There Is No Such Thing As Intelligence

(x-posted to The Valve)

The abstract personal definition of “intelligence,” reified in our minds thanks to IQ tests and their derivatives, is a source of social ills and should be abandoned. It impedes and confuses pedagogy, underwrites racism and sexism, inhibits culture, and trivializes political debate.

We’ll have to start out by getting a bit technical. The adjectival form, “intelligent” (or “brilliant” or “smart” or etc.), has its uses. Intelligence, as we use the word, refers to the ability to do a good job at complex tasks that require a high degree of abstraction. Thus, a given piece of work can be intelligent if it successfully addresses a complex problem.

To claim that intelligence exists as a phenomenon, but not as an inherent personal quality, is the same as arguing that race or gender exist as social phenomena but not as simple, natural facts. For a long time now, intellectuals have been chipping away at the mythology of race and gender, while leaving the mythical quality of intelligence relatively untouched because they have too much invested in the hierarchies it produces.

I. Memory, speed reading, and vocabulary

Vocabulary is a sub-category of memory: how many words one can remember and use. Memory is a talent with a strange, ambivalent reception. On the one hand, people with good memories are considered blessed and provably intelligent. Professors who can cite difficult works of philosophy from memory are celebrated for doing so; undoubtedly, part of the reason Harold Bloom rarely bothers to cite his quotations is that doing so would undermine his claim to have it all memorized. The phenomenon of memory is often linked to speed reading, as it is with Bloom: Bill Clinton was also renowned for his ability to read enormous quantities of books each day and remember everything, while still fulfilling his Presidential duties. Popular culture attributes far more to memory than it could ever enable. In the television show Heroes, a waitress with a photographic memory learns to speak flawless, unaccented Japanese by glancing at a phrasebook.

These mythic versions of the consumption of knowledge make it very difficult to remember that memory and reading speed both wax or wane according to the use we make of them. Every child who grows up in a culture with a strong oral tradition will have more “text” memorized than an average American child; Erasmus memorized more than professors do today; the Greeks knew Homer by heart. Reading speed depends on reading frequently, and reading for pleasure — a recent study found that people who habitually read for pleasure also read other texts faster. We may not even need to memorize text the way we did before, now that we live in an era of easily accessible archives, which means that the shape of memory itself will change to reflect a different cultural landscape. Unfortunately, there will be nobody there to track this shift, because we will continue to assume either an overall cultural decline, or the presence/absence of an inborn talent, reified by “geniuses” like Clinton and Bloom.

Whether or not we should be concerned about losing mnemotechnics is still in question. In the meantime, the cult of genius also produces a cult of mediocrity. In academia, a tradition that stretches back at least to Montaigne, and arguably to Plato’s Dialogues, valorizes the thinker with a fuzzy memory, who has to work hard and earnestly to make sense of texts that others find suspiciously easy. Rousseau calls his ideal pupil Emile mediocre, and separates him from the race of geniuses. Within the academy, this has produced excruciating overloads of citation (a serious problem throughout Montaigne’s Essays), and encouraged numbingly slow readings of such thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s bizarre institutional authority is largely constituted by the odd couple of academics who respect him, but don’t consider themselves smart enough to read him (thus letting themselves off the hook), and academics who read him, and feel that his brilliance makes it impossible to ever stop, or even pause, the process of doing so.

Outside the academy, the proud inability to remember has had its most contemptible exemplars in Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom have used it as a way of evading political responsibility, justifying smoke-and-mirrors systems of favoritism and delegation, and communicating folksiness.

The link between vocabulary and intelligence produces all kinds of cognitive dissonance. I’m not suggesting that a large vocabulary is bad — it is plainly a useful tool. However, nobody nowadays would assert that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a more intelligent writer than Ernest Hemingway, despite the fact that Fitzgerald clearly has a larger vocabulary. Hemingway compensated for this impoverishment by using rhythm and repetition to create complex effects with simple materials. The difference between them was a difference of privilege: Hemingway had not gone to Princeton. Privilege is a good word for the triptych of erudition, vocabulary, and standardized usage that is treated as synonymous with complexity; in an earlier post at The Kugelmass Episodes, I argued for the complexity and sense of valley girl talk, hip-hop, and the “broken” speech of anxiety. The more that critics develop ways of reading silences, stutters, inversions, fragmented words, slang, abject or undignified erudition, and so on — all of which, by no coincidence, one needs in order to read Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, or Langston Hughes — the better they’ll be at breaking down linguistic privilege, at which point “intelligence” will suddenly be visible everywhere, not just in the golden hallways of genius, and not just as a vague democratic assumption.

