Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Where Have The Intellectuals Gone?

An article by Russle Jacoby about the Decline of Public Intellectuals:.

Earlier 20th-century thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson kept the university and its apparatus at arm's length. Indeed, they often disdained it. They oriented themselves toward an educated public, and, as a result, they developed a straightforward prose and gained a nonprofessional audience. As his reputation grew, Wilson printed up a postcard that he sent to those who requested his services. On it he checked the appropriate box: Edmund Wilson does not write articles or books on order; he does not write forewords or introductions, does not give interviews or appear on television, and does not participate in symposia.

Later intellectual generations, including, paradoxically, the rebellious 60s cohort, do give interviews; do write articles on demand; and most evidently do participate in symposia. They grew up in a much-expanded campus universe and never left its safety. Younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals. If this generation — my generation! — advanced into postmodernism, post-Marxism, and postcolonialism, where the Daniel Bells and Lewis Mumfords never trod, it did so by surrendering a public profile. It neither wanted to nor, after a while, could write accessible prose. The new thinkers became academic — not public — intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles. While a book by Edmund Wilson could be read with pleasure by an educated citizen, a volume by an academic luminary such as Homi K. Bhabha or Fredric Jameson would give him or her a headache.

He doesn't see the Internet as much of a substitute either.

3 comments:

Adam said...

How did they make a living. Presumably they didn't have to.

Art said...

Good question. Edmund Wilson was a reporter and editor for such magazines as Vanity Fair and the New Republic. These jobs probably gave him a comfortable enough living combined with his book royalties.

Maybe somebody our there has a little more Wilson knowledge.

Adam said...

All I meant to say was that it's easy to turn down tv appearances and stay out of the university if money is no factor. I think there would be far more intellectuals if it was easier to live. There is a lack of free time right now for those not in the leisure class. I know the book is probably about more than that but I probably won't read it because I'm too busy at my 9-5 day job and writing for my own tiny niche--theater.

I do wish I was able to read and think about more for more hours and I don't think I'm alone in wishing it. I wish for a time like the 60s again when cost of living was low and art was everywhere. Not that the rest of it was a picnic, but I'm just saying.