Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Public Intellectuals

This article at came out last year, but I only read it today. I have to say, it's one of the best pieces I've read for a while.

It's about the public intellectual - or rather, the decline of the public intellectual.

This in itself is a pretty interesting idea if you ask me. An age where think tanks are growing faster than lesions on a leper. Yet, by its own definition - disinterested public intellectual are about as common as a jackalope, and no less ersatz.

I like this piece because - beyond being well written - the author of both the article, and the original book, talk about something that rarely crops up in discussions of writing and writers: the day-to-day existence of being one, which is typically not a particularly pleasant existence especially compared to the well-compensated benefits of tenure or the comforts of a well-paid think tank gig.

There was one quote, however, which really got my attention, situated as I am (or briefly was) between these two definitions.
...publicist. It had once referred to an informed and authoritative writer on public affairs—something like wonk but with more honorable overtones. “‘Publicist,’” wrote Jacoby, “if it once connotated an engagement with the state and law, is almost obsolete, victimized by Hollywood and ‘public relations’: it now signifies someone who handles and manipulates the media, an advance or front man (or woman). A public intellectual or old-style publicist is something else, perhaps the opposite, an incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one.”

Now, I can easily see the temptation to deride this metamorphis as another cheapening blow to meaning; taking away the edenic perfection of the naked idea and adorning it with nipple tassles, twirling them for change. But I think there's more to it than that.

Publicists - in the original sense - were decoders. Analysing ideas, pulling them apart and putting them together again, interpreting for us - us being a general public with a far wider communal, public knowledge than we have today.

Publicists as we know them now are quite different. They are spruikers; touters in an intellectual - or retail - marketplace. Decoders, certainly, but for different reasons. But I don't think this changes are bad, necessarily.

Rather I would say that firstly, the contemporary marketplace for ideas is both a crowded and a neo-liberal one. Gone is the quiet agora of yesteryear, with big papers, and big radio, big tv. This has been shattered, taking with it much of that shared public knowledge (or shared consumption, at least). Secondly, there are so many ideas, so many public affairs, they need promoting.

The decoding is now already done now. I think our stories, discourses, whatever you want to call them are that much more sophisticated; they have decoded themselves. To paraphrase McLuhan, I think the message is the message.

Thus, what is effectively public has changed. We don't need decoders now, we are swimming in a sea of interpretations; the story itself - its mere existence - is an interpretation. Contrary to crotchety protests otherwise - it's not the Dead Sea, you can sink in this body of water. So we need heralds. And so, we are given the modern publicist.

I'm not defending the job of the publicist, it can be as moral or immoral as you like, but by the same token, it's a role we all play: touting the ideas we like, writing and talking in blogs, forums and newsgroups about them.

Though the author of the piece talks about over-educated, disaffected youth creating the right conditions for a new generation of public intellectuals, of publicists in the classic sense of the word, I think he has ignored the greater implications and potential of the change he discusses.

Publicists have changed, because public has changed. To communicate to the masses now is not for decoding and interpretation - they do that themselves. It's for promoting, fighting to get to the forefront.

The rigorous analysis of idea still happens, but not to the masses. Those days have gone; the masses have shrunk. And in these new, dwarven audiences - perched on the giant shoulders of thousands of ideas - we still have publicists. Dozens of them, well-educated, well-qualified and frequently disinterested, at least no more interested than a half hour at the bookends of the day will allow.

Certainly, there are the blowhards and cretins; bombastic and wasteful, but the idea of a cadre of universally well-respected public intellectuals is a nostalgic myth, as false then as it is now.

So I don't despair about these differences, they make perfect sense to me. And frankly, I think a new definition of both public and intellectual is in order. We have moved to a more egalitarian and democratic vision of both.

Does this make sense? Or am I just raving, trying to do a little decoding of my own?



At 9:41 am , Blogger Ashok said...

Just wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful comment you left on my blog! Don't know that I agree with it entirely, but that's of little consequence - the main issue is this "let's all be like the sciences! They're like cool and stuff" being respected as a serious argument when there's work to be done.

Feel free to keep in touch!


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