[Air-L] Hitler , Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the fading legitimacy of academic institutions

Antonio A. Casilli Antonio.Casilli at ehess.fr
Sun Jan 24 01:29:25 PST 2010

...yet another piece on the Critical Commons video - hopefully this one
won't start an interminable thread ;)
Read the entire post at


"Another day, another Hitler parody video. This one (courtesy of
http://criticalcommons.org) is a rant about the rise of digital
scholarship [snip]. The German dictator, now reborn as a grotesque
Internet meme, highlights the existing cultural divide between the
up-and-coming Internet-savvy « junior » scholars and the ageing generation
of paper-intensive, book-prone professors and researchers. Bitterly, he
claims academic teaching is « a dying profession »


« We were great once », cries Hitler, voicing the disappointment of old
time academics. « A proud institution. We controlled knowledge: we told
everyone what and how to think. Now (
) we spend our time propping up our
fading legitimacy ».

The turning point in the video seems to be when, with trembling hand, the
Führer removes his glasses and hisses: « Anyone who has ever consulted the
Wikipedia, leave the room, now! ». There, a line is drawn between
traditional scientific  institutions and digital ones. The online
encyclopedia, for better or for worse, epitomizes the spirit of open
knowledge that is slowly digging a ditch around academic ivory towers.

A personal anecdote might help further develop this point. On November
3rd, 2009, 3:34 PM, via a French mailing list, I received an email from
the president of the EHESS, the academic institution I happen to work for.
The email stated that, aged 100, « our colleague, Claude Lévi-Strauss »
died. Assuming that the news was first hand, appealing to the larger
public and coming from a reliable source, I decided to put it on Wikipedia
France. So I edited the page Claude Lévi-Strauss introducing the date of
decease. I usually contribute to the English-speaking part of Wikipedia,
so  this time I didn’t bother logging in. I was assuming my IP address (I
was writing from my office) would somehow vouch for me. This move ended up

As soon as I clicked on Save changes, a message popped up on my screen
warning that my IP address was recognized as one of the EHESS and was thus
considered suspicious. An editor would have to validate my changes. And
the editor did not: he or she dismissed the piece of information as
unsubstantiated and the edit didn’t even hit the  revision history log.
The « appeal to authority » (me writing from the very same institution
where Claude Lévi-Strauss had taught) didn’t seem to count. Of course the
page was eventually modified soon afterwards by somebody who made the
correct link to the newswire of the Agence France Press.


The academic ex-cathedra (in this case we might say the « ex-IP address »)
attitude is questioned, in a healthful and productive way. Unfortunately,
too often it is replaced by a media-ridden viral logic as a new source of
intelligence. What is at stake here is not only the status of academics
today as intellectual authorities, but the way objective knowledge is
validated. Again, the Claude Lévi-Stauss article in Wikipedia is a good
example. As of today, no clear consensus has been reached on the exact
date of his death – somewhere between October 30th and November 3rd. Who
do we trust? Insiders are, in this case unreliable, because they are
colleagues of the deceased anthropologist, academics used since their
prime to « hide » knowledge from the populace. Outsiders, are probably not
close enough to Lévi-Strauss’s friends and  family, but are more reliable
as to the way they collect information, as well as to the way they deliver
it. They log in, modify the page without messing up with the code, explain
the edits they introduced, take part to the conversation, and so on.


Both the Hitler parody and the Claude Lévi-Strauss Wikipedia anecdote
point towards a reconfiguration of the « two cultures » controversy as
outlined by C. P. Snow. If, back in the 1950s, the cultural divide put
natural sciences and humanities on the opposite sides of the knowledge
spectrum, nowadays – with government and industry increasing demand for
transdisciplinary research – this intellectual chasm is progressively
replaced by a technological one".



Read more > http://www.bodyspacesociety.eu/


Antonio A. Casilli
Centre Edgar Morin
Institut Interdisciplinaire d'Anthropologie du Contemporain
22, rue d'Athènes
75009 - Paris

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