The pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell

The essayist's mania for teachable narrative goes hand in hand with a revealingly indifferent attitude to truth.

Malcolm Gladwell is sometimes criticised on the basis that, although he has a reputation as a thinker, all he does is précis other people’s research. That’s not fair. Popularising academic ideas with style for a broad audience is hardly an ignoble pursuit. The real problem with Gladwell goes far deeper. It is the method that he has helped make ubiquitous in modern non-fiction trade publishing.
“Through these stories,” he explains in the introduction to his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, £16.99), “I want to explore two ideas.” The method of “exploring” ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument. Unfortunately, it can lead an incautious writer into a conceptual shambles.
Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés. The reader is thus led on a pleasant quasi-intellectual tour, to be reassured at the end that a flavour of folksy wisdom was right all along. Little things really can make a big difference; trusting your gut can be better than overthinking; successful people work hard.
The art here lies in making the platitudinous conclusion seem like a revelatory place to end up, after one has enjoyed the colourful “stories” about carefully described plucky individuals with certain hairstyles and particular kinds of trousers. (Actual quote: “He is a tall young man with carefully combed dark-brown hair and neatly pressed khakis.”) Such books must thus be constructed with a certain suspenseful cunning. Gladwell likes first to tell an apparently convincing story and then declare that it’s not true, like a magician pulling an empty hat out of a rabbit. Thus does his book begin, relaying the standard version of David and Goliath – plucky shepherd defeating fearsome giant with fortunately slung pebble – and then announcing that “almost everything about it is wrong”.
In ancient times, Gladwell writes, the slingshot was a potent weapon and bound to defeat an infantryman such as Goliath, who moved slowly because of all his armour and might even have been suffering from the hereditary disease acromegaly. What made him look strong was what made him weak. The problem with our current way of thinking – for if there were no problems with our way of thinking, Gladwell would surely invent some – is that “we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong”.
Do we? Well, if you ever suspected that the weak should play to their own strengths rather than the strengths of their adversaries, you are way ahead of him. You will not be surprised by his subsequent lengthy discussions of “asymmetrical” tactics in warfare or how peaceful protest that provokes overreaction by the authorities can be excellent PR. But banal nostrums about physical conflict cannot be the whole story, for such books must act as keys to all mythologies. So, Gladwell promises that our alleged misunderstanding has “consequences for everything from the way we educate our children to the way we fight crime and disorder”. Consequences for everything! That is the hard sell, the first free rock of intellectual crack.
The examples of “everything” include basketball coaching, policing, university science, Martin Luther King, and the Impressionists. (The waft of luxury art-history tourism in the Impressionists sequence is only the most obvious example of how Gladwell is now the non-fiction equivalent of Dan Brown.) The promise that such heterogeneous matter can be governed by one or two big ideas and understood through them constitutes the main attraction of the Gladwellian literary genre. Armed with these “ideas”, you won’t have to think for yourself ever again.
One early story Gladwell tells is about classroom sizes. A large class is usually thought to be a “disadvantage” (the abstract equivalent of a “giant”) for pupils, and smaller class sizes are assumed to be better. Surveying studies, Gladwell observes that though really big classes are a problem, there is a happy medium, and smaller classes don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes. This, he explains, is because teachers don’t usually adjust their teaching style to smaller class sizes; instead, they just work less. So, the “disadvantage” of moderately big classes isn’t one after all. 
A bizarre coda to this story shows the weaselly potential of Gladwell’s method. Up the road from the state school where he has been talking to a nice teacher, there is a private school, which boasts that its average class size is 12. Oh dear, thinks Gladwell. “Why does a school like [this] do something that so plainly makes its students worse off?” The odd thing is that he simply doesn’t know whether the students there are worse off, because he doesn’t know whether the staff teach in a way that suits their small classes. If they do, then the students won’t be worse off at all. So does Gladwell talk to anyone at the school to find out? He does not. Perhaps he fears ruining the story.
Another yarn focuses on a doctor called Jay Freireich, who spearheaded advances in treating childhood leukaemia in the 1950s. Gladwell tells a fascinating, bloody and frightening tale with great verve. Freireich was a maverick who gave sick children untested treatments because they were otherwise certain to die quickly. To understand where this fits into Gladwell’s David and Goliath pattern, we must take a historical detour to the Blitz. (Another important feature of a Gladwellian text is the relentless montage.) Famously, the Blitz did not destroy the morale of Londoners. Why not? Gladwell cites a study. People who suffered “near misses”, when a bomb landed very close to them, were traumatised. But a lot more people experienced “remote misses”, when a bomb landed far off, and this usually gave them a sense of invulnerability. Back to Freireich. His father died when he was very young and his childhood was generally unpleasant. Gladwell assumes that Freireich experienced his horrible youth as a “remote miss” and that this explains his heroism as an adult. “Freireich had the courage to think the unthinkable,” Gladwell orates. “He experimented on children. He took them through pain no human being should ever have to go through. And he did it in no small part because he understood from his own childhood experience that it is possible to emerge from even the darkest hell healed and restored.”
