Tag Archives: public intellectualism

It is not what you wish it were.

Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.

If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.

–Brad East, Public Theology in Retreat


Great personal concerns

How could the Communist Party, a garish political group with no real roots in American life, exercise such a wide influence in the intellectual and professional strata of American life? An intellectual is one who, almost by definition, seeks to understand and express the Zeitgeist. Unlike the scholar, who starts from a given set of objective problems and seeks to fill in the gaps, he begins with his personal concerns, and in the groping for self-consciousness creates intuitive knowledge about the world. The depression and the threat of fascism were the great personal concerns which forced the intellectuals to reconsider their place in the world. At no time in American life, except for a brief period in 1912, had the intelligentsia been recognized as a cohesive social group and given a platform for political articulation: this the communists provided. They gave the intellectuals a status and recognition which they had previously been denied; and to this the intellectuals responded.

–Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952; 1996), pp. 152-3

Estranged counterpublics

For when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them. (From the same essay: “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.”)

Something similar might be said of Robinson’s recent conversation, also published in The New York Review of Books, with Obama, to whom she returns the name of friend. It may be poor form to use a conversation with a friend in order to speak truth to power, but I for one would have appreciated a dose of Cornel West–like poor form. After all, the claim that “contemporary America is full of fear” might also be applied to the person who promised but failed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. I think Robinson may well be the finest living American novelist, and at her best a brilliant essayist, but whatever her religious beliefs, her culture seems to be fully that of the liberal secular world — and it may matter, in this regard, that her professional career has been at a public university. While surely she must know some living Christian subculture from the inside, she does not seem to be interested in representing its virtues, or its mixture of virtues and vices, to an unbelieving world, or to speak on its behalf, or to speak to it in any general way.

–Alan Jacobs, The Watchmen

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”

Priorities and public intellect

But insofar as a debate about priorities—and ideals—will continue anyway in our little corner of the world, we ought to try to set it the right way round. 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.)

—Mark Greif, “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals”