids. There’s a shining, golden moment that they have in their memories when the vast postwar American middle-class was willing to watch a symphony on TV, read a novel by Roth or Updike, and try to understand the theories of Einstein. Sure, Stevenson might take a shot for being an egghead, but at least everybody who was anybody knew who the Van Dorens were.

This memory isn’t completely rose-colored. Gabler knows better than anyone, given his interest in Disney, that there really was a cultural moment that now seems increasingly remote, where Walt Disney, as safely middle-American as anything could be, got on the television screens and told kids and their parents about the wonders of science’s big ideas. This is a bit of what Gabler’s getting at when he suggests we’re living in a post-Enlightenment, post-reason time.

But blaming it on the Internet just underscores what’s wrong with this memory, namely, who’s the we here? Did most Americans in 1960 really know and appreciate the Big Ideas, really take in a redacted and reprocessed version of high culture? I’m thinking not. What’s being remembered here is the public peformance of self within a certain segment of the middle-class in certain places. Push back Gabler’s account further and this gets even more sharply clear. Euro-American working-classes were far more familiar with a range of sophisticated literary work than contemporary elites suspected in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but I still suspect that the Big Ideas on Gabler’s list circulated far less widely than his rhetoric implies. He uses “we” throughout: I think he needs a different pronoun.

It’s a Goldilocks eulogy: what’s being mourned is an imagined past where just the right number of people had access to knowledge, just the right number of people were in that “we” that cared about Big Ideas as well as the smaller “we” that had the ideas in the first place. It’s not too much information, in the end: it’s too many people. It’s not that we’ve gone from a society that valued Enlightenment reason to one that doesn’t, it’s that all the people who never signed on for Enlightenment reason have become visible, speaking subjects.


Two other problems with the Big Ideas as Gabler describes them, though. First, most of the things he labels as Big Ideas weren’t necessarily perceived or voiced as such when they were first articulated. What he’s really describing in many cases are retrospective labels created by popularizers and interpreters of denser or more complicated writing and research. “God is Dead”, for example, is not something that Nietzsche just said off the cuff on the Charlie Rose show some night, nor did he mean it as a simple “Big Idea”. Most Big Ideas, scientific and humanistic, appear only as such after a considerable time, and by the time they appear as a Big Idea, they’re often misleading summaries of more intricate or specialized works.

Equally to the point, a lot of what Gabler describes as Big Ideas turn out to have been actively wrong or at least misleading in the wrong hands, and one of the reasons is not the insights and findings of their initial creators but the seductive refashionings of later popularizers. The process that made Big Ideas into two or three-sentence applause lines that can be rattled off in succession in an op-ed in the New York Times is often what allowed them to turn into ideology and dogma.

If the informationally overloaded present is resistant to Big Ideas, maybe that’s not because we’re too busy watching YouTube videos of Jennifer Aniston playing with a cat. Maybe it’s because we’re acquiring an immune system resistance to the salesmanship of middlebrow middlemen trying to extract saleable Big Ideas from the raw material of knowledge production.

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1 Response to Some Small Ideas About Big Ideas

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I tried to read Gabler’s article you linked to, and I will try again tonight, but I stopped when he talked about the intellectuals William F. Buckley, Jr., Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer in connection with “big ideas.” I heard and read the “big ideas” from those men at the time they were launching them and they were just mostly wrong. So, I must ask, what “brow” were these three? The highest? The lowest?

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