Sunday, September 25, 2005

Public Intellectuals

Going Public
An essay by Michael Berube
Sunday, July 7, 2002; Page BW03

Washington Post

An editor at Pantheon Books once told me that the best way to kill any interesting idea is to make a list. In 1995, for instance, Michael Lind published an essay in Harper's magazine on the "overclass," in which he described the country's ruling elite in terms corresponding to the way we ordinarily speak of the "underclass." The idea that the United States has an overclass runs against the American grain, so to speak, and indeed the publication of the essay helped to mark Lind's break with conservatism.

But the essay was not followed by any substantial media discussion of the overclass, as a concept or as an entity. Instead, Time magazine came up with a list of people, complete with headshots and brief bios, who could plausibly be described as members of the overclass. The disjunction between the subject matter and its presentation gave the article a distinctly creepy aura, almost as if a major newsweekly had devoted a splashy feature to the 100 Top Overlords and How They Induce Us to Do Their Bidding. But the list did its work, and the idea hasn't been seen since.

By this measure, the "public intellectual" is dead again, and at first glance it would appear that Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Story of Decline and his 607-person list killed it about six months ago. The truth, however, is that he had plenty of help.

The term public intellectual was born in 1987, when Russell Jacoby coined it in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. In some ways, Jacoby's effort to supply a backward-looking taxonomy of American public intellectuals -- the polemic-minded eminences who haunted coffeehouses and urban bohemian enclaves while furiously scribbling books and magazine pieces for a general readership -- was itself a symptom of their pending demise. Jacoby laid claim to a tradition -- represented most vigorously by the New York intellectuals clustered around journals such as the Partisan Review in the early Cold War era -- that was occupying an ever smaller fraction of a sphere of public discourse clogged with think-tank fellows and hyperspecialized academics. But it was hard to tell whether Jacoby was calling for a revival of that tradition or whether he was praising it in such a way as to bury it. As a result, Jacoby's jeremiad was dismissed in some quarters as a nostalgic fantasy for the days of generalist men of letters; to this day, it is not clear that Lionel Trilling or Alfred Kazin or Irving Howe was the kind of "public" figure Jacoby imagined. The public intellectual, in other words, may have been a chimera from the start, although no less powerful or influential for being a chimera.

About the hyperspecialization of academe in the 1980s, however, Jacoby was largely right -- although few of his critics (myself included) cared to admit it. When I entered graduate school at the University of Virginia in 1983, nobody wanted to grow up to be a public intellectual. As Jeffrey Williams, editor of the minnesota review, rightly recalls, everyone in those days wanted to be a theorist. No one worked overtime on seminar papers trying to make them more readable so that they could someday hope to publish in Dissent -- or The Washington Post. On the contrary, ambitious graduate students working overtime on their prose in 1983 were most likely trying to throw in more bilingual puns, more neologisms, maybe a clever chiasmus or two. The academic study of literature, we assumed, had its own self-sustaining scholarly apparatus, and it didn't really matter what anyone else thought about it, or whether anyone else thought about it at all. Surely there was nothing wrong with the idea of small bands of scholars writing primarily or even exclusively for each other.

Then in the 1990s came the culture wars -- the rapid-fire exchanges of intellectual flak over public arts funding, "political correctness" in the academy, the theories (and the sordid secret past) of Paul De Man, the debate over Stanford's "Western Civ" requirements, etc. Suddenly thousands of people were interested in academic humanists and their clever chiasmuses. Most of the publicity showered on college professors came in the form of derision, but some of it came in unprecedented forms of adulation and fandom: NYU American Studies professor Andrew Ross became a rock star, Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler found herself the subject of a fanzine, Stanley Fish toured the country debating the PC question with Dinesh D'Souza. The journal Lingua Franca appeared, full of gossip and shop talk and smart features written by a new cadre of savvy cultural journalists. Suddenly, a public intellectual was something to be, a figure even more virtuous and worthy of aspiration than John Lennon's working-class hero -- especially if the public intellectual spoke for the disempowered and disenfranchised, in the mode of Antonio Gramsci's "organic" intellectual. At the University of Illinois, my old haunt, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory's office board featured an Organic Intellectual of the Month -- tongue-in-cheek, and yet earnestly, in that early-1990s mode of deadly-serious irony.

There are no reliable figures on how often Cornel West was named Organic Intellectual of the Month, but in many ways West's rise to academic superstardom in the 1990s was emblematic of the public intellectual's curious new vogue: By mid-decade, West had become the very model of the engagé intellectual who spoke both to his scholarly peers and to "the community." And in 1995, I wrote in the pages of the New Yorker, "See, the public intellectual is back and his name is Cornel West, so there, take that, Russell Jacoby" -- though I'm not sure that's an exact quote. The Atlantic, the New Republic, the Village Voice, the Boston Review and Dissent published essays on the subject within months, and public intellectuals were turning up on every conference circuit, cable channel and street corner.

Three things have happened since then, and, together, they've created the conditions for a public intellectual like Richard Posner to deal the death blow to public intellectuals. First, there is the career of West himself: In the years since I first wrote about him, it has become a good deal harder to imagine him as an object of academic-left idealization. Whether it was his insistence on O.J.'s innocence, his various alliances with conservative family-values merchants or, most recently, his complaint that Harvard president Lawrence Summers never even listened to his spoken-word CD, West has given many of his supporters and fans reason to check themselves.

