Academic Meetings, Graduation Season, and a Bit from Rousseau

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead.

Perhaps Rousseau was thinking of such academic meetings when he wrote in the 19th century “On this showing, the human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them” (Rousseau).

Which of course starts me thinking about the many times I do indeed act like a herded cow, and so do my fellow academics. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune in an ungainly outfit, and then with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison moving rhythmically just like the her do cattle waiting to obediently rush down a chute, at the end of which we might, ro all we know, be devoured. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like the potted plants on stage. In fact, when I sat on a stage recently in Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students and their families felt.

But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings.

Honoratioren are invited for their notability and prestige, are there to make such rituals work, for the professional who Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber says Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting sheep,” content and sated notables who herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1]

We potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at the other ends of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00. Or if you are in a legislative body, or corporate board of directors, the meeting is held in Las Vegas, Hawaii, or some other luxury place where the vanity of the Honoratioren is most easily plied with drink, food, song, and sex.

Being so plied indeed is part of the job of an Honoratioren, where you grimly hold onto an ethic that one hard-bitten politician explained was “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.”

Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. Because yes indeed, we did not give into the sin of vanity.

The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, demurely pour the coffee, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren.

The lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” serve the coffee and shove files under our noses, to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered. We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly.

This is necessary because we Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, we don’t know that much about what we are doing; and are really only “dilletantes” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic sausage factory where real decisions are made.

Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).

But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s (and Rousseau’s) “herding bovine” metaphor is a good on—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?”



Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).