Literature and memory

As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part of their horrendous experiences in trench warfare over the months or years that extended between the moment of enlistment and death. Pilgrim’s Progress plays a central role in many depictions, and some of Britain’s most striking poetry of the twentieth century comes from this time.

Fussell is primarily interested in exploring the ways that British poets who served during World War I chose to express their experience of war and the violence, fear, and chaos of the trenches. He captures the bitterness, irony, and cynicism created in this generation by the war in authors and poets like Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), and Wilfred Owen (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”).

The book is interesting in part because of the particular moment that we are all enmeshed in right now, from Mumbai to Milan to Manchester to Detroit. The world of Covid-19 feels a bit apocalyptic — even if there are no heavy artillery pieces thundering away in the distance. It seems certain that we will all have memories of this period that will be clear and sharp, and colored by the illness and deaths of so many people around the world and the country. Also similar is the pervasive sense of the utter incompetence and arrogance of the national government (in the United States, at least), in its lack of preparation and foresight and its continuing efforts to minimize the crisis. Just as the officers and soldiers of 1916 despaired at the complacent idiocy of the general staff, so we have come to despair at the moral and scientific buffoonery that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reading Fussell led me to reread Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. Graves himself was seriously wounded by artillery fire during the battle of the Somme, at the age of twenty. His colonel mistakenly wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, saying “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss” (Graves, 274). That turned out to be premature; Graves survived the war. But a pleasure he took with him throughout his life came from the words that were said about him when it was believed in London that he was dead: “The people with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my parents: my housemaster, for instance” (281). But there was a disadvantage in being dead: “The only inconvenience that my death caused me was that Cox’s Bank stopped my pay and I had difficulty in persuading it to honour my cheques.” An advantage was also possible, though; he was able to make changes to his own obituary. During recovery in Wales with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he writes, “We made a number of changes in each other’s verses; I remember that I proposed amendments which he accepted in his obituary poem ‘To His Dead Body’ — written for me when he thought me dead.” And he and Sassoon agreed about the idiocy of the war: “We no longer saw it as a war between trade-rivals; its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.”

The items that Graves took back with him to the front following his recovery are quite interesting — the list makes one think of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried.

I went back as an old soldier; my kit and baggage proved it. I had reduced the Christmas tree that I first brought out to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery in it, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary British army issue would only cut British wire). Instead of a haversack I had a pack like the ones the men carried, but lighter and waterproof. I had lost my revolver when I was wounded and had not bought another; rifle and bayonet could always be got from the battalion. (Not carrying rifle and bayonet made officers conspicuous in an attack; in most divisions now they carried them, and also wore trousers rolled down over their puttees like the men, because the Germans had been taught to recognize them by their thin knees.) Instead of the heavy blankets that I had brought out before I now had an eiderdown sleeping-bag in an oiled silk cover. I also had Shakespeare and a Bible, both printed on india-paper, a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin, and two light weight, folding, canvas arm-chairs, one as a present for Yates the quartermaster, the other for myself. I was wearing a very thick whipcord tunic with a neat patch above the second button and another between the shoulders; it was my only salvage from the last time out except the pair of ski-ing boots which I was wearing again, reasonably waterproof — my breeches had been cut off me in hospital (293-294)

The whipcord tunic was the same clothing he wore when wounded by shrapnel at the Somme — hence the neat patches in two places front and back.

What is particularly interesting about The Great War and Modern Memory is the creative selectivity that it illustrates. Fussell chooses particular poets, particular poetic devices, and particular features of a subaltern’s war experience to tell his story. But there is a limitless range of choice in all these features. Fussell could have told many different stories, using boundlessly different sources and perspectives. There is no final and comprehensive story for building out the title “The Great War and Modern Memory“. Fussell’s genius is his synthetic ability to take a handful of details from multiple sources and fuse them into a powerful, unified story. His development of the theme of euphemism in war is a brilliant example. But of course it is just one such story. And there are limitless materials that would add insight to the story but that have never been studied — including countless military records of specific engagements, unpublished but archived memoirs and diaries of soldiers who served at the Somme or nameless corners in the trench system, or home-side newspaper accounts of life and war in France. Fussell makes use of materials like these, but his examples are only a small fraction of those available. 

