How Public Is Your Intellectual?

UPDATE: Another take on the public intellectual from The Economist.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Disquisitions about public intellectuals usually conclude that they ain’t what they used to be. Subtitles from recent books on the topic include A Study of Decline and An Endangered Species? Indeed, the major point of debate is dating the precise start of the decline and fall. For some critics,Götterdämmerung started in the 1950s; for others, the 1930s. More-curmudgeonly writers place the date earlier, stretching back to the heyday of John Stuart Mill or even the death of Socrates.

That’s quite an opening, I thought, including the two words I do not know but like: “disquisitions” and “curmudgeonly” – very “higher eduction”… Daniel W. Drezner adds another take to the ever-continuing conversation about “public intellectuals.” Apparently, Drezner tells us, some people are complaining about the fact that internet and blogs are destroying the intellectual debate, make intellectual encounters impossible, annoy the old intellectuals with their “good old days” approaches and expectations.

But these critics fail to recognize how the growth of blogs and other forms of online writing has partially reversed a trend that many cultural critics have decried — what Russell Jacoby called the “professionalization and academization” of public intellectuals. In fact, the growth of the blogosphere breaks down — or at least erodes — the barriers erected by a professionalized academy.

“Professionalized academy,” you say? As opposed to “amateur academy” or “do-it-yourself academy”? I think I get the point, and I think I agree with most of Drezner’s arguments, but I especially liked the part I quote below, and I mean “like” as in “I really like this angle,” not as in “I agree with this point” or “I would argue the same” – it expressed the desire rather than the reality of “intellectual blogging” (if such thing exists): 

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

Let’s see. I’m not sure this “networking” and “intellectual fishing” is always successful, but it is indeed something to be desired. Most blogs I read (and you read) tend to have an group of more or less defined readers, even if from time to time I switch from reading the “familiar” blogs and venture out to read a new one here and there. Patterns change, of course, but I think to dream of a public and intellectual blogging as a kind of overcoming of the institutional limitations, or spacial limitations, or hierarchical limitations is, well, dreaming. I think that in order to understand the real impact of so called “intellectual blogging” we will have to wait and see at least good 20 or 30 years. There are plenty of positive aspects of blogging such as sharing information (half the new books I bought last year were brought to my attention by blogs who deal with similar intellectual topics), exchanging opinions on certain matters and the like. It has been pointed out many times by many people and I think it remains an important future contribution of blogging, but it is clearly the case that even a small blog like ours can potentially bring more readers to a piece of academic writing than a traditional paper publication. In fact, if all one wanted to do is share her ideas and see what others think, blogging works much better than publishing. 

My main problem with the above-mentioned article is the lack of any analysis of the very notion of “public” – from early coffee shops to newspapers to journals to radio and so on, “public” was never one thing, it has always used new means of gathering itself, making itself present, making itself “public” – who is to say that blogging is not simply an additional way of “being public”? Does it matter that it is 30 students who listen to your ideas or 300 strangers who read your blog? How can Drezner discuss “public intellectuals” without raising the issue of what he means by “public”? A homeless man once told me that Jimmy Hendrix was bald – I was puzzled because it seemed a bit counter-intuitive – his “public” consisted of strangers who were passing by, I’m pretty sure he delivered his message to several thousands that day, I’m pretty sure many of the folks went home and googled “Jimmy Hendrix” and “bald” that day, I’m sure if he had an access to a computer, he would probably start a blog on the baldness of Jimmy Hendrix and eventually draw attention of a small group of like-minded people – isn’t that in essence what blogging is all about? Why then expect things from it that it is not intending to give? I say let the academic life be academic and professional, and let blogging deal with para-academic and para-professional affairs like knitting or philosophy…

3 thoughts on “How Public Is Your Intellectual?

  1. Lists are great, I think, I used to do “to-do” lists when I was younger, the secret was to break down your activities into so many small actions that when marking them off as done you get a real sense of accomplishment…

    Open computer
    Think about responding to Fido’s comment
    Reread Fido’s comment
    Type the response in the box
    Glance at it one more time
    Hit “Submit Comment”

    Boy, do I feel accomplished…

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