The Public (Anti-)Intellectual

By now, I’d imagine that you’ve read (or read about) Nicholas Kristof’s column on how academics just don’t know how to talk to regular folks. Kristof criticizes academics for being out of touch, overly specialized bloviators who are more interested in quantitative analysis and technocratic jargon than reaching out to the public. I don’t really want to do a point-by-point analysis, not least because my friend and CUNY colleague Corey Robin did such a terrific job a few days ago on his blog. Corey’s analysis gets to the heart of the issue: there are, in fact, first-rate writers putting out excellent analysis on-line, but they’re not neoliberal blowhards like Kristof who have the bully pulpit of the NYT.

Moreover, as several people have pointed out on Twitter, a major way that academics speak to “the public” is that we teach. I don’t know how many of my students read Nick Kristof on a regular basis, but thousands of them have studied  with me over the past 20 years that I’ve been teaching. And a significant part of my work is encouraging my students to think of themselves as intellectual actors rather than just recipients of knowledge.

But beyond the specifics of whether academics do or don’t have anything to say in the public square, I’m more interested in the theme itself, which seems to reappear every now and then. In a nutshell, it’s this: oh you eggheaded academics! Why can’t you talk to the common person about interesting things? This is hardly a new development. Richard Hofstadter wrote the groundbreaking Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1966, for God’s sake, and he traced complaining about people who think they’re smarter than everyone else back to the very beginnings of the American Republic.

I’d argue, though, that the culture’s highly ambivalent relationship to knowledge production is not just about intellectualism but a horror of ambivalence itself. In his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard University, on the theme of “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (no plain-spoken pragmatist himself) railed against scholasticism and leveled the same charge of monasticism that Kristof lobbed. “Instead of Man Thinking,” Emerson argued,” we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution… Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.” The problem was not just with bookwormdom, though — it was the feminizing of the American intellectual class, which abjured”the rough, spontaneous conversation of men.” Even as refined and complex a thinker as Emerson recognized that the nuance, specificity, and self-consciousness of responsible intellectual work conflicted with the increasing identification in the nineteenth century of masculinity with spontaneity, physicality, and certainty.

Anti-intellectualism, after all, is a refusal to dwell in the unknown and the unknowable; the hallmark of the most anti-intellectual US presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush has been declarativeness. Jackson’s famous (if possibly apocryphal) response to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s rebuff of Indian removal — “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it” — is the archetypal argument of physicality against intellect. Marshall might be handing down decisions from the empyrean heights of the Supreme Court, Jackson reasoned, but he wouldn’t last a minute on the ground against the guns of the US Army, which, of course, carried out the brutal removal of the Cherokees and other indigenous people in violation of the Court’s mandate.

More recently, military violence has alternated with a kind of cultural violence to clear away any kind of doubt or questioning of public policy. Reagan’s invocation of “welfare queens” in his 1976 presidential campaign wasn’t just deceptive (although it certainly was that as well). Rather, it was Jacksonian in its certainty and its willingness to victimize a population in order to achieve a political goal. And W’s most characteristic bon mots about the “axis of evil,” “mission accomplished,” and “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists,” borrow directly from Reagan’s playbook.

In this context, it’s hardly surprising that the New York Times, home of such czars of certainty as Kristof and Thomas Friedman, didn’t run an obituary of one of the finest public intellectuals of the post-1945 era, Stuart Hall. While news outlets such as Al-JazeeraThe Guardian, NPR, and even that bastion of Thatcherism The Telegraph, issued lengthy analyses of Hall’s impact on not just  British intellectual life but leftism, anti-colonialism, and liberation movements worldwide, the Times was conspicuously silent. Hall’s legacy, to my mind, is not just his immense contribution to analyses of culture, media, and representation, or his commitment to public intellectual discourse, characterized by his work with the Open University. What I found most remarkable about Hall, and most impressive, was his willingness to change his mind, to listen to criticism, to open up conversations in new directions. That is, his openness to not being right all the time.

One of my favourite essays by Hall is “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (not the grabbiest title, I’ll admit). Throughout, Hall argues that cultural studies was above all a process of learning, change, and contestation. As far as Hall was concerned, cultural studies’ best work was done when the people who thought they knew what they were doing were proven wrong — by feminism, by postcolonialism, by analyses of race. In his words,
“the so called unfolding of cultural studies was interrupted by a break, by real ruptures, by exterior forces; the interruption, as it were, of new ideas, which decentered what looked like the accumulating practice of the work.”

For Stuart Hall, the urgency of action could not, should not trump the centrality of critique, ambivalence, uncertainty. This is the exact opposite of the Kristof method, in which rescuing “victims” is more important than understanding the processes of victimization, in which intellectual care plays second fiddle to unreflective pronunciamentos.  Perhaps if the Times had printed an obit for Hall, they might have included his analysis of what it means to be a public intellectual engaged with real political struggle: “The notion of a political practice where criticism is postponed until the day after the barricades precisely defines the politics which I always refused.”

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Public (Anti-)Intellectual

  1. Pingback: no title yet | Jonathan Senchyne

  2. Pingback: Disrupting the Higher Education Content Cycle | Avidly

  3. Like Nicholas Kristof, we “deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses” and are dismayed that it is rarely shared outside of narrow academic disciplines. This challenge led us to create Footnote (http://footnote1.com), an online media company that collaborates with academics to translate their research and expertise for a mainstream audience.

    In working with over 75 scholars from top schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, we’ve found that academics are eager to share their knowledge with the public and excited to discuss the implications of their research for policy, business, and society. What they need are platforms and partners to help them translate their expertise into a form that combines academic rigor with language and ideas the public can understand and engage with.

    The incentives in academia encourage scholars to focus on communicating with a narrow audience of peers, but the drive to move beyond that and take up the mission of a public intellectual, even in a small way, is strong. It’s just not something we should expect academics to do alone.

  4. I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

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