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December 18, 2007

Fab Freebies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Lexington Green points out an amazing free resource -- the website of Alan Macfarlane, a topnotch British prof and anthropologist with a special interest in economics. Macfarlane, who is well-known in Britain for his popularizations as well as for his academic achievements, has put an almost overwhelming amount of his work online: books, lectures, interviews, research, and more.

I've only begun to scratch the surface of what Macfarlane has made available but my head is already spinning in the most pleasant of ways. Check out this jaw-dropping collection of interviews with prominent anthropologists and sociologists, for just one instance of what's there to be explored. Download 'em and put 'em on your iPhone. I'm looking especially forward to the talks with Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

Lex describes Macfarlane as "anti-Marxist" and "sensible and empirical," and he calls Macfarlane one of his own intellectual heroes. That's one terrific recommendation. Lex suggests starting with this TV series, as well as this collection of downloadable e-books.

* Thanks to visitor Brian for pointing out this Paul Cantor lecture series about culture and the market from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. (Where has Brian been recently? I miss his brains, humor, and spirit.) I'm about midway through the series and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. Cantor is brainy, exuberant, and very likable -- a wisecracking and irreverent, yet truly culture-entranced, guy. He's a spritzer, and he's very spontaneous, so the talks are alive. Yet he manages to keep his material organized too.

To do Cantor a small injustice, his theme here is, "Commercialism ain't bad." And his main goal in the series is to get people with an interest in culture over the cultureworld's usual anti-commercial bias.

In this, his series resembles Tyler Cowen's "In Praise of Commercial Culture," a book that looks with every passing year more and more like one of the most important arts books of the past few decades. (Here's a semi-informative review of Cowen's book.) Cantor is very generous in acknowledging Cowen's work, as well as the contributions of other researchers and writers.

Hey, here's a discovery that you make if / when you go into the cultureworld: Most of what you wind up talking about with other arts and culture types isn't ideas and aesthetics. Conversation inside the NYC cultureworld is often anything but highflown, in fact. Usually what you wind up talking is jobs, money, grants, and gossip. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Artspeople gotta pay the bills too, and this is their shoptalk. Still, it's one of those disappointments that culture-besotted newbies have to look forward to. The sad fact is that if you're hungry for sizzling yak about the arts, generally speaking you gotta turn elsewhere.

Cantor is sensible and vivid on some really important questions: The market as a feedback mechanism, for example. It's common to think of "the market" as something that degrades the purity of aesthetic creations, and there's no question that it sometimes does. But you might also think of "the market" as "the audience" -- and what on earth is wrong with audience feedback?

Cantor makes another point that isn't sufficiently appreciated, at least by highbrows and academics: The market tends not just to keep artists honest (throw out the jokes that don't work; keep the ones that do; learn and improve via the process) but also to keep their work accessible. As an artist, you might prefer to make work that's difficult, self-contained, and self-referential, and that requires huge leaps simply to enter. But if you want to reach non-specialists, you have generally got to 1) attract an audience and 2) speak in a language your audience understands. And "accessible" is often a welcome thing, no? For many people it is, anyway. Hey, profs: At the end of the day, most civilians just don't feel like making a grad-student-like effort to crack the code of a difficult work of art.

In other words: A culturework might be commercial, or might be commercially successful, or might even have been commercially motivated in its conception. That doesn't automatically mean it's bad. In fact, as Cantor demonstrates, the matter is often quite the reverse. He's refreshingly down-to-earth about what a mess the act of creation often is. He discusses Shakespeare as a hustling showman, Rubens as the boss of a painting factory, and Dickens as not just an author but an entrepreneurial performer and publisher.

Cantor delights in many ways. For instance, he's often surprisingly loving, tender, and nuanced, especially for a free-marketeer presenting material to an audience at the Von Mises (ie., Austrian, ie., ultra-hardcore freemarket) Institute. He's sensitive not just to individual artists and works of art, but to the ironies of history and experience. Patronage, perfectionism, difficulty, and anti-commercialism -- as ethics, values, and arrangements, these aren't automatically bad either, and have also generated some wonderful art-things. (What he doesn't like is contempo-style state arts support, which he thinks has a remarkably poor record.) And he's happy to agree that the market generates lots of dreck, and is often hard on artists.