Jay Winter’s introduction to the book captures Fussell’s perspective on his material very precisely: angry, disgusted at hypocrisy, and entirely cynical about the top officers. Part of what Fussell brought to this book in his own duffle bag of equipment was his own service in the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he describes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. And of course he wrote this book during the final years of the war in Vietnam — a war with similar futility, irony, and waste. Winter writes:

Fussell was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his deep, visceral knowledge of the horrors and stupidities of war into a vision of how to write about war. … How did he do it? By using his emotion and his anger to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp directly. We need blinkers, spectacles, shades to glimpse war even indirectly…. The indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed “modern memory”. (kl 102)

Paul Fussell was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work on Augustan poets of the eighteenth century predisposed him to the delights of irony and the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world. (kl 122)

This is sense-making — both by the poets like Graves and Sassoon whom Fussell analyzes, and by Fussell himself, in trying to work out the relationships that exist between experience, language, and poetry in our efforts to make sense of the Yossarian-like things we are often subject to in the crises of modern life.

Academic social media

The means through which academics engage in communication and discussion of their ideas have changed significantly in the past decade through the rapid growth of the importance of social media in the dissemination of new ideas. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress have become important media for communication in a range of fields, from celebrity gossip to news flashes to the dissemination of new breakthroughs in particle physics. Blogging platforms such as Blogger, Medium, and WordPress in particular have become a highly accessible place for the expression of ideas, opinions, and social commentary. An idea posted on WordPress is instantly visible in most countries in the world (not including China). And because of the amazing coverage of search engines, that idea can be located by the academic researcher in Mumbai, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, or Des Moines within minutes of posting.

The challenge of social media as a channel for serious ideas and engaged debate is the fact that there are few of the badges of reliability provided by conventional media and academic journals associated with social media. So the hard question is whether social media channels can serve a serious intellectual purpose in terms of the dissemination of knowledge.

The appearance of a second edition of Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is therefore timely. Both young academics — well versed in the mechanics of social media — and more senior scholars will find the book interesting and provocative, and many will find useful new ways of presenting and discussing their work using the resources created by social media platforms. I’ve long been convinced of the value of blogging as a platform for developing and disseminating my work in philosophy and sociology, and I celebrate Mark’s efforts to help all of us figure out constructive, intellectually valuable ways of using the various media available to us.

It is interesting to reflect a bit on what an academic — a professor, a professional political scientist or literary critic or physicist — wants to accomplish with his or her writing, and whether social media can help with those goals. There are a number of possible goals that come to mind:

  1. to explore new ideas and get useful feedback from others about those ideas
  2. to achieve solid, well argued results on a topic that will be a permanent part of the corpus in one’s field
  3. To contribute to important contemporary debates through better insights into current problems (global climate change, war in the Middle East, the threat of rising nationalist-populism)
  4. to elevate one’s position in the status-hierarchy of the profession
  5. to create a “celebrity” reputation in a field that leads to invitations as commentator on public television or CNN

The first motivation is well suited to social media. If one can gather a small network of people with similar interests and a willingness to interact, a blog can be a very good mechanism for testing and improving one’s ideas. The second motivation can also be served by social media, in the sense that exposure of one’s ideas through social media can help to deepen and refine one’s thinking. In order for these ideas to become part of the permanent corpus of one’s field of study, it seems likely enough that the ideas and theories will need to find more traditional forms of academic expression — book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and books. But these two goals are entirely consistent with being an authentic scholar and academic; they have to do with the pursuit of truth and insight. And they fall in the category of the “new collegiality” that Carrigan discusses (232).