II. Cash Versus Context

It’s worth remembering that one of the most famous prodigies in Western Civilization, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was born into a culture well-prepared to celebrate genius as a species of the grotesque. Mozart’s youth was shaped by the experience of performing his prodigy in order to make his father money, and that continues to be the role of intelligence today. It is a commodified form of intellectual labor, and as such we have come to believe that it can be exchanged anywhere, just like the sweat of one’s brow: if a student does well on standardized tests, then we assume they will succeed in the adult world of skilled labor.

The effects of this belief in abstracted “intelligence” have been so widespread and pernicious that one hardly knows where to begin. Ironically, “intelligence” has made it harder to evaluate whether or not given pieces of work are in fact intelligent in context, and has contributed greatly to dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is the insoluble problem of realizing one’s intelligence; the problem of judging the intelligence of a work is a problem of the desire for intelligence to inhere in an author.

To begin with realizing intelligence: everybody knows that an intelligent person will get nowhere unless they’re also willing to work hard. In Woody Allen’s film Match Point, Chris Wilton announces that, of course, “hard work is mandatory,” before going on to call privilege a matter of luck. Mandatory is the right word, since every employee and student knows that one must not only work hard, but also appear to be doing so. In fact, it is quite possible to have an easy time fulfilling one’s duties, at least on a given day, but ease is insulting.

Still, let’s grant that a lot of effort is usually required to produce excellent work, regardless of the field. Then we run into the problem of wasted effort: the person who works furiously, but produces mediocre or frankly awful work. In these cases, a supposed lack of intelligence or talent is frequently the alibi for the work ethic itself. How many of these casualties of effort fail precisely because of over-work and fatigue? How many fail because the drudgery of innumerable small and laborious acts, on which another person might discreetly renege, prevents them from doing synthetic and innovative thinking? In business, one tries to compensate by encouraging a “culture of innovation,” but this is fraught with danger. It undermines espirit de corps, and it actually heightens alienation, since one’s ideas tend to become other people’s property.

The relationship between innovation, which requires independence of thought, and manageability, which requires conformism and respect for authority, is not a dialectical relationship. The two modes do not immanently “contain” one another; they sit together uncomfortably, each sapping the other’s strength, with “intelligence + hard work” as the magic formula that is supposed to reconcile them.

To borrow Derrida’s phrase about clinical madness, there is a “terribly trivial” sense in which a given person may not be able to master a given situation: brain damage, developmental disability, physical disability. I call this trivial because all of the most progressive advances in our approach to these impairments and disabilities have involved abandoning assumptions about intelligence. Until very recently, autistic persons were classed as mental deficients. Only recently has it become clear the extent to which developmentally disabled persons can be integrated into “normal” classrooms, hired for paying jobs, and generally accomodated on an individual basis rather than marginalized by evaluations of “intelligence.”

And what of personality? Introversion and extroversion produce different kinds of intelligence. Intelligence is molded by persistent anxiety or its absence, and by tendencies toward manic/depression, schizophrenia, or autism (i.e. Asperger’s). As a result, some of the best critiques of psychiatry and socialization have been made in the name of genius. Sadly, this is a trap. It accepts that difference has to immediately prove, via intelligence and “genius,” measurable social utility, and thus re-affirms the total domination of the social over the individual. It also opens the door for correcting difference whenever it “goes too far” — that is, when a given asocial or abnormal state stops being immediately profitable. Lastly, as little as the defense of introversion has done for actual introverts, it has helped sustain the myth of superficial extroversion. That means fashion, socializing — the extroverted feminine, which lacks the right to create hierarchies of intelligence, except under the ban of severe moral judgement (as cunning, for example).

Standardized tests, IQ tests, and their ilk have been subject to criticism for a long time now. It’s reached the point where every schoolchild knows that the SAT only measures “how good you are at taking tests,” and yet nobody really challenges the role of SAT tests in college admissions. In fact, the SAT isn’t that simplistically useless, but the fact that standardized testing is on the rise (thanks to No Child Left Behind), despite the popular wisdom about such tests, should alert us to the fact that “teaching to the test” is not a side effect of standardized testing, but its real mission. The cynicism of test-takers, like the cynicism of consumers, reinforces the system it seems to oppose. It is fundamentally shallow cynicism, overmatched by an awe of the test through which all the old myths survive. In the film Spellbound, the family members and teachers of the children competing in the National Spelling Bee ascribe their charges’ success to — depending on the child — their own love of puns, meditation, the love of Jesus Christ, the child’s well-rounded existence (“He’s not like those other kids, he has a life,” one sister says), ethnicity, and/or the greatness of America. In other words, the adults are eager to cash in on this success for an affirmation of certain values, while the children focus on the basically mechanical task at hand, with a devastating awareness that all but one of them will lose.