The interesting thing about this – apart from it being the kind of gruesomely emetic, cliché-rammed prose that would not be out of place in the trashiest kind of spiritualist self-help book – is that, although Gladwell has interviewed Freireich, he is unable to quote his subject saying anything of the sort. Freireich says he regularly took painful bone marrow samples from the sick children, because “we needed to know if their bone marrow had recovered”. Nothing about feeling great because he had survived the death of his dad; just the single-minded epistemological need of the driven scientist.
Nor is Gladwell afraid to tackle the “giant” of dyslexia, which might be a “desirable difficulty” in its own right. How come? Why, because lots of “successful entrepreneurs” and “famous innovators” are dyslexic. Coincidence? “There are two possible interpretations for this remarkable fact. One is that this remarkable group of people triumphed in spite of their disability,” Gladwell remarks, and then hastens to dispose of this boringly un-Gladwellian explanation. “The second, more intriguing possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disorder.”
The easiest way to support that “intriguing possibility” would be to cite statistics showing that, proportionally, more people with dyslexia enjoy worldly success than people without. But the data-happy writer doesn’t do that. Perhaps the answer doesn’t fit. Instead, Gladwell offers anecdotes. Here is “one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world”, David Boies. Because he is dyslexic, Boies couldn’t read much at law school, but he became very good at listening to people. People who can thus overcome dyslexia, Gladwell concludes, turn out to be “better off than they would have been otherwise”.
Not even Gladwell can run the experiment in which Boies repeats his childhood without dyslexia, to see if he still becomes a high profile lawyer, or maybe a bestselling author of high-concept non-fiction books. So the claim that Boies wouldn’t have done as well if he hadn’t been dyslexic is just cheaply comforting counterfactual speculation, to swallow which one must also assent to the bizarre assumption that no lawyer who can read well is also a very good listener.
Somewhat unhelpfully for the credibility of his own style of argument, Gladwell later reveals: “There are a remarkable number of dyslexics in prison.” In a parallel universe, another Malcolm Gladwell is using exactly the same pseudo-reasoning to argue that being dyslexic turns you into a criminal.
He is forced into such inconsistency and contortion throughout because there wouldn’t have been a Gladwellian book to write if he had just accepted the proverbial truth that, when life gives people lemons, some are able to make lemonade. (Strikingly, Gladwell the serial study-citer makes no reference to the substantial psychological literature on “resilience”.) Any teenager could also sum up much of David and Goliath by quoting the not-entirely-obscure maxim of a long deceased German: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” 
Gladwell’s mania for teachable narrative goes hand in hand with a revealingly indifferent attitude to truth. The most blatant and unintentionally hilarious example of this comes at the book’s finale, when he tells the inspiring story of André Trocmé, pastor of the French village of Le Chambon-sur- Lignon, who defied the occupying Nazis and refused to give up the town’s Jews.
How did Trocmé get away with it? Gladwell acknowledges one explanation: “Philip Hallie, who wrote the definitive history of Le Chambon, argues that the town was protected at the end of the war by Major Julius Schmahling, a senior Gestapo official in the region.”
Sadly, this explanation does not deliver the right kind of heart-warming moral. “But the best answer,” he concludes blithely, “is the one David and Goliath has tried to make plain – that wiping out a town or a people or a movement is never as simple as it looks. The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.”
This idea is definitely satisfying in stories. (I pictured Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Darth Vader: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”) In life, however, the Nazis did not have much trouble wiping out the Jewish populations of other towns. But this is rather a depressing thought. Gladwell therefore jettisons the opinion of the scholar he says wrote the “definitive history” and decides instead that “the best answer” is the one he just made up to fit in with his uplifting scheme.
Malcolm Gladwell has thus done everyone a service by illustrating all too clearly the baleful drawbacks of “exploring ideas through stories”. In doing so, you might, like him, become incapable of understanding the stories in any other way than through the lens of your prefabricated idea. And so, because your idea is never allowed to be challenged by opposing evidence, it will languish forlornly, like Malcolm Gladwell’s, at the level of vapid homily.
Steven Poole’s latest book is “You Aren’t What You Eat” (Union Books, £7.99) 
Malcolm Gladwell. Portrait by David Yellen

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit:

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage