Avidly is running a selection of pieces on public intellectualism and the public commons this week. Today they published the first: an essay by Paul Erickson that raises a number of worthy questions, from the role of the public intellectual, to the preferred mediums for said intellectual, and finally what constitutes acceptable content for a public intellectual to weigh in on. An excerpt from the essay is below.
Scholars are in the word business. Even people who don’t work primarily with textual materials—architectural historians, say—generally get their ideas across through writing. So when scholars make an effort to reach beyond the academy to broader audiences, writing is generally how they go about it. But maybe writing about history and culture—or, rather, expecting that we can capture the full range of historic or contemporary experience in words—is precisely the wrong way for “public intellectuals” to engage with a broader public. When we talk about a public “commons,” we often envision a zone of communication—of speaking and writing—rather than of action. Historian Rhys Isaac, fusing approaches of symbolic anthropology, material culture, and cultural history in his account of eighteenth-century cultural change, showed that what we do can communicate far more powerfully thanwhat we read or write: “In highly literate milieus the assumption is unquestioned that significant communication is conveyed by words, especially by written words, and above all by printed words. Yet one may ask: How many people in our own society—among the elite even—arrive at articulate verbal statements of the meaning of their own lives?” If there is a desire for public intellectuals to communicate important ideas more effectively to a broader range of people, perhaps it’s time to think about other ways for that communication to happen than by putting words on a page.
The past year has offered a series of public conversations that touch in telling ways on the role of the public intellectual in the twenty-first century and what the public space for common discussion might look like, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ anointing of Melissa Harris-Perry as “America’s foremost public intellectual” in January 2014 to the kerfuffle over Nicholas Kristof’s maunderings in the New York Times in February over professors’ lack of relevance to contemporary concerns. Both Coates and Kristof stressed the importance of avoiding “dead language or tortured abstractions,” but beyond the level of style, their visions for what a public intellectual should be asked to do and what the role’s qualifications are differed sharply. For Coates, Perry’s academic credentials combined with the accessibility of her material and the size of audience make her a public intellectual. Kristof chose a much stranger exemplar of the type of public intellectual he wants to see—the Cold War-era spymaster and Ivy League wunderkind McGeorge Bundy. For Kristof, though, it was precisely Bundy’s lack of traditional academic credentials that qualified him as a public intellectual—his voice was free from the strictures imposed by academic training, which enabled him to weigh in on policy decisions and other “real-world” events.
But why are issues of policy the issues that public intellectuals should be talking about? In particular, why do conversations in these public spaces so often deal with political issues, and so rarely with questions of cultural production? The success of Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of “12 Years a Slave” at the Oscars is remarkable for many reasons, not least because it may be the only instance of a director of the film that had just won the Academy Award for Best Picture mentioning a historian in an acceptance speech. During the movie’s successful Oscar campaign we became familiar with the story of how Solomon Northup’s narrative of his abduction and enslavement was returned to print and verified as true through the single-minded, life-long dedication of Sue Eakin, a historian at Louisiana State University-Alexandria, who made Northup’s narrative her life’s work. Eakin worked as a journalist for many years, returned to graduate school at 42, and earned her Ph.D. at 60, but her career with Northup’s narrative began when she first encountered the book as a 12-year-old girl in the library of a Louisiana plantation house. As depicted in Steve McQueen’s film, Northup’s description of the horrors of slavery has prompted another round of discussions about both race in America and the continued practice of slavery around the world. Which are both good things. But they also point to a gap in what public intellectuals are asked (or expected) to contribute to the public commons. There is an expectation that public intellectuals speaking in public spaces to a general audience should be trying to address questions of politics or policy. The expectation that public intellectuals should operate a sort of “classroom” where Americans can go to learn about racial politics or the Arab Spring quite narrowly circumscribes the issues that public intellectuals are permitted to discuss, and effectively asks professors to do the same things that they already do—teach and write—just in shorter formats, and without so many big words.
(Have you heard? Avidly has joined LARB’s new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include the websites Marginalia, Boom, along with Avidly — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books.)