The third goal is a respectable academic goal as well. It is entirely legitimate and appropriate for academics to bring their voices to bear on the issues of the day. Certainly some of the Twitter feeds I appreciate the most come from academics like Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann), Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan), Juan Cole (@jricole), and Dan Nexon (@dhnexon). And what I appreciate about their tweets is the honesty and relevance their ideas (and links) have in addressing topics like climate change, global inequalities, and issues of war and peace.

The final pair of goals — status, reputation, and well-paid television gigs — seem a bit antagonistic to the most important academic values. I suppose that Aristotle and Kant both would find these goals obnoxious because they are narrowly self-interested and unrelated to the virtues or duties of an academic — pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge. But, sad to say, it is clear enough how social media can support these goals as well, as Carrigan discusses in several places (136).

I am very glad that Mark has brought a discussion of the “dark side” of social media into the discussion in the second edition. Like all things digital, the hate-based Internet has moved rapidly since the first edition of this book, and it is now a very important part of the rise of right-wing populism in many countries. Likewise, the use of social media to bully and harass people in the most abhorrent ways is a plague that we haven’t learned how to control. And the weaponization of social media that has occurred since the first edition of the book is a genuine threat to democratic institutions.

Mark Carrigan is an astute and well-informed follower of the topic of the rising role of social media in the academic world, and the book is well worth a close reading. And it raises an interesting question: what would Socrates’ Twitter stream have looked like?

Grand Hotel Abyss

Georg Lukács in 1962 used the colorful image of a fictional “Grand Hotel Abyss” to express his disappointment in the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Here is a passage in which the idea is described in “Preface to the Theory of the Novel” (link):

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ (The fact that Ernst Bloch continued undeterred to cling to his synthesis of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology (e.g. cf. Frankfurt 1961) does honour to his strength of character but cannot modify the outdated nature of his theoretical position. To the extent that an authentic, fruitful and progressive opposition is really stirring in the Western world (including the Federal Republic), this opposition no longer has anything to do with the coupling of ‘left’ ethics with ‘right’ epistemology.)

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School — Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Benjamin, Wellmer, Marcuse — were for Lukács too much devoted to theorizing capitalism and barbarism and too little about changing it. They were like imagined world-weary residents in the Grand Hotel Abyss, observing the unfolding catastrophe but doing nothing to intervene to stop it. They were about theory, not praxis.

Stuart Jeffries uses this trope as the organizing theme of his group biography of these figures in Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, and, in a word, he finds that Lukács’s critique is unfounded.

Jeffries emphasizes the common social origins of these boundary-breaking critics of capitalism. The book is detailed and insightful. Jeffries emphasizes the common social and cultural origins of almost all these men — German, Jewish, bourgeois, affluent — and the common threads of their criticism of the capitalism and consumerism that surrounded them in the early and middle twentieth century. The central question of how it came to pass that ordinary people in cultured, philosophically rich Germany came to support the Nazi rise to power was of vital concern to all of them. But consumerism, authoritarianism, and the suffering both created by and hidden by capitalism are also in the center stage.

The book is primarily about ideas and debates, not the particulars of personal biography. Jeffries does an impressive job of walking readers through the debates that swirled within and across the Frankfurt School — is capitalism doomed? Are workers inherently revolutionary? Is art part of the support system for capitalism? Is Marxism scientific or dialectical? Jeffries does an exceptional and fascinating job of telling this complex story of intellectual history and social criticism.

A particularly important innovation within the intellectual tradition of critical theory was the pointed critique these theorists offered of mass culture. Unlike orthodox Marxists who gave primary emphasis to the workings of the forces and relations of production — economics — the critical theorists took very seriously the powerful role played within advanced capitalism by mass culture, film, media, and television. (The publication in 1927 of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 appears to have been an important impetus to much of the theorizing of the Frankfurt School.) Here is one example of the social criticism of Hollywood offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Consider, for instance, Donald Duck. Once, such cartoon characters were ‘exponents of fantasy as opposed to rationalism’, wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Now they had become instruments of social domination. ‘They hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.’ (225)

So what is a more progressive role for works of art and culture to play in a society embodying serious social exploitation and domination? One work that was important point of consideration for several theorists was the Brecht and Weill opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany. Adorno and others regarded this work as one that gave appropriate and unblinking attention to the suffering of the modern social order.

