Where does academia fall? “The Power Elite” by Charles Wright Mills (1956)

The power of a credible pen

As I was reading the socialist theory written by Charles Wright Mills in 1956, suggesting that a small group of people from the corporation, government and military make up the rules, shape the “lesser institutions” and mold them in such a way that they support the big three, I was wondering where the Academia falls – back in 1956 and today.  How would C. Wright Mills position the Academia in the hierarchy of the organizations of postmodern society?

One argument would be that the Academia, despite its democratic intention of challenging conventions and its critical approach to thought and practice actually belongs to the Power Elite, as it co-exists with, and relies on funding and support from corporations, government and military, not to mention the fact that the Academia prepares students for, and takes pride of their reaching top positions at a corporation, government or military.  Such strategic dependency, as exemplified through the display of honorary degrees, board membership and the development of various funding channels from corporations and government to the Academia would strengthen the belief that the Academia, according to Wright would be related to the big three who, “whether they do or do not make such decisions (one with major consequences) is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions” (p. 4).

Another interpretation to Mill’s text is that if the Academia does not fall into the small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, and access to decision-making of major consequence, recognized Academics may belong to “the professional politicians of the middle levels of power”, along with Congress, pressure groups and new and old upper classes who have the celebrity power to “distract the attention of the public or afford sensations to the masses… to gain an ear” (p. 4).  According to Wright Mills, these people have just enough exposure (exposed but not too exposed), so they could be pulled in as influential experts along the sequence of event and decision.

I found it interesting that C. Wright Mills touched on the nature of celebrity power and its social manipulation over 50 years ago, while today people invest a lot of time and effort to essentially feel self-celebrated (and therefore more powerful?) through reality TV, social networks and interactive communications.

The notion of “the credible pen” and celebrity power is discussed in the NYTimes article that Professor Frank Moretti circulated this week, entitled “Texts Without Context” (Kakutani, March 17, 2010).  Kakutani is suggesting that the new dynamic of web-based communication redefines authorship, ownership, credibility and celebrity, ultimately reshaping our political and social landscape.  This would include a redefinition of a traditional, more unified academic research: “online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.” What is the meaning of such a reshuffle to scholarly thought and to human development?

Kukutani brings together multiple perspectives about how web communications influence the social, cultural and political dynamics, most of which are skeptical about its ability to nurture deep thought due to the fragmented nature of web-based interaction, combined with the new structure of social prestige and credibility.  For example, political and legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes in his book “Going to Extremes” (2009) that “serendipitous encounters” with persons and ideas different from one’s own tend to grow less frequent, while “views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible or bizarre in most communities.”

To me, this suggests that the new social power may be determined by online popularity and one’s ability to master visibility strategies.  The visible online voice may be the new celebrity power, or as Mills defines it – the “the middle level of power”, which is molded by the power elite, and feeds its goals through an harmonic, uninterrupted dance.


March 24, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate.

One Comment

  1. Ruth Palmer replied:

    Is the “visible online voice” that may have this new celebrity power the same as what Jaron Lanier describes as the “hive mind?” Or is it something different? Did you feel like Kakutani’s article itself had a bit of a pastiche, collage effect, with lots of material taken from many different places but with little actual research presented (partly by virtue of her having cut and pasted so many pieces together)? I am guessing she intended to illustrate some of her points in the structure of her own article.

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