Reading & Reacting: TED talks are lying to you

Photo: Thomas Frank

Founding editor Thomas Frank on Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO, April 25, 2012. – courtesy of The Baffler

By Thomas Frank @ Salon

I didn’t think I had previously read anything by Thomas Frank, at least that I remember. However, after reading this latest piece reposted in Salon, I am actually interested in reading more of his work. That might be the kindest praise I can give after reading anyone for the first time.

There is something deliciously sardonic about Franks’s whole perspective in this piece that is present immediately with the detached  first sentence, “The writer had a problem.” The commentary deadpans in the third person, establishing a persona that could easily be Frank but need not necessarily be. The writer could be any creative type plying his critical trade in type. Once the persona is established, its as if Frank was liberated to take the whole creativity cultivation industry to task with remarkable insight.

Those who urge us to “think different,” in other words, almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

Well, maybe not. Frank shrewdly highlights the deeper irony as well, “If there is a non-fiction genre from which you have a right to expect clever prose and uncanny insight, it should be this one.” Alas, it often doesn’t. Instead there is a lot of rehashed pseudo profundity, not unlike another writer that seemed to absent for “the author’s” epiphanies.

The whole piece builds toward an excellent finish, filled with a crescendo of irony and insight that is wryly entertaining.

Consider, then, the narrative daisy chain that makes up the literature of creativity. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well. What your correspondent realized, relaxing there in his tub one day, was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

It is a clever turn here from “us” back to “the author,” alone with his bathtub revelations. What makes the article so exquisitely fun is just how on target Frank is.

Consequently, I started trolling The Baffler, only to pleasantly discover that I had read Thomas Frank, In fact, I read his last piece, “Academy Fight Song,” in the aforementioned magazine he helped found. I recommend reading that too. He has definitely won a new reader in me.

Image: iPad

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and flipped to Teaching Today

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