These are the hands…that do what now?

Pitney Bowes–a company that does something related to the Internet, money, and bar graphs, as far as I can tell–has a new ad campaign, “Craftsmen of Commerce, that sounds like the capitalist’s answer to The Plow the Broke the Plains.

“These are the hands that plow…the data. These are the hands that sow the seeds…of business growth. These are the hands, of Pitney Bowes–Craftsmen of Commerce.”

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 25.5: Meritocracy

“Meritocracy” recently came in via the Suggest a Keyword link, and unlike most of the terms I examine here it is a recent coinage, with an explicit political meaning. Nevertheless, the word has long since has taken on a life of its own, which makes it a complement to the rise of “competencies,” “wellness,” and other means of offloading risk to employees. British sociologist Michael Young invented the word in 1958 in his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which adopted a “looking backward” conceit to imagine Britain in 2033, when compulsory schooling and a competitive civil service had replaced the inherited privileges of birth.

Young’s coinage was a portmanteau of “merit” and “aristocracy.” His idea wasn’t that educational notions of merit were displacing the class-based distribution of privileges, but rather replacing them. If privileges and status are distributed through the “talents” nurtured in education, then access to education merely becomes the means of reproducing privilege and status. As Young himself wrote in a 2001 essay denouncing Tony Blair’s embrace of a New Labour meritocracy:

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.

Young’s point was that Blair had missed the point of meritocracy, embracing the ideal of “merit”–itself an implicitly hierarchical notion that is treated as egalitarian–while forgetting the “aristocracy” part. Young argued that the aristocracy of merit was a new, superficially democratic way of reproducing a class through the school system: “The new class has the means at hand,” he writes, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.”

This Blairite misidentification of meritocracy is popular in American politics, as well, where it lacks any residue of the class system to which the word originally referred. As Chris Hayes writes, in American politics the meritocratic metaphor of the “level playing field” exerts a powerful, hypnotic pull–it’s a rhetorical point of consensus that “undergirds our debates,” he writes, “but is itself never the subject of them.”

This fondness extends to historical treatments, even of, say, slaveholding Virginia. “Jefferson was always pulling for meritocracy,” writes Andrew Burstein in Democracy’s Muse, a profile of the third president’s republicanism in light of 20th-century politics. Other affirmative uses of the term identify it with a kind of benevolent, hierarchical efficiency. Singapore, where meritocracy, pragmatism, and technocracy are an official governing ideology, is often praised as a model nation in this regard. Sometimes the authoritarian logic of meritocracy is not disguised at all, as in William A. Henry, III’s In Defense of Elitism. Henry, The Third uses “meritocracy” in Young’s sense of an aristocracy of “merit,” but here favorably, in a right-wing polemic against affirmative action.

Skeptical treatments about meritocracy, meanwhile, often tend to treat it as a myth or an aspiration–the common alliterative phrase “myth of meritocracy” sometimes seems to suggest an ideal that, if only realized, would produce an egalitarian society. Other critics like Lani Guinier, whose recent book on inequality in higher education is titled The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, use the term in more purely pejorative sense.

Tyler Cowen, whose book Average is Over rather gleefully images a future society (iWorld, he calls it) divided by mastery of computing technology, imagines a “hyper-meritocracy,” a concept apparently coined by the Japanese sociologist Honda Yuki. Unlike traditional meritocracy, ostensibly distributed through the educational system and measured in examinations, Honda’s “hyper-meritocracy” describes an unstable neoliberal workplace, where the dangers of of layoffs and redundancy are ever-present. A hyper-meritocracy demands not just up-to-date skills, but competencies (see KFTAOA 25 on this)–“all the skills that are flexible, and rooted deeply in an individuals’ personality and emotional makeup,” Honda writes (as translated and quoted in Katsuya Minamida’s Pop Culture and the Everyday in Japan). Cowen writes early in his book, laying out the problem (though he doesn’t appear to see it as much of one):

If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.

If you misread “complement” as “compliment,” as I initially did, Cowen’s blithe and breezy description of a dictatorship of technological “competencies” sounds like it is narrated by HAL in one of his more tender moments. “What are you doing, Dave? Why don’t your skills compliment the computer?”

