jump to navigation

On Beling a Public Intellectual 8 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Commentary.
Tags: , ,

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!



1. molly w - 8 January 2008

I had an interesting conversation the other day with an acquaintance who got a PhD (I think; he might be ABD) in philosophy, then went to law school and is now working for a firm (in his first or second year there, I think).

He said law is a lot like being an academic, except the arguments you’re making typically have an immediate practical impact.

2. mattblack - 9 January 2008

I’m wondering how public the intellectuals of the past really were. Is it possible they just had more influence in elite circles? Demographically, there are more educated people than ever before and one would think that leads to a much bigger potential audience for intellectuals.

3. Todd - 9 January 2008

The shift, according to Jacoby, was two-fold. First, the culture at large after 1970 moved to a more fragmented media culture and the dissolving of the importance of media that carries longer, complex kinds of public arguments (e.g., Harpers still exists, but with sharply reduced circulation). I would argue that this was exacerbated by shifts in the economy that increased the average hours per-week worked by the educated classes and the advent of cable and the internet. My seniors in university are, as often as not, incapable of following or creating a sustained argument. The fragmentation of American culture following 1970 along identity-political lines also means that some of the old media that would have served to span the population are now identified with particular identity groups. Walter Cronkite used to interview, for example, Galbraith on the air. Can you see Catie Curic interviewing anyone but a pundit, and have them talk about anything much more complex than personality-gossip and/or “values”?

Jacoby’s other point, and I think a more important one, is that academia has itself changed, so that professors/scholars no longer seek or have the time/ability to seek public audiences. The professionalisation of the academy, according to Jacoby, led to the formation of a giant echo chamber where academics only speak to each other, and especially in the humanities, they are focused on appearing smarter than each other, so communicate less and less salient ideas in more and more obtuse language.

4. mattblack - 10 January 2008

I guess I’m struggling with an unarticulated concept that’s been kicking around my brain for a while. Forgive me if it’s a little off the original concept but it’s related I think and would love to get your take. That is, that we have this idea that elitism is a bad thing and that we expect a much wider population to play the role that the elite once did. As a result, we have locked the best and the brightest in the ivory towers of the academy while we wait for an information-economy-educated population that isn’t really equipped (or interested) to take up the roll that the elite once filled.
Neal Stephenson, in his book length essay “In the Beginning Was the Command Line” compares the creators and consumers of culture to the Morlocks and Eloi of H.G. Wells “The Time Machine.”

“Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks ant the Eloi in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, except that it’s been turned upside down. In the Time Machine, the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. That many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we’ve evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious, and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.”

Given the context of this discussion, I would argue that creators of pop culture have taken over the role of public intellectuals and dumbed down the content quite a bit. Those of us with a hankering for both critical thought and vital change in the system are marginalized. The question is, what to do about it? I have less and less faith in my old populism that says that the vast majority will come around. They seem perfectly happy (like the Eloi) to take their cultural lives at face value and enjoy the benefits of the middle class American lifestyle. Given that, is it time for a new American elite (open to all who care to participate) to rise and take responsibility for the culture? Or is that completely antithetical to the kind of democracy we want to live in?

5. Blogging and Public Intellectuals? « Neuroanthropology - 30 January 2008

[…] on January 30, 2008 Todd, who commented on the Wending post, has an interesting discussion of “On Being A Public Intellectual” over at his blog Todd’s Hammer.  He engages Russel Jacoby’s argument that public […]

Sorry comments are closed for this entry

%d bloggers like this: