Why Intellectuals Need to Go Public

June 8, 2010 — 1 Comment

In another scenario, the public intellectual returns. She seeks out new ways to enter the public discourse. She refuses to be confined by the format of academic journals, monographs, and NPR interviews. She has memories of past societies, and visions of future societies that threaten to evolve. She is an active translator in the culture wars, an active participant in the process of social change, and an active member of a public, where experts engage, without jargon, a world of common sense, diverse experience, and deep prejudice.

I feel like I finally caught a good wave in my web surfing. So many times the wave looks promising but never amounts to anything; more often I just wipe out.

I don’t know how many lame Chronicle of Higher Ed articles I’ve come across recently about the present or future death of the humanities, but I’ll trade them all for this one: The Surprising Death of the Public Intellectual and a Manifesto for its Restoration by Jo Guldi in Absent Magazine. I’m a year-and-a-half late to the table, but there’s still plenty of good leftovers.

The article is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll provide a brief summary…

The separation of the intellectual from the public resulted from these trends:

1. Unreadable language that can’t be understood outside of field:

The dashes, puns, and terms like “phallocracy” that entered academic vogue in the 1980s signaled a revolution not in politics but against the public itself. Postmodernists invented a language incomprehensible even to their colleagues.

2. The Publish or Perish mentality that led to increased specialization and fragmentation of knowledge AND to electronic publications that are roped off from public access:

The academic’s relevance was defined in terms of his footnoting colleagues, not in terms of an unknown public of New Yorker readers.

Electronic journals became the private demesne of university publishers who reap between $4 and $200 an article that costs them nothing to buy or to publish.

The issues of exclusive language and the results of ‘publish or perish’ are on my mind every day. For better or worse, the academic/intellectual’s “public” is her students.

Every time I teach I hear myself use words I don’t use in normal life, and each time it’s a challenge to decide whether to stop and define the word, use it enough so that the students figure it out, or not use it at all. A major part of my pedagogy is to teach terms, to build students’ vocabularies so that they can participate not only in discipline-specific conversations but in higher-level conversations. Terms like defamiliarization and hegemony, for example, are infinitely useful, even if only one of them passes the blogging spell check.

I expect specialists to be specialists, and I expect them to have their own language. But, as the article’s author points out, the public needs ideas to be explained in our shared language. It’s like when my dentist talks to his assistant about my teeth: I don’t understand one word. Then he turns to me and says, We need to give you a filling in your top molars. Do you prefer silver or sealants? When he speaks in language I understand, I can make decisions based on new knowledge. This is why the public intellectual has to be understood by the public–even when speaking at a higher level of discourse.

I wonder how much the classroom-as-public plays into the current climate. Perhaps many of the advanced publishers of super-obscure knowledge are not spending enough time in the classroom to test their ideas. And perhaps many others are spending too much time in the classroom and have no time/energy to put their ideas into writing.

Students are a great captive audience for intellectuals, but the classroom is not a public sphere. There’s a power dynamic at work, and students do not always feel free to participate in what they know is not a “free” exchange of ideas — not when there’s a grade attached. Students tend to fall into two camps: those who buy into the romance of college and knowledge, and those that don’t. The intellectual who thinks the classroom is her public will be overly frustrated by those who don’t get her and overly flattered by those who do.

I’ll end by quoting from #2 of a 6-point manifesto for Bringing Intellectual Back. I chose this part for its emphasis on discernment, flexibility, thoughtful reflection, and open engagement with others — all skills of the creative writer:

The public is not held in books; it is out there in the wild. In search of that public, an intellectual has to leave the library and enter the forum. She becomes a species of spy, collecting information from everyday life, the numerous traces of intersecting cultures. She learns their languages. She gains their trust. She secretly analyzes them late into the night, mapping their movements on a geopolitical scale. She is capable of interviewing people, even sports-obsessed sales agents and tartan-wearing fraternity brothers. She is a good traveler.

Her ethnology requires an immersion in the many cultures of contemporary politics before she takes a stance. The public intellectual is eager to understand and explain the situation of women, blacks, gays, lesbians, queers, geeks…and any other subgroup with an interesting and optimistic point of view whose interest may have been overlooked by the forward movement of world powers.

Writers, too, have to look not only in books but “out there, in the wild” for material. Writers have to interact with the public, “collecting information” like a spy. Writers, especially fiction writers, have to look into the skeletons in some characters’ closets and under the rocks from which other characters crawled. We have to “immerse ourselves” in our characters before we “take a stance” plot-wise.

I sometimes write myself out of the public + intellectual equation because where others see black or white, I see gray and more gray. I have a hard time with slogans because they are by nature reductive. And the more reductive, it seems, the more effective. But maybe the way I can participate intellectually–maybe the way my favorite writers have always participated–is by asking questions I don’t know the answer to, using a combination of specialized language and direct discourse, and writing characters whose viewpoints may sometimes be overlooked.

Update 6/8/10: Here‘s a public intellectual (and writer) now!

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  1. Happy Ides of March! Happy 2nd anniversary to the blog! « ph.d. in creative writing - March 15, 2012

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