The most famous response to the traditional theory of intelligence, Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” creates more problems than it solves. I’ve already implied that Gardner’s distinction between “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” intelligences reverses cause and effect, by ascribing to an inborn talent what could just as easily be founded in inherited affects or the long practice of certain habits (e.g. solitary reading). Since so many professions involve ludicrous, specialty-coffee-like “blends” of intelligences (let’s see, a poet has some musical intelligence and some linguistic intelligence…), and since the distinctions between intelligences are quite tenuous (e.g. the difference between musical and mathematical intelligence), Gardner is mostly useful as an example of two things: our unified theory of intelligence beginning to unravel upon closer consideration, and our confusion between talent and right. Gardner clearly wants intelligences to be recognized and respected, in order to give children greater freedom to utilize their talents. One wonders why those talents should be codified into an awkward and inadequate sevenfold system that has, in fact, already been supplemented by the laughable category of “nature intelligence,” possessed by gardeners and Charles Darwin.

III. The Problem of Premises

In the previous section, I alluded to the stereotype of the hard worker who accomplishes nothing, a problem we usually attribute to an inherent “unfittedness” or lack of talent. From there, I discussed the problems of innovation and independence, which opens a whole field for the investigation of passivity, resentment, timidity, socialization (particularly in its nastiest forms as silencing or dogma) and despair as contingent conditions that become naturalized in terms of a lack of aptitude. We might describe this as a substitution of the scale of intelligence for the social and psychological problem of freedom. Harold Bloom himself, in the face of his own failure to produce literature, wrote a classic study of psychological obstruction in The Anxiety of Influence.

The problem of innovation also gets at the problem of false premises, which may be the strongest argument for an attack on the cult of intelligence. For dedicated opponents of psychoanalysis, and the legacy of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, it is simply impossible for a psychoanalytic argument to be valid: the writer is spinning his wheels, and that is all. No matter how elegantly scientific citations, anecdotes, literary examples, and so on are woven together, the premise is wrong. In many cases, the very elegance and density of a piece becomes a reason to suspect that the author has filtered out reality and built castles in the air. Over at Sour Duck, Melinda Casino raised this very point with regard to blogging: earnest and awkward can work better as a style.

Nonetheless, even as they are charming us with a Socratic/Rousseauean show of plainness, we expect our authors to be brilliant, which is why most people still have such trouble comprehending the truisms about punk. The punks were not, all the way down the line, brilliant or geniuses. This was true by accident (Sid Vicious) and also by design. If you thought of yourself as a genius, you ended up like the people the punks hated, because being a musical genius meant thinking of music in terms of composition, rather than in terms of reception. The insular premise of virtuoso rock produced insular, useless music: noodling.

Noodling is a good word for the final casualty of false premises: the theory of intelligence as it is applied to political and philosophical debate. I discussed this topic at some length during the Valve book event on Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts?. As long as false premises create opportunities for displays of intelligence, and as long as those displays are worth money, we will never be rid of the falsehoods themselves: we’re just too grateful for them. That’s why liberalism that prides itself on the simple desire for intelligence accomplishes nothing besides staged debates with conservatives. It’s also why “anti-philosophers” turn into philosophers who mix critiques of Kant with paeans to his intelligence.


Intelligence, like all essentialism, is a technology of power. It reinforces privilege and hierarchizes speech. It cuts art and language off from its inspirations, aping capital by circulating language through a series of useless oppositions (e.g. debate shows like Counterpoint, choreographed academic debates between “schools of thought”) and non-signifying refinements of craft (e.g. a certain kind of technical proficiency in music). It obscures the alternation between “innovating” and “doing one’s task well,” an alternation grounded in the contradictions of the modern economy, and one that produces real casualties on both sides: burnouts, drudges, exploited inventors, unemployed iconoclasts. It encourages irrational responses to radical work, by simultaneously putting authors on pedestals and, with a wistful “if I had more time…”, ignoring them. It condescends to madness, puts it to work without further questions, and warns it to walk a fine line. It subtly justifies anti-intellectualism, and creates its own set of simulacra — for example, the simulation of genius in the movies — which are preferable to the real thing, in part because the shrill protests of mediocrity always get a turn. It commodifies young learners and encourages complacent cynicism towards standardized tests. The concept of “intelligence” doesn’t help us accommodate disability, but rather encourages us to speculate wrongly about what a given disability really forecloses.

Once we recover from the genteel, congratulatory paralysis of brilliance, we’ll be able to see what tasks really summon us, and what darker obstacles lie behind the antagonism of Mozart and Salieri — his likeness — his brother!

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