West is still routinely and unfairly maligned; Shelby Steele, for instance, has no business claiming that West has anything to do with Harvard's grade inflation, and though West may indeed think well of himself, his sense of self-importance is not appreciably different from that of, say, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier -- who penned a devastating and indiscriminate attack on West's work that stoked much of the late-1990s backlash against West and his scholarship.

More recently, a group of conservative intellectuals, led by CUNY historian John Patrick Diggins, pulled out of a conference devoted to the work of philosopher Sidney Hook when they learned that West had been invited to speak. Incredibly, they challenged West's scholarly credentials as a philosopher even though West has published substantially on Hook and American pragmatism in the past -- and even though some of their own number, such as policy intellectual Irving Kristol and art critic Hilton Kramer, are markedly less qualified than West to speak on the same subjects. In short, for reasons both good and bad, the climate has changed considerably for West and people who like (or want to be like) him -- to the absurd point that their own public appearances can be used against them by conservative public intellectuals.

Second, there's the public performance of public intellectuals in general. Stanley Fish, ahead of the curve in this as in all such things, was right to claim, in his 1995 book Professional Correctness, that most public intellectuals were really nothing more than "cameo intellectuals" who were called upon now and again by CNN or A&E or the Features section of the local paper for a quote on the topic du jour. And it turns out that when academics, most of whom are used to dealing with deadlines of, oh, sometime next February, start trying to speak off the cuff, write essays within 48 hours and organize petitions in response to political crises, they wind up looking a lot like journalists and pundits -- every bit as fallible, partisan and idiosyncratic as the mass-media talking heads they seek to complement or challenge.

This isn't necessarily cause for praise or blame, but it does help to explain how, in Posner's book, Ann Coulter and Sidney Blumenthal can wind up on the same list with W.B. Yeats and Simone de Beauvoir. According to mass-media logic, everyone can be a pundit, but only for 15 seconds.

Third, and most ironic (yet altogether predictable), there's the academic institutionalization of the idea of the public intellectual. Whatever else one might want to claim about the New York intellectuals (and a great deal has been claimed for them already), it is true that they were not part of any academic bureaucracy: They did not file annual productivity reports, they did not compete for awards in Outstanding Achievement in Academic Excellence, they did not gauge each other's pay raises by reference to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. And yet we now have academic programs and centers devoted to the care and feeding and propagation of public intellectuals.

This is not a bad thing on its face, but it certainly marks a shift within the shift, such that public intellectuals and would-be public intellectuals can now be academically accredited as public intellectuals, which probably entails new forms of intellectual productivity reports and citation counts at the very least.

And then, late last year, along came Posner and his list. To my surprise, I happen to be on that list, in its nether reaches, I believe -- though I doubt this qualifies me for a special merit raise, since, after all, to be on the list is to be a symptom of decline. "In the days of the Soviet Union," wrote Posner in Slate, "it was said that if a Russian saw a queue, he immediately joined it. Today, if an American sees a list, he wants to be on it. It doesn't seem to matter what it's a list of." As for Posner's argument, it was aptly summed up by Jean Bethke Elshtain's line (quoted by Posner in Slate), "The problem with being a public intellectual is you get more and more public and less and less intellectual." It remains to be seen, of course, whether Posner and Elshtain themselves will avoid this fate.

For in the months since Posner's book was published, in the weeks since Cornel West left Harvard for Princeton amidst fanfare and brickbats, it has become increasingly clear that most people don't make much of a distinction between "public intellectuals" and "publicity intellectuals," mainly because there doesn't seem to be any way left to make such a distinction. A public intellectual in 2002, apparently, is simply an intellectual who generates a lot of publicity. The publicity can be mostly favorable, as in the case of Stephen L. Carter or the late Stephen Jay Gould; it can be terrible, as in the case of Cornel West or Doris Kearns Goodwin; it can be largely self-generated, as in the case of Camille Paglia or Andrew Sullivan. The intellectual can be male or female, gay or straight, postcolonial deconstructionist or Republican speechwriter. It doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter what publicity intellectuals have to say. What matters is that their names get spelled right.

It may have been a surprise to some that the major public-intellectual scandals of the past year have come from fairly traditional historians instead of the trendy, hip, chiasmus-wielding provocateurs in cultural studies and queer theory. Compared to the kind of plagiarism committed by Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose, which involves serious charges of substantive intellectual fraud, the question of Cornel West's speaking engagements or Andrew Ross's science-studies travails looks like small-town news at best. But the lures of publicity-intellectualdom can infect any field, any researcher, any institution, no matter how stolid and staid. While there is no reason to believe the Elshtain-Posner claim that there is an inverse relation between "public" work and "intellectual" work, there is every reason to suspect that some publicity intellectuals function more or less as brand names, endorsing various lines of products that are actually manufactured by research assistants toiling away in offshore sweatshops. Well, maybe not in sweatshops. But the figure of the publicity intellectual presents a cultural impasse, and the impasse is not going to be finessed by better public relations -- since the marketing (and self-marketing) of intellectuals as PR agents is precisely what killed the public intellectual in the first place, as publicity intellectuals become "content providers" whose actual content is beside the point. The point, from here on in, is simply to get on that list -- whatever that list may be. •

Michael Bérubé teaches English at Penn State University and is the author of "The Employment of English: Teaching, Jobs and the Future of Literary Studies."