Monday, February 16, 2015

Public Intellectuals, through Partisan Review to the present

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marl Greif discusses "public intellectuals" through the lens of The Partisan Review, the touchstone of discourse about public intellectualism.

During World War II PR benefitted from the influx of first-rank European writers and thinkers:
The combination of knowledgeable, left-wing anti-Communism with firsthand possession of a European émigré inheritance, all hammered together through American literary and artistic networks in the great metropolis, was a rare alloy. And as the United States emerged as the lone Western superpower, and its State Department sought to woo a rebuilt Europe away from the Soviet alternative, this metal came increasingly into demand. PR gained a kind of establishment support. This source of its success has been regretted by historians as often as the magazine’s outsized authority has been saluted. To critics, it was as if the recalcitrant stuff of critical thought had been weaponized. The establishment link marks the somewhat uncomfortable side of Richard Hofstadter’s famous statement in 1963’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that Partisan Review, against much philistinism elsewhere, had become a "house organ of the American intellectual community." But had the house organ become a consensus mouthpiece?
As for the current moment (emphasis mine):
At the arrival of the Great Recession, in 2007-8, I ruefully reminded friends and students that the Depression of the 20th century, despite its miseries, had been surprisingly good for intellect. I think we have all the dislocation, injustice, and economic inequality we need, when we look at our America—and the classes of writers, teachers, arguers, dreamers, "petty bourgeois" or proletarian, have indeed even been flattened and equalized a bit, in their salaries and prospects. Maybe they need to be flattened even more, to truly take the measure of popular life in America. But the outrages on offer are surely outrageous enough. As for depoliticization: Students stew in philosophies of radical social change on one side, and observations of the corruption in the present order on the other. I don’t know anyone’s bookshelf without its Marx and Wollstonecraft, its Chomsky and Naomi Klein. The thing we’ve lost is really party politics, and it has been replaced by music-centered subculture as the main beacon for the organizing (and self-organizing) of youth. Scratch through the surface of any little magazine of the last 30 years and you’ll find the inspiration of ’zines and DIY punk rock (hip hop may serve a parallel function through different channels). But that may be a subject for another occasion.

Which leaves the question of the university. The economics of higher education in the contemporary moment may be bad for many of us—teachers, students, and temporary passers-through. But, again—this should not be a priori bad for public intellect or public debate. Quite the opposite. A large pool of disgruntled free-thinking people who are not actually starving, gathered in many local physical centers, whose vocation leads them to amass an enormous quantity of knowledge and skill in disputation, and who possess 24-hour access to research libraries, might be the most publicly argumentative the world has known.
When n + 1 was founded (Greif is one of the founders), the idea was to tap into the frustrations of junior scholars and channel their intellect to the general public. Alas, they couldn't write:
The huge personal disappointment—and it puzzled me for a long time—was that junior professors did not, by and large, give us work I wanted to print. I knew their professional work was good. These were brilliant thinkers and writers. Yet the problems I encountered, I hasten to say, were absolutely not those of academic stereotype—not esotericism, specialization, jargon, the "inability" to address a nonacademic audience. The embarrassing truth was rather the opposite. When these brilliant people contemplated writing for the "public," it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial language with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the "general reader," seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than themselves. Writing for the public awakened the slang of mass media. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly. And it is certainly true that even in many supposedly "intellectual" but debased outlets of the mass culture, talking down to readers in a colorless fashion-magazine argot is such second nature that any alternative seems out of place.
What the 1% began to realize after Vietnam, is that they no longer needed the public:
Those of us attached to universities can feel, as strongly as anyone, how ideologies of the "public" have changed drastically from the older conception. After all, it’s on the basis of this increasingly servile, contemptuous, and antinational vision of "the public" that universities are being politically degraded, in vocational rationales for the humanities and the state’s lost interest in public higher education. The national indifference, from the top down, to the mass, the many, the citizenry, the public, from the 1970s to the present, expresses a late discovery that the old value and fearsomeness of the public had been erroneous. The mass public was no longer threatening, or needed. After Vietnam, the public was no longer needed for military service, as an all-volunteer army would fight for pay without inspiring protest. The public was no longer needed for mass production, as labor was exported. A small elite of global origin, but funneled through American private universities, would design all the new technological and financial instruments that could keep U.S. growth and GDP high in aggregate, though distributed unequally.
The idea of the public intellectual in the 21st century should be less about the intellectuals and how, or where, they ought to come from vocationally, than about restoring the highest estimation of the public. Public intellect is most valuable if you don’t accept the construction of the public handed to us by current media. Intellectuals: You—we—are the public. It’s us now, us when we were children, before the orgy of learning, or us when we will be retired; you can choose the exemplary moment you like. But the public must not be anyone less smart and striving than you are, right now. It’s probably best that the imagined public even resemble the person you would like to be rather than who you are. (And it would be wise for intellectuals to stop being so ashamed of ties to universities, however tight or loose; it’s cowardly, and often irrelevant.)

If there is a task, it might be to participate in making "the public" more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability; when it comes to education, dangerous to the idea that universities should be for the rich, rather than the public, and hostile to the creeping sense that American universities should be for the global rich rather than the local or nationally bounded polity.
Online archive of The Partisan Review.

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