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 25: Competencies

Keywords for the Age of Austerity is a series on the vocabulary of inequality. Certain words, as Raymond Williams wrote in his 1976 classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, bind together ways of seeing culture and society, shaping and reflecting the world in which they are made. Some of the words I consider here are old terms that have developed a new meaning in recent years; others are recent coinages. All of them relate to affinity for hierarchy and a celebration of the virtues of competition, “the marketplace,” and the virtual technologies of our time. This series explores the historical meanings embedded in these words as well as the new meanings that our age has given them.

Suggest an austerity keyword via the link at left or via Twitter @johnpatleary.

The Keywords mailbag is heavy with “competencies,” a word many people seem to dislike for at least a couple of reasons. First is its buzzwordy pretension and the clumsy pluralization of what has most often been a mass noun (competence or, in some cases, “competency.”) “Competencies” is a cumbersome substitute for “skills,” just as “curator” is a needlessly grand way to say “guy who owns a store.” Second is the association with “deliverables,” “outcomes,” and “accountabilities,” words that reduce professional activity to a set of repeatable, quantifiable tasks. Unlike these, “competencies” seems to come with its own critique built in. One reader writes: “When did “competent” go from a synonym for mediocrity to a term of praise?”

This reader, however, clearly does not read the Harvard Business Review. So where did “competencies” come from? And what did it do with “skills”?

Continue reading “Keywords for the Age of Austerity 25: Competencies”

English 8001: Innovation: A Cultural History of the Contemporary Concept

This is the syllabus of a course I’m teaching this term at Wayne State.


English 8001: Innovation: A Cultural History of the Contemporary Concept

Tuesday 3:00-5:45, State Hall 303 (subject to change)

Professor John Patrick Leary


Office: 5057 Woodward, #10201

Office Hours: Tuesdays 12-2, or by appointment. Office hours are designated times when I am available to meet with students one-on-one. These hours are for you to use as you wish, whether you want to discuss the readings or your own woek, wish to make some special request (like letters of recommendation), or just to chat informally.

“Innovation” is a word on nearly everybody’s lips: it is the rare term that finds favor in both university classrooms and corporate boardrooms, in all parts of the country, in opposing political parties, and in a variety of professions. Silicon Valley CEOs, academics, humanitarian organizations, and even Christian pastors all profess a passion for “innovation” and a desire to nurture it. Despite its modern vogue, however, it is a term with a long and surprising history.

Originating as a pejorative term for religious heresy in early modern Europe, “innovation” is increasingly synonymous with “creativity,” making it a focal point for the intersection of business and aesthetics. Despite its contemporary importance, however, its history is relatively unstudied. This class will start to fill in these gaps by asking the following questions: What is the history of this concept, and what is behind the dramatic shifts in its meaning? What links “innovation” and past mythologies of American capitalism?

We will explore “innovation” as one of what the literary scholar Raymond Williams calls “keywords”: “binding words,” elements of a living vocabulary that shape and reflect what a society holds in common. In this class, we will explore the historical meanings embedded in language we use everyday.

Required texts:

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society

Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Caroline Kirkland, A New Home, Who’ll Follow?

Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings

 Optional, and preferably stolen: Hanley Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma


Research presentation: On February 2, each student should be prepared to present on an instance of “innovation” in a literary or newspaper database of your choosing. You should also turn in a brief (2-4 page) critical analysis of the text you choose.

In-class participation and the Keywords method: This is a small seminar, and for it to work everyone needs to be not only physically present, but intellectually present as well. So each day, I will go around and ask everyone to speak a bit on the relevance of a keyword, which you will choose at the beginning of the term, to the readings that day. You should use Williams’ Keywords to trace, throughout the class readings, a keyword cognate from Williams’ text. Since Williams does not mention “innovation” itself, we will pick keywords that are related to the concept and the readings: for example, “society,” “creativity,” “capitalism,” or “management.” Come prepared to use their chosen concept as a tool to understand the readings. You do not need to spectacularly and brilliantly synthesize everything, but rather use the keyword to ask specific questions about a particular text or broader questions about connections and contradictions between them. What questions does Williams help you ask? How does it help you work through the concepts in the readings? What kinds of questions do the readings ask that Williams does not? How, for example, does Williams’ analysis of “creativity” help us understand Benjamin Franklin’s autobiographical self-fashioning or Wendy Brown’s understanding of homo economicus?

Writing assignments:

The writing for this class will be relatively light, page-number-wise. However, this is because we will focus on intensive work in academic genres. One written assignment, due by April 19 (though you may submit it earlier if you like) will be a book review of one of the critics we are reading (i.e., Pope, Brown, North, Godin, Spence, Brouillette, Chandra), in the style of academic journals. (More on this).

