Monday, December 24, 2012

William Deresiewicz on Public Intellectuals

Deresiewicz is right when he says that being a "public intellectual" is more than just setting up a blogAlthough I think that in today's digital climate blogging may have something to do with it.

Then there is the public part. The fact that we need it now at all suggests that we’ve forgotten what an intellectual is. It isn’t a smart person; it is someone, precisely, who speaks of public issues to a public audience. Wilson et al. were not called “public” intellectuals, because the public part was taken for granted. The longer term was introduced by Russell Jacoby (in 1987—only 25 years ago) to differentiate the older type from those who had displaced it: professors. The problem is that professors have taken it over. The phrase has come to mean an academic who occasionally addresses a general audience, as if all academics were intellectuals, and some of them were also public ones. In fact, academics and intellectuals are antithetical types. An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.” 

Public also smacks of publicity, of the new apparatus of celebrity that turns scholars into showmen and makes pundits out of hacks. Susan Sontag, already halfway towards a parody of the intellectual in the older sense—mobile in her moral positions, more a transmitter than originator of ideas, and not much of a writer at all—pioneered this kind of self-promotion. Now we have the likes of Cornel West, doing his shtick all over the airwaves. 

But celebrity, like the institutionalization that comes with being an academic, is inimical to the intellectual’s mission: questioning the mental status quo. The more a part of things you are—the more embedded in the machinery of status and position—the harder that is to do. As Kazin said, “values are our only home in the universe.” Allegiances, to any group, are fatal. The intellectual’s job is to think past the culture: to question the myths, metaphors, and assumptions that limit our collective imagination. The founder of the breed was Socrates. As Kazin also said, an intellectual is someone for whom ideas are “instruments of salvation.” Becoming one requires a little more than setting up a blog.