Brecht’s libretto, too, sought to make it clear that the bourgeois world was absurd and anarchic. ‘In order to represent this convincingly’, wrote Adorno of the dramatisation of the bourgeois world as absurd and anarchic, ‘it is necessary to transcend the closed world of bourgeois consciousness which considers bourgeois social reality to be immutable. Outside of this framework, however, there is no position to take – at least for the German consciousness, there is no site which is non-capitalist.’ This was to become one great theme of critical theory: there is no outside, not in today’s utterly rationalised, totally reified, commodity-fetishising world. When Marx wrote Capital in the mid nineteenth century, the more primitive capitalist system he was diagnosing made commodity fetishism merely episodic; now it was everywhere, poisoning everything. ‘Paradoxically, therefore’, Adorno added, ‘transcendence must take place within the framework of that which is.’ Brecht’s assault on capitalist society in Mahoganny was then paradoxically both from within and from without at the same time, both immanent and transcendent. (132)

Jeffries also provides a fascinating and extended discussion of the deep interactions that occurred between Thomas Mann and Adorno in Los Angeles as Mann worked at completing Doctor Faustus. Mann wanted Adorno’s expert advice about modern music, and Adorno obliged. Jeffries argues that Adorno had a substantive effect on the novel:

Arguably, the finished novel reflects Adorno’s melancholic philosophy more profoundly than Mann’s. This is not to suggest plagiarism: as Adorno wrote in 1957, the insinuation that Mann made illegitimate use of his ‘intellectual property’ is absurd. The underlying aesthetic philosophy of the novel goes beyond the binary opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian, between the orderly and the ecstatic, that Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy and to which Mann repeatedly appealed in his fiction… During the collaboration with Adorno, however, Mann set aside his original, Dionysian conception of the composer and as a result Leverkühn became something much more interesting –a figure who dramatised something of the Frankfurt School’s, and in particular Adorno’s, distinctive contribution to the philosophy of art. (243)

And what about fascism? This was a central thrust of Frankfurt School research, and opinion was divided about the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany among the Frankfurt School theorists. But here is an interpretation that seems particularly relevant in 2016 in the United States, given the pageantry of political rallies and the slogans about making America great again:

Fascism was, as a result, a paradox, being both ancient and modern: more precisely it was a system that used a tradition hostile to capitalism for the preservation of capitalism. For Bloch, as for Walter Benjamin, fascism was a cultural synthesis that contained both anti-capitalist and utopian aspects. The Frankfurt School failed to emphasise in its analysis of fascism what Benjamin called the ‘aestheticisation of politics’. It fell to Benjamin, Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer to reflect on the Nazi deployment of myths, symbols, parades and demonstrations to command support. (250)

The chapter on Habermas is also very good and can be read separately as an introduction to Habermas’s leading ideas (chapter 17). It is significant that this final voice of the Frankfurt School should be one that provides a basis for greater optimism about the prospects for modern democracy than what emerges from the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The perspectives of the Frankfurt School were developed in the context of crises of capitalism, fascism, and anti-semitism in the 1930s. But these theories are once again deeply relevant in the context of the politics of 2016. A xenophobic, divisive candidate and party have assumed the reins of power in a populous democracy. The issues of propaganda and unapologetic political lies are before us once again. The politics of hate and intolerance have taken center stage. And the role of culture, media, and now the internet needs to be examined carefully for its dependence upon the corporate order as well as its possible potency as a mechanism of resistance. The Frankfurt School thinkers had important insights into virtually all these questions. Jeffries’ very interesting intellectual history of the movement is timely.

