The Value of Rushkoff’s Books

rushkoff_shirt.2.jpgWe were lucky enough to sit in today on peripatetic media theorist Douglas Rushkoff‘s graduate seminar at NYU, “Theoretical Perspectives on Interactivity.”

Down the wood-floored halls, past the interactive “Wooden Mirror” sculpture and the <a href="laboratory where researchers were re-inventing our media future, Rushkoff held court in a projector equipped corner room for 16 students. Discussing Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin and the concept of “aura” (yes, most of what Rushkoff said was over our heads), the professor said that while the best-selling books he’s written weren’t exactly “loss leaders” they are the “entrée to live engagements, which are the money makers.” In other words, he and others now write books so people will book them for other stuff that ultimately make them more money. It’s the experience, dude, like when you go to a concert with lousy sound instead of buying the $12.99 CD that’s much cleaner and clearer and comfortable to listen to.

Rushkoff also made more pop culture, underground, academic and historical references than we could follow, such as when he held up a T-shirt (above) and talked about James Joyce and a cross and last weekend’s comics convention, and Chinese characters tattooed on basketball players necks that could actually spell out something insulting for the player, and a Greco painting that you have to see in its Spanish museum, and a building in Reykjavik that has a swastika that’s not a Nazi symbol and a few dozen other things that proves he’s as knowledgeable as he is wide-ranging, even if his students sometimes didn’t know what he was talking about, either.

What we really want to know is why his latest book is all about business, and not about the media.

UPDATE: Here’s some explanation of why.

As a media theorist, I’d been called in by dozens of CEO’s asking me to help them “think outside the box” … and help them come with new “branding ideas.” When I’d suggest that rather than rebranding, they might consider innovating from the inside-out by creating better products, they’d invariably stare at me with horror … .

Making money should really just be a happy result of contributing to the world what you do best.

And Rushkoff’s core competency, he writes, is writing books.

Later, he writes us:

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to be called smart. But I hate for it to be at someone else’s expense. I don’t believe you that you’re not smart enough to keep up with anything I said! The students certainly did — they were the ones who brought up the basketball players’ tattoos example, to begin with (and were a bit miffed at being characterized as incapable of keeping up with Herr Professor Rushkoff’s brilliance). Really, what was going on in there was me keeping up with the many examples *they* came up with of stuff that has or doesn’t have what Benjamin calls “aura.” It’s a vexing concept, for sure, and in a mediaspace as big as ours, there’s a lot of places from which examples can be drawn. If I *am* smart, the best evidence is that I can almost hold my own with eighteen twenty-something-year-old interactive artists.

The other thing still nagging at me is your insistence on drawing a “cause and effect” relationship between things. So when I mention, in truth and actually some sadness, that companies would rather pay big money to have me show up live (in person and with “aura”) than pay a little money and read my book you conclude that “In other words, he and others now write books so people will book them for other stuff that ultimately make them more money.”

Don’t you see the underlying (capitalist) assumptions in that conclusion? (It’s the professor talking, now.) If we assume that people are in writing and speaking for the purpose of making money (which would itself be a stupid idea, given what a shitty career writing provides for most people) then maybe your conclusion could stand. But just because people pay more for one thing than another doesn’t mean we creators *do* that thing for another. In reality, those of us who fly around the country and do talks are doing so to *subsidize* our writing habits. (Even if we *do* write in order to get to speak to groups of people, maybe it’s because we like speaking and need the calling card of a book to get in.) As far as Benjamin is concerned, the talk itself has a value – an aura – that the mass produced book doesn’t.

And it’s precisely these kinds of misunderstandings – this assumption that the profit motive really does underly all human action — that led Benjamin to write his stuff, and led me to write a “business book.” Business people are in a unique position to reverse this trend, and start organizing and motivating human behavior differently. If you had been allowed to stay for the rest of the class [Ed: I had been asked by the administration to spend no more than 30 minutes], and gotten into the Benjamin and Adorno texts we were discussing, you’d have had an opportunity to see that these guys were talking about just this phenomenon: how almost everything we do as artists or thinkers gets absorbed by the market — and how its values become our own.

Those of us who continue to write — and who still hope to do more than just distract readers from the pain of their lives so they can go back to it the next day — must look for ways to break our readers free of the market trance. Why not do this by talking about the market itself — about business’s priorities or commerce’s strengths and weaknesses, in order to put people back in charge of its effects?

Now, guys like the theorists we read in that class — particularly Benjamin and Adorno — were all anti-fascists. Basically “commies” in today’s parlance, since fascism is really just corporatism. Going too fast for you? Of course not. But it’s definitely not hip or ironic to talk this way, and no one will buy a leftie book — not by Benjamin or Adorno unless they’re assigned in class, and certainly not by me. Especially not when websites (like this one) for smart people and writers is busy pretending not to understand Walter Benjamin. So — in a classic bait and switch — what one does is write a book that people will buy because they think it’s going to help them do their business, but what you actually do is deconstruct business itself.

That’s the value of MediaBistro, too, really. It’s just a matter of whether we can do it without the irony that distances us from our passion.