Summoning publics from fleeting masses

“Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

The reason for this has less do with the elitism of the intellectual — mine is no brief for an avant garde or philosopher king — than with the existence, really, the nonexistence, of the public. Publics, as John Dewey argued, never simply exist; they are always created. Created out of groups of people who are made and mangled by the actions of other people. Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — “Workers of the world, unite!,” they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — “Workers of the world” or “We, the People,” even “The Problem That Has No Name” — that a public is summoned into being. In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.

The problem with our public intellectuals today has little to do with their style. It has little to do with their professional location, whether they write from the academy or for the little magazines. It has little to do with the suburbs, bohemia, or tenure. The problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist.

From the vantage of [Russell] Jacoby’s book, [The Last Intellectuals,] the prospects today for public intellectuals seem even better. After all, one of the material factors Jacoby claimed was driving intellectuals away from the public was the ease and comfort of university life. That life is gone: The precarity that Jacoby saw outside academia is now the norm inside academia. And while precarity often propels men and women to play it safe, a new generation of graduate students and young academics seems to have thrown caution, and academic protocol, to the wind. We see them in the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and Jacobin, hurling their smarts at mass incarceration or the crisis in Greece, using their well-wrought words as weapons against student debt, crappy jobs, even capitalism itself.

We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear in the face of state repression or social intransigence but instead will dig in and charge forward. And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today. Not tenure, not the death of bohemia, not jargon, but the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.”

—Corey Robin, “How Intellectuals Create a Public”

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