Jeffries quotes from a letter from Adorno to Mann on the aftermath of Nazism in Germany with observations that may be relevant to us today as well:

The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression. If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive for power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in producing the required infantilisation. (273)

These are words that may be important in the coming years, if the incoming government succeeds in carrying out many of its hateful promises. And how will the institutions of media and culture respond? Let us not be infantilized in the years to come when it comes to the fundamental values of democracy.

Public intellectuals in France and the US

What is the role of the intellectual in France in 2010?  And has that role declined in the past several decades?  Have the media and the internet profoundly eroded or devalued the voice of the intellectual in public space?  The Nouvel Observateur takes up these questions in a recent issue devoted to “Le pouvoir intellectuel” (link).

The line of thought is a complicated one.  Jacques Julliard frames the question by proposing that the public imagination of the intellectual involves a narrative of precipitous decline since the active engagements of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus.  There was a conception of the engaged intellectual who brought his/her ideas and convictions into opposition when state and society were going wrong — Algeria, Vietnam, capitalism.  And, Julliard suggests, the common view is that the current generation of intellectuals have not succeeded — perhaps have not even attempted — at bringing theory, critique, and value into the public sphere.  Jean Daniel captures the idea in his editorial: “Faut-il rire des ‘intellos’?

But — here is the complexity — Julliard refutes this idea.  The tradition of the public intellectual is not attenuated or corrupted in France; rather, the current generation of intellectuals are in fact engaged and involved.  It is nostalgia for a golden age — the age of Liberation, Communism, and Existentialism — that foreshortens the reputation of the intellectual today.  But the golden age is a myth.

Tout cela est faux, archifaux, et prouve seulement que Saint-Sulpice n’est séparé de Saint-Germain que par quelques enjambées et par la piété du souvenir. Et revenons aux faits. [All this is false, badly false, and only proves that Saint-Sulpice is only separated from Saint-Germain by a few steps and the piety of memory.  Let us return to the facts.]

Julliard points out five salient facts. First, we sometimes confuse the intellectual and the literary artist.  The artist is valued for the aesthetic quality of his/her works, whereas the intellectual is valued for the significance of the impact of his/her ideas.  Second, the impact of Sartre and Camus on France’s wars in Algeria or Vietnam was minimal, and later generations of French intellectuals have actually exercised greater influence.  In fact, Julliard argues that Lévy, Glucksmann, and Finkielkraut were more effective in their own interventions about policy in Bosnia than Sartre or Camus on the colonial wars.  Third, Julliard argues that modern media, including the blogosphere, have provided the contemporary intellectual with a much more powerful platform for disseminating ideas and values than was available to Zola, Sartre, or Camus.  He cites debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, global warming, immigration, European governance, and even philosophy and literature, as locations of debate where modern media have amplified the voices of intellectuals.  Fourth, there is the question of designation: who decides who the “intellectuals” are?  The media select their talking heads; what confidence can the public have that these are the best voices available?  Julliard even suggests that there has been an inversion of quality; the telegenic pundit acquires reputation as a savant, rather than the savant being sought out as a pundit.  And fifth, there was a tendency of the “engaged” philosophers of the generation of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, to be engaged in service to a cause — Communism, most commonly.  So the positions offered by these intellectuals were often enough not “intellectual” at all; they did not follow from the principles, ideas, and methods of the thinker, but rather derived from the position of a party or camp.  Today’s intellectuals, Julliard suggests, are interested in ideas rather than ideologies.  And with this commitment they have returned to the real vocation of the intellectual:

En rompant avec l’idéologie abstraite au profit de l’universel concret, les intellectuels, du moins les plus novateurs d’entre eux, sont revenus à leur fonction essentielle : la critique sociale, et d’abord la critique de leur propre pratique. [Dispensing with abstract ideology, today’s intellectuals have returned to their essential function: social criticism, and especially criticism of their own practice.]