Your final paper will be a conference paper (with an abstract and a list of three conferences you would like to submit it to) on anything relating to the course topic that fits your interests. Because you’re encouraged to submit the paper to an actual conference, it should be related to your own work.

Innovation, Creativity, Heresy, and Orthodoxy: Roots of the Concepts

January 12: Why creativity (and innovation) now?

Rob Pope, “Why Creativity Now?” from Creativity: History, Theory, Practice

Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni”

John 1:1-26, New International Bible

Evgeny Morozov, “Our Naïve Innovation Fetish,” The New Republic

John Patrick Leary, “Keywords for the Age of Austerity: Innovation,” from

January 19: Keywords

Raymond Williams, Keywords, introduction and selected entries

 January 26: Innovation as a theological category

Michael North, Novelty: A History of the New, introduction and Ch. 2

Benoit Godin, Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries, Introduction and ch. 4

Francis Bacon, “Of Innovations”

Thomas Hobbes, De Cive (excerpts)

February 2: Student presentations

Using one of the full-text scholarly databases we discuss in class (Wright American fiction, Perseus Digital Library, Proquest Digital Library, one of the newspaper databases, etc.), in-class presentations on a pejorative and salutary appearance of “innovation.”

February 9: “Neoliberalism” as a historical and analytic category

Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, esp. chapters 1, 3, 4, 6.

Lester Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, esp. the introduction and chapter 3

Yankee Ingenuity and Myths of Accumulation

February 16: Self-branding: An American tradition?

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You,” Fast Company, August / September, 1997 

February 23: Land speculation and American development

Caroline Kirkland, A New Home, Who’ll Follow?

Paul Gates, “The Role of the Land Speculator in Western Development”

March 1: The limits of ingenuity

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Optional: John Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900, chap. 5, “Technology and Utopia”; Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, chap. 4

 Innovation and Technology

March 8: Nothing original, yet everything new: creative destruction in theory, practice, and aesthetics

Joseph Schumpeter, “The Theory of Creative Destruction” from Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America, chapter 1

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” esp. chapter 1, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”

Poetry: Philip Levine, “What Work Is,” “Belle Isle, 1949” “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” “A New Day”; Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”; Gwendolyn Brooks, “kitchenette building”; Alissa Quart, “Solarised,” “Views,” “Driftwood”

March 15: No class (spring break)

March 22: Creativity and the office

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Sarah Brouillette, “The Psychology of Creativity” from Literature and the Creative Economy

“Free Love Freeway,” The Office (UK)     

March 29: Disruptive innovation: some of the contemporary canon

Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, esp. introduction, chap. 1, and chap. 10

Everett Rogers, Diffusions of Innovation, esp. chapter 4, “The Generation of Innovations”

Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine,” The New Yorker

Optional: Diana Strassman, “The Stories of Economics and the Power of the Storyteller,” History of Political Economy 25:1 and Christensen and Raynor, The Innovator’s Solution, chap. 1; Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh, “How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2015

April 5: The Gender of Facebook

Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings

April 12: Management literature and postmodernism

Sarika Chandra, Dislocalism, introduction and chap. 1

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, part 1, “The Creative Age”

Selected managerial lit TBA

 April 19

Final paper workshops



Keywords for the Age of Austerity 24: Sullen

Cheer Up, Dammit!


In a recent report on “entrepreneurship” education at elite colleges–an “innovation arms race”–Natasha Singer in the New York Times shared a few startling examples of the the innovation cult’s creative use of metaphor.

One of these, “moonshot” (as in, “What’s your moonshot?” a slogan used by Rice University’s entrepreneurship program faculty) was particularly grating, partly because of how it celebrates the romance of “risk-taking”  so critical to the entrepreneurial myth--when even I know that the smarter business move is to minimize risk or outsource it onto someone else, not chase it.

The bigger irony of the “moonshot” as a metaphor for entrepeneurial heroism is of course the fact that the actual “moonshot” was a public endeavor, in which a government agency set scientific knowledge to work for the nation (for geopolitically dubious reasons relating to the Cold War, but that’s another story). If the original moonshot was a weapon in the ideological combat with the USSR–and, arguably, a massive waste of valuable resources–these entrepreneurship labs, besides wasting money, also do their own ideological training, teaching students to think of themselves as pliable, “flexible,” precarious future employees. Failures or frustrations, when they encounter them, will stem not from systemic injustices but from a moral deficit–a failure to innovate. See the student quoted in the article, who appears to misunderstand millennial job insecurity as a generational virtue, a willingness not to not only pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, but to do so repeatedly:

“To be honest, our generation is no longer interested in doing one thing for the rest of our lives,” said Mijin Han, a senior at Rice with an English major and a business minor focused on entrepreneurship. “Our generation is interested in learning different things, and if the environment does not provide it, we want to jump out and take a risk.”

