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On the order of rank in intellectual labour

Magritte (1936), 'The Philosopher's Lamp'

"...not every critic is a genius, but every genius is born a critic..."
- Lessing

"Anyone who calls themselves a philosopher is a bit of an arse."
- Bob Plant

What you get called, as a processor of culture, is not incidental. I've tried to sense out the hierarchy of terms, our snobby job descriptions of wordy people. (This is not to endorse that hierarchy.) The formal question I'm after could be: 'how much cultural capital is attributed by the title?' This is clear when we keep the activity constant and note the change in Distinction:

Take two media examples, "writer" and "author". "Writer" is completely unregulated - a guy who drools out one piece for his student newspaper is one, and so is Antonio Gramsci. "Author" is reputedly the broader category (and legally I suppose it is), but it's got a pretty clear ring of positive evaluation - of authority. But it's also pretty loosely regulated.

Two ideas examples: "thinker" and "philosopher". "Philosopher" is only uncontroversial when it is used as a job description - for that woman in teaching in that university department. Demarcation is difficult, because the field is a wilful fucking mess, but also because there really is an element of congraulation in calling someone a philosopher. Despite my disowning the following in general, I still don't want to allow just anyone to claim the title (e.g. Ayn Rand).

(Ones which often get used pejoratively are italicised:)

  • Media people: blogger < journalist < columnist < reviewer < pundit < creative < screenwriter < writer < editor < essayist < author/novelist/poet/playwright < person of letters < artist.

  • Ideas people: student < guru < writer < researcher < academic < analyst < author/... < thinker < expert < scientist < lecturer < intellectual < scholar < visionary < theorist < professor < philosopher < genius.


- You probably disagree (and there's not much we can do about that).

- It's rarely a simple matter of rank. Obviously we don't always have relative esteem in mind; obviously context is the determiner of meaning in basically all contexts; obviously there are loads of screenwriters with far more cultural capital than loads of playwrights; obviously the following assumes all other things remaining equal (an assumption which is never true).

- Nonetheless: in media, I think the ones from "essayist" on are honorific terms.

- And in ideas, the ones from "scholar" on. (Admittedly "theorist" gets applied to a heap of empty bullshitters - but what doesn't?)

- I've left out the real pejoratives - e.g. sophist, e.g. hack - because we soon get into Content going down that road - to nihilist and to yellow journalism.

- I've also left out trying to give the complex hierarchy across "academics" - anthropologist < linguist < physicist... (!)

- Are "novelist", "poet" and "playwright" really equivalent? Since theatre is rare and metropolitan nowadays, you could view playwrights as a little more Authorial and Classy, as happened whenever Pinter talked about large things.

- And "artist" is maybe not much of an honorific in most circles.

- The terms also don't exclude each other (e.g. Gramsci was a philosopher but also a theorist of intellectuals).


Why care about all this cultural-conservative nonsense, though? Why not just revaluate these values, hold the people relevant to our lives - our webcomic artists, our bloggers, our tv satirists, and our youtubists - over the older thoroughbreds?

Well, cause Year Zero cultural revolution is usually needless, and perhaps impossible, and anyway vitiating. There's lots to learn, kids! Those things that are or will be new under the sun are not revealed by setting fire to the ones already sunkissed, at length, by the world.