Tuesday 14 February 2012

Clever is cool?

From Sherlock Holmes to geek chic, mainstream culture is idolising intelligence. Popular quiz show Pointless rewards not just the right answers, but the most obscure ones, asking contestants to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge by knowing more about everything that the general public does by giving answers which had not been thought of by the public: think reverse Family Fortunes. The second series of the BBC’s award winning Sherlock, a show which focuses on the supreme intellect of its title character, attracted over 8 million viewers per episode and was screened in 180 countries. Sherlock’s success has catapulted lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch into the limelight and earned him a dedicated following of ‘Cumberbitches.’ His character has also become something of a style icon, with leisurewear label Belstaff resuming production of their discontinued ‘Milford’ coat due to the huge demand generated by its place in Sherlock’s wardrobe.

Whilst the show itself is clever, balancing just the right amount of irreverence and respect for Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon and providing us with some beautiful in-jokes, for example the ‘three patch problem’ and ‘The Speckled Blonde’, it is the genius intellect of Sherlock himself which really shines. Sherlock’s brain works like Wikipedia, flitting from mental hyperlink to mental hyperlink, with Sherlock explaining the process in short sharp staccato that’s almost too fast to follow. He is definitely arrogant: everyone else, perhaps with the exception of John and Moriarty, is boring because they are so dim-witted. Sherlock’s goal is to prove himself cleverer than everyone else, from the police to Moriarty, and, by the final episode, The Reichenbach Fall, John and the viewers themselves. But we don’t mind this intellectual arrogance. In fact, we love it. The immense popularity of the show and Sherlock himself tell us that much. The public are responding to a hero who uses brainpower, not firepower. There are fewer explosions, no fast cars and little sharp shooting in this crime drama. As students and academics, we have naturally always placed value on intelligence. But is the public starting to value brains over brawn?  The world of television has picked up on this intelligence fetish and tried to capitalise on it, with Heston Blumenthal’s new series How To Cook Like Heston further accentuating Heston’s already proven ‘mad scientist’ image. The opening titles to the programme borrow on-screen text from Sherlock, as well as the display and explanation of the thought processes of a ‘genius.’ Blumenthal walks around his home town, looking at various animals and plants, for example a chicken and a rose bush, and we see diagrams and brainstorms detailing his thoughts.

Surely, as academics, we should welcome the media’s positive focus on intelligence? Or perhaps this is yet another, newer facet of our society’s obsession with the easy option, the get-rich-quick scheme, with instant results? Sherlock finds the truth because he’s a genius, cleverer than those plodding, hard-working policemen and women at the Yard. For us, or most of us at least, our good results come mostly from hours spent at the library or at our desks, as well as a few flashes of inspiration. We don’t all run at double speed, shouting out fully thought through and intelligent answers before our colleagues have even finished unpicking the question. Clever may well be the new cool, but it will probably take a few more years for the stacks of books, flurries of paper, week-old coffee cups and half-eaten toast become the latest in interior decoration.