On Beling a Public Intellectual 8 January 2008Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary.
Tags: academia, public intellectuals, Russel Jacoby
Russel Jacoby’s recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education revisits his 25 year old contention that the American public intellectual tradition is dead. In the 1980s, Jacoby argued simply that the professionalization of academia, the postmodern movement in the humanities, and the publish or perish working conditions produced a huge generations of scholars who wrote for each other in a kind of academic echo chamber instead of for the public. I was in high school at the time and cared more about my long bangs and pegged pants (yes, I was gay then, too) than I did about academia, so his argument was lost to me and perhaps my generation. Responses to his book amounted to, it seems, a bunch of huffy academics stomping their feet and insisting that they were in fact relevant and public (Jacoby notes wryly that no one heard them).
During graduate school in the 1990s, I was introduced to the idea of a public intellectual through cultural theory and cultural studies (which ironically is often in form and content completely anti-public in its obfuscation of the obvious and misapprehension of the most basic of social facts). And as I mentioned a few weeks ago this became something of an ideal for me, to do research and thinking that would somehow matter beyond my narrow social circles in academia. I have since had to temper that ideal because the realities of academic work, particularly of getting tenure, in many ways foreclose the possibility of being a true public intellectual along the lines of, say, Daniel Bell or Kenneth Galbraith (both of whom Jacoby mentions).
I suppose I even started this blog in the hopes of attracting people to think with me and get some of my thinking out there. But the realities of blogging are that it takes a lot of time, it’s highly uneven, my personal posts about hot actors get 80% of my internet hits (I suppose I could create a separate academic blog, which would get no hits at all), and although my intellectual and smart friends do engage with me, it’s basically my small circle of friends. Jacoby argues that in many ways blogging is a further deflection from public intellectualism and that many intellectuals are starting to give up on blogging and go back to writing books and articles. Intellectually, my own posts are of a lower quality than something I write for publication; I usually write them off the cuff, stream of consciousness style, and the arguments are usually rushed and only lightly evidentiated.
Although I decry the loss of true public intellectuals in American culture along the lines we used toknow before the 1970s, I also wonder if it’s even possible any more. Technology has fragmented our attention, and not even the well-educated among us have the time or patience to follow a long, detailed argument. Professors themselves have teaching loads more than double what they were 50 years ago and have publication requirements that would have made no sense in the 1930s when it was assumed that in general you had to be a seasoned scholar before venturing into book writing.
My own book which will be out soon (I know I keep saying that, but it really is happening this time), despite my efforts to make the prose more accessible, will at best sell 500 copies to libraries and may get skimmed from time to time by a grad student here and there looking at 1960s gay culture.
His sarcasm twinkling, Jacoby ends his article with a celebration of the loss of public intellectuals:
Yet let us accept, for the moment, the argument that humanities departments house more leftists than Home Depot or the police department. Shouldn’t this be something that conservatives celebrate, not decry? Doesn’t this mean that the system works elegantly, not poorly? Are these professors the successors to the last generation of intellectuals? If so, society has successfully insulated them. They inhabit a protected environment where they can neither harm each other nor reach outsiders. As academic intellectuals subvert paradigms and deconstruct narratives in campus symposia, conservatives take over the nation. Brilliant!