What We Talk About When We Talk About Reputation

From The Weekly Standard

Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters
by Gloria Origgi
translated by Stephen Holmes and Noga Arikha
Princeton University Press, 296 pp, $29.95

Suppose, for a moment, that you are a young person with no more knowledge of what the world was like before you were born than most young people nowadays. And suppose, further, that out of idle curiosity you took it into your head to read a really old book like, say, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920). As you read, you come upon a passage in which all the friends of one of the main characters, the Countess Olenska, are talking in hushed tones about her “reputation.” Being a fairly intelligent person, you are vaguely aware that the sense in which these people are using that word is slightly unfamiliar to you. So you look up and see on the shelf just above you a book titled Reputation by a social scientist, presumably of some reputation herself, named Gloria Origgi. Here, surely, you think, is a volume that will help to explain what those old-timey New Yorkers meant when they talked about a woman’s reputation.

Turns out you would be wrong. The history of the word and its uses appear to be matters of very little interest to Origgi, an Italian living in France and working as a senior researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. Her vision of her subject is a wider one — indeed, a universal one, transcending particular languages and cultures. It is what she would no doubt call “scientific.” And, like most science, it must be supposed to be difficult to understand. “Reputation is shrouded in mystery,” says Origgi right at the beginning, adding that, in her book, she has “tried to give shape and substance to a highly elusive concept.”

You, the intelligent but ignorant young person, may not know that the “concept” wasn’t the least bit mysterious or elusive to Edith Wharton’s first readers. They knew exactly what was meant by the word in her pages—and virtually anywhere else where they would have been likely to encounter it. They also knew that it had different meanings depending on whether it was applied to a man or a woman, for instance, or in a context of big business or of the lawless West with cowboys and gunfighters — but there was no “mystery” about any of these meanings. Ordinary people in those days would also have been aware of the word’s specialized uses in their own personal, business, or professional lives or their own communities. None of these presented any problems of understanding. For learning those different meanings was considered a normal and necessary part of growing up, in this or any other culture at the time.

But what is reputation when taken out of that cultural context? This is the question that Origgi is trying to answer. No wonder she calls it a mystery! The source of the “mystery” lies in two conceptual mistakes: first, that there is a sort of Platonic ideal of “reputation” quite apart from the word as it has actually been used and, second, that describing this ideal “reputation” involves and is even to a considerable extent limited to describing a putative process of verification. What mainly interests Origgi about reputation is not the thing itself but how to tell to what it corresponds (or does not correspond) in reality — which seems to me an entirely separate matter, and a mystery that she herself recognizes when she writes that “there is no humanly accessible ultimate reality lying beyond or behind the experienced interconnection of events.”

Origgi’s observations and conclusions about reputation are often cast in the language of such fields as evolutionary biology and information theory. She seems to have Google’s search algorithms in mind when she writes that “the essentially communicative nature of reputation and its centrality to social order become clear once we see it as an opinion we have of the more or less authoritative opinions formed by others — that is to say, as a second-order opinion, as something we believe we must believe” (italics in original).

A few pages later, she stumbles while trying to move from opinions to facts: She admits to having been the victim of an “informational cascade” about the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama in 2012 that had led her to believe that Romney had “won” and Obama had “lost” the debate, and then confidently asserts that now she knows better, that the victor and vanquished were the other way around. But how can she tell that she isn’t just the victim of another informational cascade the other way? Apparently, she can exempt herself from the general rule and adopt an opinion simply because it is true.

Also, as one who continues to hold the opinion of the debate that Origgi held at first, I rather resent being told by someone purporting to know The Truth that I only hold the opinion I do because, unlike her, I have been hoodwinked by some personal or impersonal manipulator of information. It may, indeed, be true that my opinions are second-order ones, but it is impossible for anyone else to know that who may also — as who may not? — have only second-order opinions herself. Good manners would seem to require that we respect each other enough to grant the benefit of the doubt as to whether the opinions we express are actually our own.

* *

The final four chapters mercifully leave theory behind as Origgi descends from the scientific mountaintop to deal with such reputational specifics as the attempt to turn reputation to commercial uses on the web, the reputation of wine as established by self-described experts, and the means of producing and manipulating reputation in academia and politics. In all these areas of our lives, reputation has taken on new meanings and importance in recent years, mainly because we have learned how to monetize it—which also means how to manipulate it to our own advantage. Back in Madame Olenska’s day, reputation was not readily susceptible to manipulation, which was the fundamental truth, the incorrigible reality out of which Edith Wharton created her work of art — partly in order to show how that reality had changed between the 1880s and the 1920s. Perhaps, along with that outmoded idea of reputation, we have lost the ability to create such art.

If so, Origgi herself helps to show us the reason why, at the only point in the book where there is a look backward at the cultural history of reputation. This comes with an analysis of a scene from Verdi’s La Traviata in which the courtesan Violetta is visited by the father of her lover, Alfredo, who asks her to give him up on the grounds that Alfredo’s sister’s fiancé and his family are scandalized by their relationship. Ah, comprendo, says Violetta, “as if,” in Origgi’s words, “the connection between her reputation and that of Alfredo’s sister were self-evident. And yet this connection is illusory. It appears only because of a series of commitments to unwritten, intangible norms.”

Only! In our scientific age, what need have we for “unwritten, intangible norms” — or commitments, for that matter? In other words, those old-timers with their “illusory” ideas about reputation simply made a mistake. Strip away those norms, as Origgi does, and we are left with a more scientific, and therefore more correct, view of the matter. If only Violetta had known that, in reality as described by science, “her reputation cannot . . . seriously blemish that of his sister,” the noble act of self-sacrifice that follows, like the opera itself and the novel on which it was based, presumably need never have happened.

Despite this brief glance backwards, Origgi isn’t really interested in the past except insofar as it was on the point of giving way to our own time. Now even to know something about the culture that Edith Wharton was adumbrating — already old-fashioned and beginning to fade from memory at the time she wrote her novel — has become paradoxically disreputable if it implies imaginative acceptance of its norms. This must be what prevents Origgi from seeing that its ultimate demise has left fossils in our language, in words like “reputation,” which if they have become “shrouded in mystery” it is only because we have deliberately forgotten their original context. Now we imagine, or at least she imagines, that we can treat these fossils as objects for scientific analysis in isolation from their historical context. It is as if we were to treat actual fossils as objects for chemical analysis without reference to the now-dead organisms of which they are the remains.

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