Thursday, August 03, 2006


As I have pointed out before in this very blog, I am quite interested in the issue of the public intellectual. In particular, I find it frustrating that discussions of the public intellectual so often involve the same basic themes. To a great extent, the debate about public intellectuals (since Russell Jacoby's 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals) has involved a persistent attention to features of professionalism. Most of us are familiar with the argument that Jacoby makes. It goes something like this: it used to be that we had truly public intellectuals, but the increasing professionalization of academia has made it so that our intellectuals are our professors, and these professors have been programmed by their graduate schools so that they are totally unable to write in a clearly legible prose. Also, they're a bunch of sellouts more interested in tenure (and brandy, easy chairs, beard grooming...) than in doing anything for the public.

Well, I'm happy to say I have a lot of problems with this narrative of public intellectual decline. And whaddyaknow, I've got an article out in a recent issue of the International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics that deals with this issue. I won't re-write the article here, but I will just go over the big point: little can be said about the public intellectual without attending to media processes. In particular, it's worth pointing out that public intellectuals aren't all that different from journalists. And, of course, we media studies folk have said a lot (some would say too much) about journalism. Why not apply this to public intellectuals? I realize there are some differences between public intellectuals and journalists. However, when the best known definitions of 'public intellectuals' (those of Russell Jacoby and Richard A. Posner) are examined, we find that these definitions bring us closer to journalism than we might have expected.

Of course, I've got a bunch more things to say about the connections between media studies and the issue of the public intellectual. But one point worth making now is simply that a more multi-dimensional sense of the public intellectual would result from looking at how media processes have been part of the role of the intellectual for pretty much as long as the word 'intellectual' has existed (this point can be read from much of Robert Darnton's excellent work on French media history). Instead of focusing just on 'great' public intellectuals of the past, and the supposedly compromised public intellectuals of today, why not focus on the background that makes these roles possible and sustainable? Blaming professionalization in academia for the death of the public intellectual is probably part-right, but academia doesn't have as much power over who is and is not a public intellectual as, say, Time-Warner does.

I'm sure I'll return to this issue again. It's going to take a long time to work this out.


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