Monday, 24 October 2011
Earlier this month, scholar and author Evgeny Morozov published one of the most explosive book reviews I have read in several years. For all its faults – Morozov desperately needed a good editor to rein in the more self-indulgent passages – his deconstruction of Jeff Jarvis’s Public Parts is worth reading in full, not only because it is a devastatingly effective assassination of an influential figure but also because it makes a powerful case for treating digital utopians like Jarvis and his buddy Jay Rosen with more scepticism.
Morozov finally landed the punch we had been expecting from Andrew Keen, in the process calling Jarvis’s book “glib”, “insipid” and “half-baked” and lampooning Jarvis’s “unrivaled ability to attract attention to his diva-like self”. It’s the sort of stuff that has you punching the air, especially delicious because Jarvis really is one of those needy, fame-hungry online personalities like Julia Allison who never seem to shut up. Seriously, doesn’t the guy ever take holidays?
Morozov’s review, which outgunned Jarvis rhetorically and, more importantly, intellectually, would itself have been enough to cause heavy damage to the journalism professor’s reputation – regardless of the fact that most people, this correspondent included, are yet to examine Jarvis’s book. Truthfully, we no longer feel we should waste the time, since Morozov has so exhaustively highlighted Jarvis’s lack of basic background reading and his pitiable attempts at original thinking.
“It would be hard to exaggerate the intellectual laziness of this book,” Morozov writes. “When he is not re-phrasing the obvious, Jarvis churns out ideas that he believes to be fresh and brilliant but turn out to be stale and boring and old.” And he’s only just getting started. Later, we’re told how comical Jarvis’s superficial reading of Habermas is: “This is how Sarah Palin would read Habermas if she could read Habermas.”
You have to feel sorry for Jarvis. Admittedly, he holds himself in curiously high regard, which can be grating. And he certainly never passes on the opportunity to congratulate himself. But as he squirmed uncomfortably, attempting to discredit and dismiss Morozov, instead of addressing his opponent’s criticisms head-on, you realised that this was a populist, middle-brow author being brutally kneecapped by an academic with a vastly superior arsenal. What hope did he have? Jarvis takes great pleasure in underscoring his academic credentials, but not all professors are made equal, and this felt like Daffy Duck being decapitated by Immanuel Kant.
And so, inevitably, when Jarvis did respond – at first flippantly, in a hideous error of public relations judgement, and then, at greater length, but still inadequately – it was with a water pistol instead of the Exocet missile needed to defuse Morozov’s exegesis: two hopelessly poor rebuttals, which operated at the same level of thinking Morozov had so brilliantly exploded in his original inquiry. Jarvis whined about Morozov’s long-standing animosity (irrelevant to the arguments at hand), made weird remarks about the font size of Morozov’s piece and generally lowered himself to the sort of debating techniques one sees in the comment sections of the Guardian‘s Comment is Free and on social media sites but which one hardly expects from a university professor.
Most egregiously of all, and out of nowhere, he invoked his struggles with cancer. It was a creepy, sleazy move that would have embarrassed the most disreputable academic. Jarvis may have got used to babbling on about his health on his blog, Buzzmachine – and I sincerely hope the regular outpourings of sympathy he obviously craves and always receives have been a comfort to him throughout a painful experience – but references to his personal problems had no place in an academic rebuttal and he should be ashamed of stooping to such tactics.
There have been whispers for some time among Jarvis’s critics, usually only expressed privately, that he has been leveraging his health woes as insulation against the more robust criticisms of his work. “I hate to say this,” wrote one of his antagonists to me last week, “But why is it that every time Jarvis finds himself under attack, we’re treated to another blog post about his testicles?” Understandably, no one has had the insensitivity or foolhardiness to accuse Jarvis of such poor form publicly. But I don’t think they need to after this.
John Lettice, editorial director of The Register, remarked last night on Twitter that the death of Jeff Jarvis as thought leader will be restricted to “circles in which people actually think”. He is surely right. But even if that boundary does not circumscribe Jarvis’s legion of sycophantic fans, it certainly does his peers, his editors and the array of digital bigwigs he is anxious to ingratiate himself with and upon whom he depends for his income and status.
Doubtless his consulting work will continue to be lucrative. (There’s no word yet on whether, like his fellow utopian Clay Shirky, Jarvis was on Colonel Gaddafi’s payroll.) But his professional reputation has been irredeemably damaged by this episode, and, absent what would have to be a pamphlet-length and extremely tightly argued rejoinder to Morozov, it is unlikely to recover – regardless of the number of sophomoric “fiskings” he publishes, nor the frequency with which he dismisses his critics on Twitter as “haters”.
Because drawing attention to intellectual fatuousness is not the same as “trolling”: this is one debunking Jarvis cannot explain away as someone “disagreeing” with him. And his supercilious dismissals on Twitter do nothing to mitigate the damage done by such a devastating appraisal. Many of us had privately thought of Jeff Jarvis as a bit of a frivolous lightweight. We’ll be less reluctant to say so in his beloved public sphere from now on.
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