Public Intellectuals vs. The Public

by Alexander Zubatov

An intellectual disagreement, so to speak, has emerged between n+1 founder Mark Greif writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-With-Public/189921/) and Noah Berlatsky responding in the new New Republic (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121086/death-public-intellectual-what-mark-greif-essays-gets-wrong) on the subject of public intellectuals and their role. To summarize, as far as traditional public intellectuals go, Greif is in favor, while Berlatsky is against them, throwing around what is, in essence, the old charge of elitism, excluding minorities, etc.

It’s sad that the reconstituted New Republic has taken a turn toward this kind of anti-intellectualism, populism and race-baiting. Greif’s is a grand, aspirational piece, one worthy of a public intellectual and one that aims for an exalted vision of public intellectuals as those who challenge the public and its complacency instead of talking down to people or rabble-rousing. In his ill-conceived response, Berlatsky, whose main interest is, quite fittingly, comic books and comic book characters, conceives of a public intellectual — no longer to be known by that apparently too-exalted title — as sharing his own and the public’s arrested development. The public intellectual — now reduced to just one of many “writers, activists, Twitter users, and commenters” — is someone much like ourselves. He speaks to us at our level. He does not need to have a traditional academic background and might be a Ferguson activist using Twitter, a black racist feminist who created a trending hashtag or a current or former sex worker talking about issues in the trade through social media (all examples Berlatsky uses).

There are some obvious problems with this dispiriting vision. For one thing, while the kinds of public intellectuals Greif describes are people capable of escaping the confines of our cave and challenging our illusions, the people Berlatsky describes are far more superficial characters, just like the ones he’s used to seeing in comic books. They give the appearance of challenging us, but all they do is substitute a complacency of the left for a complacency of the right or center. Activism has its place, no doubt, but does screaming and yelling to us about Ferguson and the like really make us think about something we previously haven’t considered, make us go deeper or think more broadly than we are used to thinking in some fundamental way? The public intellectual, in other words, has — or should have — a unique social function that is not fungible with that of an activist or a blogging sex worker. The public intellectual should KNOW something we don’t, should be an EXPERT in a serious domain of intellectual endeavor and should be able to bring to bear the force of his or her wide-ranging interests and tremendous intellectual powers upon that topic in order to engage with us and transform us. Without this function being performed, our public culture will continue being dumbed down even more than it currently is. We will have people mirroring our own ideas back to us instead of challenging those ideas.

The other major problem with Berlatsky’s piece in which he suggests that, “[r]ather than calling on public intellectuals to elevate an aspiring public … or bringing big ideas to an eager public, what we need, perhaps, is a world in which the Partisan Review and its galaxy of intellectual brilliance brings its ideas out, and is greeted by a public that can talk back, and offer its own ideas, commentary, and theories, in terms just as scintillating” is that this lack of a sharp distinction between the public and public intellectuals makes all truth and light vanish in a sea of static. To quote my own piece from the Montreal Review which addresses some of these issues from a much broader — and, dare I say it, more intellectual — perspective (http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/The-Advent-of-Virtual-Realism.php), “[w]e are now all potentially sources of information; all of us are speaking, and hardly anyone is listening.” When, in other words, you eliminate all distinctions of status, intellect, professionalism or learning between the speaker and the listener, you eviscerate the distinction between the speaker and the listener; the listener, then, no longer has any compelling reason to listen to the speaker. Everyone is chattering and twittering, but no one is paying much attention. Or, worse, as my Montreal Review piece describes, when we no longer have the veil of professionalism or intellect maintained between the public intellectual and the public, what happens is that the extent to which anyone is heard by anyone else is dictated through a sheer popularity contest, not by someone’s ability to command ideas and information, but rather, by their ability to command social media streams or, worse still, by political parties or corporate actors using their market power to utilize social media to send us disinformation. That is the logical outcome of Berlatsky’s argument. The system of public intellectuals, in other words, has many flaws, but I will take those flaws any day over the possibility that our public dialogue will merely mirror us back to ourselves or be controlled by the market and those who dominate it.

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Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, drama, essays and polemics. In the words of one of his intellectual heroes, José Ortega y Gasset, biography is “a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified.”

Some of his articles have appeared in The Hedgehog Review, The Montreal Review, The Fortnightly Review, New English Review, Culture Wars and nthposition.

He makes occasional, unscheduled appearances on Twitter (https://twitter.com/Zoobahtov).

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