15 Minutes of Meaning for Jonah Lehrer


What happens when you make humans into vessels for ideas.


Forgive me for being late to Jonah Lehrer's transgressions and resignation. It's a sad story. I did not know quite what to say.

I don't want to delve too deeply into the media scrum, but I do want to note how neatly this kind of narrative conforms to the arc Bill Wasik laid out in And Then There's This, his book on viral culture from 2009.

Wasik tells the story of Blair Hornstine, a kid who sued her high  school when she found out it was going to allow a boy with a slightly lower GPA to be co-valedictorian. The media got hold of the story and things got ugly: Hornstine was found to have plagiarized several papers and Harvard rescinded her acceptance.

I would like to propose a new term to encompass all these miniature spikes, these vertiginous rises and falls: the nanostory. We allow ourselves to believe that a narrative is larger than itself, that it holds some portent for the long-term future; but soon enough we come to our senses, and the story, which cannot bear the weight of what we have heaped on it, dies almost as suddenly as it was born. The gift we so graciously gave Blair Horstine in 2003 was her fifteen minutes not of fame but of meaning.

Unfortunately for Lehrer, he has to keep making meaning every day out of what he's done. We'll all get to use him in our long-running rhetorical battles and move on. Until the day, of course, when something we do -- good or bad -- pushes us into the meaningsphere and we're judged by the crowd.

Sandra Fluke. Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman. Chen Guangcheng. Octomom. Gore Vidal. Olympian 1. Olympian 2. Olympian 3. Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell. Chick-Fil-A.

When everyone makes media, everything is a news peg. (Didn't see that one coming, somehow.)

There's no way to escape that I, too, am fitting Lehrer into a pattern that I recognized long ago. Lehrer is a vessel for my idea, for your idea, for our ideas. And we can't help but excise, erase, or ignore the inconvenient human parts of that container: Cut down the mess, sand the rough edges, spackle the holes we don't understand or know. Which is, sadly and dumbly, what did Lehrer in.

This isn't a call to stop writing stories about what the Jonah Lehrer thing means. But I have a vision for what happens to us when we carve out the hard human parts of our stories' subjects. Attached to our scalpel is a bar that connects to a smaller scalpel poised against our own flesh. Like one of Kafka's machines, every time we slice someone, it slices us in the same place but not quite as deep and so quickly you hardly feel it. This may just be the nature of the journalism mechanism, but I worry most of us don't even know when we're bleeding.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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