But Cantor's goal here isn't to provide a comprehensive picture of All of Culture. Instead, it's to provide a corrective to the usual unrealistic, academic-critical thing. If you have some suspicion that your profs misled you in many respects, or if experience has left you convinced that the usual accounts of how "culture" works are full of hooey, then Cantor's series may be for you. His work offers another virtue too. The usual Arts Litany tends to promote a kind of victimization-attitude: Oh, those poor, poor persecuted arts and artists. And pity is one of the last things that culture needs. So Cantor's account isn't just an informative and accurate one, at least judging from my experience. It's also a healthy and invigorating one.

And it's all free, free, free! Look out, Teaching Company, eh?

In fact, Macfarlane's website and Cantor's lecture series have me thinking about profs, and about putting stuff online .... I do understand why some profs might prefer to keep their work in their own hands. I asked a prof friend once if I could suggest him and his courses to the Teaching Company, for instance. When he declined, he explained, "These courses are my bread and butter. I don't want them to be generally available."

I understand that: Dude's gotta make a living, after all, and you don't do that by giving your product away. Also, Macfarlane and Cantor are unusual cases. For Macfarlane -- a man with a genuine vision -- both the video medium and making knowledge easily available are important in ways they might not be to many profs. As for Cantor: I suspect that he's a passionate contributor to the public debate, and that he wants his much-undervalued point of view to get out there at more or less any cost, dammit. But profs with other drives and viewpoints might well feel differently about making their work easy for the public to get hold of.

Still, still ... If I were a prof ... Well, two things. At the very least, at the end of my career I'd have all my lectures videotaped and put on the web. After all, why not? It would be great to have a record of my presentations, and it would be even better to know that interested people will be able to find them. The other thing I'd do would be to digitize my books and upload them onto the web too. Again: Why not? Isn't it important as well as satisfying to put your work someplace where it'll have a chance at playing a role in life as it's actually lived? Copyright be damned, of course.

Thanks once again to Lex and to Brian. Fun to see that Alan Macfarlane has put a lot of his videos on YouTube. Right next to the dancing cockatoo and the skateboarding bulldog is Clifford Geertz. What's not to love about that?



posted by Michael at December 18, 2007


I have long been planning an Alan Macfarlane post on CB, and you beat me to it.

I hope your readers will give his site a look.

As you say, it is a treasure trove of fascinating material.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 18, 2007 6:46 PM

I love the picture of MacFarlane with (I assume) his grandaughter next to him in his study as they burrow away together on their own laptops. Sigh. I wish I had a granddad like him. I guess I'll just have to grow up and be a grandfather like to him to a granddaughter like her. Oh well.

Great site, Lex. Got it bookmarked. Lots there to play around in.

You know, I wonder how many of my current favourites list has come from recommendations from here. A goodly percentage, I think, and probably mrore than from any other single site. Keep those Elsewheres and Bagatelles a'comin', guys!

Posted by: PatrickH on December 18, 2007 9:10 PM

Lex -- Did I steal your link? I apologize. It's such a great one I couldn't help passing it along. But you'll have something real to say when you write your posting about Macfarlane, unlike me. And I'll link to it. So we can make a party of it then too.

PatrickH -- Great to hear you find some worthwhile links here. If a blog can't offer a little websurfing heroin, it doesn't deserve to be a blog, y'know?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 18, 2007 11:16 PM

Dude, no. All is well.

I want to put some more commentary up about Macfarlane at some point, particularly those eBooks.

As far as Prof. Macfarlane goes, there is plenty to go around for all of us.

(Some posts we have had on the Boyz about Prof. Macfarlane, or referring to him, include this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.)

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 19, 2007 12:34 AM

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