The problem is not just that education is vocational here, because there’s nothing wrong with vocational education per se, nor is “critical thinking” or moral education or whatever you want to call it necessarily un-vocational anyway. Rather, it is the way “academic entrepreneurship” encourages students and others to see education,  a public service subsidized to great extent by the people, as a publicly-funded adjunct of private business, useful for research, development, and employee training. Lesson number 1 of entrepreneurship class: Why take a financial risk when you can just outsource it to someone else?

I don’t know much about the intellectual content of such programs, though I have spent enough time reading “innovation” books to guess that it is minimal. I also don’t know how much practical knowledge relevant to business–finance, accounting, etc.–these programs offer. My sense is that besides the vanity of the donors who endow them, “entrepreneurship labs” are probably hasty products of desperation, by students, parents, and the universities themselves. This is an impression encouraged by the bizarre fact that Princeton uses square footage–as in the physical size of its entrepreneurship offices and classrooms–as a metric to evaluate the rigor and quality of the program.


The desperation comes from what the Times article refers to, oddly, as a “sullen job market”:

Ten years ago, it may have sufficed to offer a few entrepreneurship courses, workshops and clubs. But undergraduates, driven by a sullen job market and inspired by billion-dollar success narratives from Silicon Valley, now expect universities to teach them how to convert their ideas into business or nonprofit ventures.

This adjective is typically used in reference to adolescents, and most often boys, as BYU’s Corpus of  Contemporary American English shows. In this most common usage, it refers to “gloomy ill-humour or moody silence,” a stubborn, baleful expression that adults usually find irritating. “Depressed” is a serious and clinical description, where someone who is “sullen” should just cheer the hell up.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 9.46.28 PM.png
“handsome unshaven man with beard and handlebar moustache smoking cigarette looking forward with sullen face”: Pictures of this guy, for some reason, are the most common result for “sullen” on Shutterstock

The word is used occasionally in an economic or political context, with hints of its typically teenage associations. For example, despite the country’s prosperity and the forthcoming Euro 2008 soccer tournament, the Financial Times reported in 2007 that “the mood of Austrians is remarkably sullen right now.” And in 2014, the Wall Street Journal described the electorate’s tendency to vote against incumbents with the headline, Sullen Voters Set to Deliver Another Demand for Change.” ABC News gave the game away a bit in 1991 when it reported, that “joviality in Jerusalem contrasted sharply with the sullen silence in the occupied territory.”

In this Times piece, however, there isn’t quite the same condescension or racism as in these three examples–the job market for college graduates is poor, and it’s not only whiny teens, or infantilized nationalities, who think so. You could argue that the reporter is using the obsolete, somewhat poetic meaning of sullen as “dismal” or “melancholy,” referring to immaterial things, as in Byron’s

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 9.19.16 PM.png

Byron, “The Prisoner of Chillon”

 …but probably not. More likely it is a sort of back-formation from “depression”–as in economic depression–which many think of now as a psychological metaphor for the economy, rather than a literal synonym for a “lowering” of trade. The word’s psychological meaning is preobably the biggest association it now has, after all, besides the capital-D Depression. Note, again, all the economic metaphors that draw on individual bodies and psyches, despite economists’ pretensions to dispassionate empiricism–“vigorous” and “robust” markets, “markets” that react to the news calmly, pessimistically, or my favorite, “skittishly,” as if the markets are irrational paranoiacs or stupid dogs barking at a thunderstorm.

But economic slumps were called “depressions” because they were a “lowering in quality, vigour, or amount” of trade, not because the economy was depressed, like a person might be.  The job market becomes “sullen” because it seems sluggish and obstinate, and needs to perk up and figuratively clean its room–a “sullen” economy isn’t nearly as serious as a “depressed” one. But this distinction gets at one of the defining characteristics of the moralism of austerity: economic (and other kinds of) depression is not only apolitical, it is a moral failing of those who suffer from it. A “sullen economy,” and those just entering it, just need to cheer the hell up.