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Death to the "Public Intellectual"

It's time to democratize the title

Wall Street Journal

Who gets to be a public intellectual? If you write a Facebook post with an incisive response to Mark Greif's recent discussion of public intellectuals at The Chronicle of Higher Education, are you yourself a public intellectual? And if not, why not?

The answer may seem obvious: No, writing on Facebook doesn't make you a public intellectual. But Greif's article suggests otherwise: 

Public intellect is most valuable if you don’t accept the construction of the public handed to us by current media. Intellectuals: You—we—are the public. It’s us now, us when we were children, before the orgy of learning, or us when we will be retired; you can choose the exemplary moment you like. But the public must not be anyone less smart and striving than you are, right now. It’s probably best that the imagined public even resemble the person you would like to be rather than who you are.

Greif is presenting the public intellectual as democratizing or egalitarian; the public intellectual includes all of the intellectual publics. But that democratization is, explicitly, imaginary.

The real dynamics of who is and is not a public intellectual remain fairly traditional. Greif sees public intellectuals as linked, one way or another, to the university ("it would be wise for intellectuals to stop being so ashamed of ties to universities, however tight or loose; it’s cowardly, and often irrelevant"). He also places them in the context of familiar outlets, whether the Partisan Review, his own magazine n+1, or (perhaps) The New Republic. Public intellectuals imagine themselves as part of the public, but they also separate themselves from it. The Partisan Review writers, he says "distinguished themselves from [the public] momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public." 

Greif continues, "One must simultaneously differentiate oneself from the university spiritually and embed oneself within it financially," but the spiritual differentiation seems more notional than actual. The vision here is of public intellectual as teacher, leading an eager, intelligent, but still hierarchically subordinate group of students. All the public is equal, but some public intellectuals are more equal than others.

This nostalgic vision of public intellectuals, always striving to return to the glory days of The Partisan Review, seems like a missed opportunity. Progressives, after all, are committed not just to learning from the past, but to thinking through how the past might have done better. As Jeet Heer's recent history of The New Republic and race makes clear, the hierarchical, exclusive vision of the public intellectual could often result in exclusions along all too familiar lines.

Patricia Hill Collins in her classic 1990 book Black Feminist Thought suggested that this was hardly just The New Republic's problem. Black women, she argues, have been systemically, and often systematically, excluded from the role of public intellectual—because they have been denied educational opportunities, because they have lacked leisure, and because, bluntly, racist institutions and a racist public are rarely willing to listen to their words. Therefore, black women have had to make their own intellectual tradition, sharing knowledge and developing theories among themselves, away from institutions that could disseminate it; only occasionally have black women writers, like Zora Neale Hurston and Mary McCleod Bethune, broken through to the kind of broad (and de facto white-dominated) public that The Partisan Review and Greif imagine.

Edward Baptist, in his slavery history The Half Has Never Been Told, argues that the most important intellectual contribution to the Civil War was made not by Harriet Beecher Stowe or William Lloyd Garrison, but rather by the slaves themselves. Enslaved blacks generally couldn't read or write, and had little access to "public" forums, but they talked to each other, and developed the radical doctrine that what was being done to them was not Christian or natural, but theft and torture. The few escaped and freed slaves took that analysis with them, to be picked up eventually by people like Stowe and Garrison, and became the basis for the Civil War, Civil Rights, and much of the progressive tradition in the U.S.

Public intellectuals, then, don't have to imagine a public capable of important intellectual work. That public has existed for some time—often in the teeth of, and despite the best efforts of, public intellectuals like, say, Charles Murray or Alan Bloom, who devote their efforts to restricting the bounds of who, and what, can be seen as intellectual. The difference today is that the internet and social media have made it easier for people who are not traditional "public intellectuals" to make their intellectual efforts public.

What do these nontraditional public intellectuals look like? Caroline Small, probably the single smartest writer I've been lucky enough to meet, used to contribute to my little blog, The Hooded Utilitarian. Now, her insights on art and society are mostly restricted to social media, like this searching examination of satire and empathy in Charlie Hebdo, which I got her to reprint at my site. Small is certainly doing intellectual work, and some people read what she says. But she never had a large platform and now (by choice) she has no real public outlet. She's not a public intellectual in the usual sense—but maybe that's a sign that the usual sense needs to be re-evaluated.

There are many other examples. Ferguson activist DeRay Mckesson has talked about how Twitter has served, for him, as an intellectual community, and as an outlet for public thought. Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which became a forum for discussions of issues around feminism and race—and also solidified Kendall's position as a public intellectual, whose ideas have to be confronted, despite resistance and discomfort from traditional outlets. Current and former sex workers and writers provide extensive discussions of issues around sex, sexuality, the legal system and marginalization on social media and in online spaces like Tits and Sass. Mourning the public intellectual, in this context, seems like an almost willful distraction from the huge amount of intellectual work taking place in public—intellectual work often perpetrated by folks who would never have been granted access to the pages of The Partisan Review.

I don't mean to dismiss little magazines, or bigger magazines, or the university itself. The university in particular is a hugely important resource in its support for scholarship, for libraries, and for visiting lecturers. There are many people and institutions associated with universities and traditional outlets doing public intellectual work —Public Books, The New Inquiry, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and on and on. But if we can appreciate the virtues of a traditional network of public intellectuals, we should also acknowledge the risks—insularity, self-vaunting, a fetish for credentials. It's telling that Greif concludes his essay with a call for public intellectuals "to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down 'big ideas,' and call that world what it is: stupid." His great dream for the public intellectual ends up with a schoolyard insult and a sniff. To do intellectual work means to tell other people that they're not as smart as you are. 

If that's what the public intellectual is, maybe it's time to reinvent the title—if not kill it entirely. Rather than calling on public intellectuals to elevate an aspiring public, we should imagine an intellectual public, including academics but also writers, activists, Twitter users, and commenters. Instead of a Partisan Review 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. Rather than public intellectuals telling our culture how dumb it is, maybe that intellectual public could be engaged in an effort to find out how smart a community can be.

This piece was updated to remove Melissa Gira Grant as an example of a nontraditional public intellectual. She has written for a number of prominent publications.