So Julliard’s telling of the story expresses several key points: France needs public intellectuals; there are several overlapping generations of thinkers who are filling this role (and more to come); and in fact, the decline of ideology and the rise of media and the Internet makes the voices of intellectuals more effective rather than less.  In his editorial in this issue Jean Daniel reaches a similar conclusion: “En un mot: depuis que nous n’avons plus confinace dans des idéologies, nous avons un frénétique besoin des idées. C’est-a-dire des intellectuels.” [In a word: since we no longer have confidence in ideologies, we have urgent need of ideas; which is to say, intellectuals.]

In continuing the theme, Nouvel Obs returns to the debate of 1980 by talking again with several of the young intellectuals it consulted in that year.  Pascal Bruckner, Luc Ferry, and Gilles Lipovetsky offer their perspectives on the role of ideas and intellectuals in French society from the vantage point of 2010 (link).  And there is a challenging interview-discussion with Alain Badiou and Alain Finkielkraut on communism (link).  So Nouvel Obs is doing its part — it is helping to bring to the fore debates and thinkers who can help France navigate into the twenty-first century.

There is one form of practical proof of the importance of intellectuals in contemporary France that is not so visible from the United States: the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television.  For a taste of the breadth and depth of the voices of intellectuals in French society today, consult the list of podcasts made available from radio programming at France Culture (link).  Particularly rich are Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance (link) and Repliques (link). These programs exemplify serious voices, serious debates, and nuanced and extensive discussions.

In the United States it seems that the whole issue of the public intellectual plays out differently than in France.  To begin — the great majority of the “public” have virtually no interest in or respect for academic discussions of issues.  Fox News, talk radio, and blistering political blogs fill that space.

Second, however, there is a subset of the American public that does have an appetite for more detailed and nuanced treatment of the issues that face us. has between 5 and 8 million unique readers a month; the Huffington Post logged about 10 million visitors in December, 2009; and logs about 4.5 million readers a month.  The Facebook page for “Give me some serious discussion and debate about crucial issues!” could be huge.

Looking at the question from another angle — the academic world in the United States is itself a meaningful segment of the workforce.  There are about 1.5 million post-secondary teachers (professors and lecturers) in the United States, and the majority of these have doctoral degrees.  Of these, a smaller number fall into traditional “intellectual” disciplines: English literature (74,800), Foreign literature (32,100), History (26,000), Philosophy and Religion (25,100), and Sociology (20,300), for a total of 178,300.  In engineering, mathematics, and the sciences there are another 262,600 post-secondary teachers.  (These data come from a Bureau of Labor Statistics snapshot for 2008 (link).)  So a small but meaningful proportion of the US population have advanced degrees and intellectual credentials.  They are a core segment of the audience for public intellectuals. And, of course, you don’t have to be an academic to be an intellectual.

Further, there are a host of specialists and experts on specific crises — environment, finance, globalization, war — who are called upon to comment on specific issues, and there are specialized “think tanks” that promote and disseminate research on critical public issues.  Moreover, voices like that of Bill Moyers have offered critical and nuanced perspectives on public television (link) (regrettably, now off the air).  And the United States has a number of prominent academics who speak to a broad public — Henry Louis Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Walzer, and James Gustave Speth, to name a few.  So there is a domain of intellectual discourse that succeeds in escaping the confines of the academic world and the limiting echo-chamber of cable television; this domain helps to create and feed an intellectual public.

Overall, it seems fair to say that public intellectuals have little influence on public opinion and public policy in the US today.  Perhaps Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) still has a lot of validity.  But maybe, just maybe, it is also possible that the Internet is beginning to offer a bigger footprint for serious analysis and criticism for the American public and American policy makers.  Perhaps there is a broadening opportunity for intellectuals to help define the future for the United States and its role in the world.  And perhaps we can be more like France in this important dimension.

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