Monday, 13 November 2006

Free Hegel Criticism! Stop Selling Blue Jeans! (x-posted from the Valve) The first half of the title comes from a joke that made the rounds in the sabermetric community long before Michael Lewis’ Moneyball had been turned into an allegory of departmental hiring practices.* The idea was that sabermetric critics knew better than scouts, coaches, managers and general managers who should be on the field in a baseball game. Some players possessed skills—in particular, the ability to get on base—that sabermetricians thought criminally undervalued, so members of the sabermetric community would demand the “release” of these players via sarcastic email, newsgroup and BBS campaigns to “Free Such-and-Such!” Sure, Such-and-Such may clog the basepaths and be a butcher in the field, but his ability to get on base at a .390 clip—almost four times per ten plate appearances—means he contributes .31 more runs per game than that athletic-looking fellow over there. Besides winning, the reason Such-and-Such should be prefered over that athletic-looking fellow was, as the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, famously said in Moneyball, “We’re not selling blue jeans.” And so “selling blue jeans” entered the community argot, becoming the phrase of choice whenever a superficially sound argument, typically based on conventional wisdom, wrongfully imprisoned another Such-and-Such. Pace Bill’s post and another, by Chad Orzel a few months back, it seems that people increasingly want scholars in the humanities to sell blue jeans. Look how well it works in the sciences! Why don’t the humanities adopt a similar model? The answer to that question arrived, fortuitously, in the form of Joe’s conference paper on Hegel. By Bill and Chad’s criteria, Joe deserves a harsh sentence from a hanging judge, and yet… The paper is clearly written to be read aloud. It makes frequent concessions to the audience—foremost among them the way in which Joe defines his terms as he goes along. This may seem like a small gesture, but audiences have a tendency to drift when a contested term like “ideology” is dropped, undefined, into a talk. “Whose definition of ‘ideology’ is she employing?” they think as the speaker continues upon her merry way. Admittedly, this may be the sort of “intellectual throat-clearing and scene-setting” Bill opposes, but a certain amount is necessary when entering into some conversations. Joe’s conference paper accomplishes what we all wish all papers could—it incorporates throat-clearing and scene-setting into its body, such that the argument is worked through instead of being “crammed” into the last five minutes. So you know what I say? Free Hegel Criticism! *It—being the first half of the title—is also quite the terrible pun.

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