Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vanishing Act

The history of the public intellectual is an unfortunate, albeit interesting tale that reads much like a tragedy. Perhaps one of the best narrators of this story is Russell Jacoby, author of “The Last Intellectual”. In Jacoby’s narrative, it is asserted that once upon a time the “landscape of the American mind” was occupied by a species of independent freelance thinkers who practiced social and cultural criticism in a fiercely unfettered manner. Because such thinking was communicated in an unembellished and straightforward manner and was additionally highly accessible to the general public, public intellectuals garnered a large audience and continued to prosper well into the 20th century. As the golden years of the 1950’s came to a close, an alarming change occurred with the ushering in of 1960’s and 1970’s. Consensus between individuals dissolved, “proliferating theoretical schemata” occurred, and the guiding light of one’s elders was no longer followed. It was at this critical time that Jacoby contended “smart young people decided not to write well” and began to employ jargon in their conversations and publications. As these public intellectuals built their careers, they began to solely seek tenure and talked only to one another while “construing their own texts as radically democratic in spirit and subversive of the established order.” As this shift took place, Jacoby avers that something disappeared from American discourse and the “give-and-take” of serious discussion was damaged. Although ideas still circulated, they only did so in narrow channels, fostering an unhealthy environment in which the publics critical intelligence was enfeebled. Public intellectuals retreated and essentially became inbred, thus robbing the general public of the ability to interact, converse, and learn from them.

The validity of Jacoby’s tale can be affirmed by simply taking a closer look at modern day American society. The concept of a public intellectual is not one that is familiar to many who do not bear the title, evidence of its fleeting significance and import. Before public intellectuals can effectively reestablish themselves in the minds of the public, a solid foundation on which an understanding of the public intellectual will be constructed must be established. By answering the basic fundamental questions of "who?" and "what?" the framework for such a foundation can be laid. Who is a public intellectual? Who are public intellectuals talking to? What is the role of the public intellectual in the greater world? What must a public intellectual do to fulfill this role?

Defining who qualifies as a public intellectual is a daunting task, as the question is highly subjective and produces an infinite number of answers, each of which is legitimate in its own right. Although I personally believe that an intellectual is anyone who considers himself or herself to have intelligence on any issue which he or she happens to take interest in, it appears that a large number of individuals (many self-perceived public intellectuals themselves) have put intellectuals on a higher pedestal by severely narrowing & tailoring the definition in a seemingly elitist measure made to separate the sophisticated intellectuals from the “rest” of apparently unintelligent society.

Deciding what makes a public intellectual public is yet another difficult question to address. Through the use of deductive reasoning, I have come up with my own definition of public.
“Public” infers that something is not “private.” In order to make something not private, it must be seen by an individual other than the original producer or author of thought. Keeping these two fundamental truths in mind, I found it safe to assume that an intellectual officially becomes public when he or she shares his thoughts, ideas, or works with any person or groups of persons other than him or herself.

Although the debate concerning the definition of the term “the public intellectual” could go on for all eternity, I have chosen to forgo my own personal definition and apply Ralph Waldo Emerson’s widely accepted characterization of a public intellectual to Jacoby’s tragic tale in hopes of arriving at a possible explanation for why the disappearance has, and is, occurring in America.

In the great essay “The American Scholar” Emerson pondered the meaning and purpose of the public intellectual before concluding that a public intellectual is an individual who recognizes the important of the past, yet is able to free his thoughts from the box which history creates. In doing this, Emerson's intellectual is not only able to “preserve great thoughts of the past” bought communicate them and utilize them as a springboard for new ideas. As these new thoughts are formulated, Emerson’s public intellectual not only shares them with fellow intellectuals, but communicates them to the world out of an obligation to oneself. The presentation of a public intellectuals material to the public is essential, as Emerson contends that an intellectual “can be relatively ineffective on a widespread scale regardless of the level of their expertise or knowledge."

Taking Emerson’s definition into consideration in the context Jacoby’s story, it can be concluded that both the public intellectual and the general public are mutually responsible the public intellectuals alleged disappearance. As Jacoby stated, following the 1950’s people began turning deaf ears to the works of public intellectuals, thus prompting public intellectuals to seek recluse and only share the fruits of their knowledge and work with one another. In doing so, the public intellectual became less “public” and in essence, became more of a “private intellectual.” Therefore, the public did not necessarily entirely disappear from society altogether, but rather transformed into something else completely?

So who is to blame for starting the vicious cycle of the public not listening and the public intellectual subsequently transforming and disappearing?

In the essay entitled “Wicked Paradox: The Cleric as Public Intellectual” Stephen Mack, a professor and scholar hailing from the University of Southern California, stated that “The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.” Upon analyzing this statement I was able to arrive at an answer to the aforementioned question-the demise of the public intellectual was not instigated by the public, but by public intellectuals themselves. Because public intellectuals allegedly possess knowledge superior to non-public intellectuals it is safe to assume that part of this knowledge would entail recognizing the greater ultimate significance of one's work, even if no one else recognizes it or appears to care about at a particular moment in time. This has not been the case, as the egos of public intellectuals became bruised when people appeared to start not caring, prompting them to draw back from mainstream society and consequently starting the vicious cycle of their demise.

Until the public intellectual can stop licking their wounded egos and re-expose themselves and their works to the public, their relative extinction is inevitable. And self-extinction, well, that's not so intelligent.

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