Public Intellectuals

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I attended a poetry reading by Bruce Andrews, one of the founding members of the language poetry movement (sometimes written as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E). Afterwards, I went to a dinner with him, my advisor, another graduate student, and a visiting scholar. I learned that, in addition to his years of poetry-writing, he had a career as a political scientist. I mentioned that I was a fan of the idea of doing work as a public intellectual, and we kind of dove into a conversation about whether such a thing as a “public intellectual” was a good idea, or even a possible. What exactly does it mean to say that you are a public intellectual? Do scholars abuse their status as academics if they begin talking about topics which do not belong in their areas of specialization?

I suppose one theory of the public intellectual takes as its foundation a notion that intellectuals in one area or discipline have some sort of generalized cognitive capacities which enable them to make arguments about topics outside the domain of their official specialization. This, I think, is clearly faulty reasoning. Someone like Steven Pinker comes to mind: his book, The Blank Slate, whatever its virtues, has an awful chapter on literature and the arts. Really amazingly bad. So I would agree that being good in X doesn’t mean that you’re good at Y. But it doesn’t follow that a scholar cannot justifyably write for the public about those domains which he or she happens to know well; moreover, I think every person has an obligation to speak as a citizen: that even intellectuals have the right to give their opinions on matters of significance, or on any matters, really. The issue becomes then whether people give more credit to intellectuals because of their accreditation. I think that this isn’t a real problem, most of the time.

I, for one, am very committed to the idea of writing (if not FOR the public [because I find it kind of condescending to say that you’re writing for anything or anyone, as if one had the sense of edifying the ignorant masses] then) IN and WITH the public (which suggests what is obvious: we all live in the same world and have an interest in what happens in it). This, I think, is entirely appropriate, worthwhile, and–in fact–a duty for anyone who takes engaging with the world seriously. I want to write both about my area of specialization (late twentieth century literature and cultural production) and other things that I’m interested (politics, mainly). However, I don’t take the label “intellectual” very seriously–least of all for myself–but it’s a good word for describing people who happen to make their livings in univeristy-type jobs.