Germinal of the public intellectual?


Have you ever wondered about the role (or fate) of public intellectuals in today’s hyperspeed, corporatized digital culture? Do we need more of them? If so, where will we find them?

Mark Greif addresses the question in an essay over at the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals?” Greif is an academic now but is also one of the founders and an editor of the literary journal n+1. And he has some interesting things to say about the experience.

Here’s a personal confession. At the start of n+1, our conception anticipated, in fact depended upon, striking a chord among under- appreciated academics. We founders were in our late 20s. We had graduate degrees (fistfuls of M.F.A.’s, M.A.’s, and even one M.Phil. among us), but not jobs. Looking upward to those who had gone further, the languishing professoriate’s reservoir of erudite rage seemed a natural resource waiting to be unlocked. I, for one, was certain that if we recreated a classic public-intellectual mode, by sticking difficult argument in the public eye—keeping it elevated, superior, but unfattened by “literature reviews” and obeisances to mentors—junior professors would flock to our banner and create classic public-intellectual provocations like those of yore. Just think of the ranks of assistant professors, even newly tenured associates, all frustrated, all possessed of backlogs of fierce critical arguments (with bankers’ boxes of research), throwing caution to the wind and freeing these doves and falcons from their cages. Fly free, beautiful birds!

It didn’t happen. Greif found that when these “brilliant people” were asked to write for the public they invariably “dumbed down” their efforts, which wasn’t what he wanted. What he wanted was this:

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. It is not up to the public intellectual alone to remake “the public” as a citizenry of equals, superior and dominant—that will take efforts from all sides. But it is perhaps up to the intellectual, if anyone, to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down “big ideas,” and call that world what it is: stupid.

One wonders, however, if Greif is missing something. He expected to find work that was dangerous to elites and stability, and in particular threatening to corporate academic culture. But he was looking for this among a population of the overeducated and underemployed, people who are presumably looking for jobs, or better jobs, in that same system. Frustration and “erudite rage” they may have, but they’re not crazy. Yet.

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