Where Have All The Public Intellectuals Gone

“Professors, we need you!” announces the title of a Nicholas Kristof op-ed in the NY Times. Kristof goes on to lament the dearth of public intellectuals actively informing American culture regarding “today’s great debates.” Kristof blames this regrettable state of affairs on a series of predictable culprits: tedious academic writing, pressure to publish arcane scholarship in obscure journals, and hyper-specialized areas of research with little bearing on public life.

The responses I’ve read to Kristof’s column tend to grant that Kristof, almost despite himself, has put his finger on something, but go on to explain why his analysis is mostly flawed. Take as one example Corey Robin’s lengthy response: “Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now.”

Part, but only part, of Robin’s response is to point to a host of intellectuals that would very much like to be public intellectuals and certainly have what it takes to fill that role admirably. He even speaks highly of grad students that are already making a name for themselves with timely, intelligent, well-written pieces on matters of public consequence.

And, indeed, many of us I’m sure could supplement Robin’s list of publicly engaged intellectuals. The problem as I see it is not a lack of intellectuals, it is the absence of a public.

To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that there is not an intelligent reading public that craves informed, well-crafted pieces that bear on matters of public consequence. That may also be true, but I only believe it on my more cynical days. Of course, I won’t tell you what percentage of my days those cynical ones take up.

What I do mean by saying that there is no public may be better put by saying that there is no public sphere, and I mean this from a media ecological perspective. Our media ecosystem makes it easier than ever for intellectuals to make their work public, but harder than ever to achieve the status of public intellectual, i.e. someone who is both widely known and widely respected.

Kristof may or may not have had this in mind, but we might think of a public intellectual as someone who specializes in intellectual labor and makes that labor publicly accessible. If this is what we mean by public intellectuals, then, as Robins and other have pointed out, we’re surrounded by public intellectuals. The Internet is crawling with them. We might even say of public intellectuals what Jack says of clever people in “The Importance of Being Earnest”:

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.”

But 1,000 intellectuals writing publicly may not amount to a single public intellectual in the more traditional sense that Kristof has a hankering for. The more traditional sort of public intellectual, the one who is widely known, widely respected, and influential may simply have been a function of late print culture, a techno-cultural moment when the last ripples of Enlightenment ideals of rational and civil democratic discourse reached the public through newly-minted mass media. The proliferation of media outlets–the 400+ television stations, the countless forums and blogs and Internet magazines, Twitter, etc.–spawns niche markets and this makes it quite hard for someone to get the kind of audience and across-the-board respect that the title of public intellectual seems to suggest. When there were fewer gatekeepers of public opinion, and the remnants of a cultural consensus to work with, it would’ve been easier to achieve the status of public intellectual.

I realize that last paragraph trades in big generalizations and leaves out a whole host of factors. Feel free to pick it apart. I’ll leave aside all of the Postman-esque arguments you might imagine for yourself about our entertaining ourselves to death, etc. I’ll also leave aside the fact that a good deal of academic work in a variety of disciplines has been devoted to the critique of a universal public reason that the possibility of a public intellectual assumes.

One last thought: It may be that the craving for public intellectuals is a kind of nostalgic longing for a time when we could reasonably imagine that even though we ourselves couldn’t get an intellectual grip on the complexities of modern society, out there, somewhere, there were smart people at the controls. These mythical public intellectuals we long for were those whose cultural function was to reassure us with their calm, accessible, and smart talk that people who knew what they were doing were steering the ship.[1] I suspect the unnerving truth is that the trade-off for the benefits of an unfathomably complex technological society is the disquieting reality that understanding is now beyond the reach of any intellectual, public or otherwise. 

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[1] The same function is served by the cabals of conspiracy theory dreams.