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Speculative Diction

“Public Intellectuals”: A Losing Game


For some reason, in the last few months I’ve seen a number of articles and blog posts about the nature of “public intellectuals” – how to define the term, to whom it applies, and of course, the long-running series of “critiques” that discuss the failure of public intellectuals and what contributes to it. Maybe I’m just more attuned to the topic because I worked on the Public Intellectuals Project for a year. Or maybe it’s the fact that, uncomfortably, I started to hear the term being applied to me – and I had to ask myself why I wasn’t exactly happy about it.

There are plenty of people who have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what it means to be an “intellectual”, and/or a “public” one. I’m not one of those people, so (ironically) I can’t claim that expertise; for me the issue has come up only through practice, not theory. But the use (and abuse) of the term “public intellectual” reveals much about the attitudes people hold towards it and whatever concept it represents to them. I’ve seen it placed in the same category, or conflated with, terms like “pundit”, “guru”, “talking head”, and “celebrity”. These refer not only to a type of public figure, but to one who may be viewed as a self-proclaimed expert. Often these references mock the assumed self-importance that must surely accompany not only the willingness to be “public”, but also to take on “intellectual” as a public persona.

According to their critics (for an example, try this article by Omer Aziz), public intellectuals have supposedly “failed” or “died out”, and there are two popular arguments about why this has happened. The first, most common argument – set out by Russell Jacoby and re-articulated repeatedly since then – blames the university and the professionalization of academe. Increased specialization is the culprit here, and the academic system that rewards those who tailor their work to others in the field for purposes of professional advancement, rather than to audiences beyond it. The meaning of “public” in this equation, tends to mean “non-specialist audiences” or more broadly, “outside the university”. In truth, academic culture in general implicitly encourages a low regard for those who work in the “public” eye, which is connected to the assumption that communicating with non-specialist audiences means “dumbing down” one’s message. This is part of why, in spite of the push for more “engagement” with publics beyond academe, these activities are not professionally recognised in the same way as more traditional activities like peer-reviewed publications.

The second reason for the “death” of public intellectuals is of course the Internet, which has polluted the pure pool of intellect with the corruption of superficial self-promotion, and…wait a second, I thought being “public” meant we were “impure” anyway? And since when was academe free of self-promotion? As you can see, there are plenty of contradictions here. Yet the Internet is feared and loathed as the catalyst that allows almost any person to speak out on any topic (though whether and how they are “heard” is a whole other issue). It offers us no traditional filtration system for determining who is a “real” intellectual and who isn’t, who has the “right” to speak and who doesn’t. Never mind that this also provides the opportunity – which some must see as a threat – for new voices to be heard, those of folks who’ve traditionally been shut out of “public intellectualism” and who may now have the opportunity of showing why they have every right to take on that role. Call me naive, but given the excellent articles I see appearing daily not just in mainstream publications but also on blogs, the picture looks far more complex than “the Internet corrupts intellectual life”. I think what we could and should be asking is not “who has the right” to be called a public intellectual in the age of the Internet, but which ideas (and individuals) seem to gain significant currency in this new context – and why.

I think underlying much of the criticism is a projection of desire and expectation, the hope that such a public figure will take on the tasks, and risks, that we ourselves cannot (or will not). At the same time there is skepticism and resentment, that the attention is directed at a particular individual – do they “deserve” the weight given to their words? How do we know? Why should they be the ones to whom we listen? What should they be allowed to say – should they stick to their areas of expertise, or provide commentary on other issues as well?

Generally, the articles that bemoan the “death” or “failure” of public intellectuals also include the author’s chosen examples of those who have succeeded. Those examples are telling – as is the fact that the “public intellectual” must be anointed by others, never self-described. Indeed, in some of the articles I have read, there is a sort of pining for a lost world of “real” intellectual selflessness, for the “generations of writers and thinkers for whom the demands of either the university or mass media were a minor concern, if even that”. How interesting that this era seems to coincide with the one wherein such activity tended to be institutionally limited to a homogenous intellectual elite of white males, in spite of so many others who have made significant contributions both then and since.

And yet I think all that I’ve said above provides us an explanation as to why many who would seem to belong in this category, and who have indeed been consigned to it, seem to reject the term or claim it doesn’t apply to them. It’s because once you’ve been labelled, there’s no winning: you can’t self-identify as a “public intellectual”, or you’re automatically either shot down, accused of “failure” to achieve unwieldy political goals, or simply assumed unworthy of the title. But if someone else describes you as such, can you accept the description without being seen as a “tool”? I wonder if this is why, as Andrew Potter discusses, there were some key figures (such as David Suzuki) who weren’t willing to include themselves in a recent book on Canadian public intellectuals. But in his review Potter makes a good point, which is that there’s no going back to the “golden age” so often invoked by critics – and that this isn’t a bad thing.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Richard / June 28, 2017 at 15:26

    Footnote of a question but… you say, “…because I worked on the Public Intellectuals Project for a year…”

    Whatever happened to that “project” ( Lots of old articles but nothing new in years… or is the new repository:


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