It is possible thatÂ Russell Jacoby has me dead to rights.Â In his IMHO column in the Chronicle Review, dated January 11, 2008 (“Big Brains, Small Impact“), Jacoby reflects on the 20 years since the publication of his book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.Â In sum, despite sometimes fair criticism, Jacoby stands by his thesis that professionalization and academization have marginalized younger intellectuals, making the rise of any “public intellectual” next to impossible.
I think his analysis has some merit, but there have been “public intellectuals” since Mumford and Wilson who have also held academic posts.Â Richard Rorty, Tariq Ramadan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida (all right, those French guys can be difficult…), Richard Dawkins, Karen Armstrong, Jurgen Habermas (okay, also sometimes difficult), Noam Chomsky…didn’t Prospect Magazine ask us our opinion about the most important public intellectuals (more than 100 of them) back in 2005?Â
Anyway, in this piece Jacoby offers this wry analysis of the much ballyhooed preponderance of leftists in academia:
Yet let us accept, for the moment, the argument that humanities departments house more leftists than Home Depot or the police department. Shouldn’t this be something that conservatives celebrate, not decry? Doesn’t this mean that the system works elegantly, not poorly? Are these professors the successors to the last generation of intellectuals? If so, society has successfully insulated them. They inhabit a protected environment where they can neither harm each other nor reach outsiders. As academic intellectuals subvert paradigms and deconstruct narratives in campus symposia, conservatives take over the nation. Brilliant!
More painful are his observations concerning the blogosphere:
[…] the Internet has altered cultural realities. Writers â€” including professors â€” can escape censorious editors and referees by establishing their own blogs. The Internet gives anyone an electronic pulpit. All ideas are game. The old-fashioned intellectual writing a book or an essay may be as outdated as a horse and buggy. […]
In the United States, however, blogs are not so much about challenging an authoritarian state [as in, say, China or Myanmar] as about adding to the cacophony. Blogs may be more like private journals with megaphones than reasoned contributions to public life.
The Internet provides instant communication and quick access to vast resources, but has it altered the quality or content of intellectual discussions? Too many voices may cancel each other out. […] Ortega y Gasset’s fear almost a century ago of the “revolt of the masses” needs an update. We face a revolt of the writers. Today everyone is a blogger, but where are the readers? […] On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or “archived”), has anyone ever looked at last year’s blogs? Rapidly produced, they are just as rapidly forgotten.Â
Ouch!Â Unless, of course, bloggers (like myself) do not have pretensions to posterity…or even punditry.Â Some of us are just trying to start some conversations, even small conversations that while somewhat rapidly produced do take a little more effort than your average cocktail party banter.Â Nothing wrong with that.