September 13, 2007


After The Last Intellectual: Twenty years ago this fall, Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe mourned the death of the freelance thinker and examined its fresh corpse. But did we misread Jacoby’s autopsy? (Scott McLemee, September/October 2007, Bookforum)

The Last Intellectuals did not celebrate the cultural life of the 1950s or deplore the excesses that followed. Jacoby was not arguing that there had been a golden age and a sudden fall. Neither was assigning culpability all that high on the book’s agenda. On the contrary, much of the book was devoted to saying quite the opposite. If the writers and critics working in the ’50s did not serve as models for those who came after, that was because the conditions that fostered them—affordable rent, an abundance of magazines open to certain kinds of reviewing and essay writing, and the tendency of society to produce “surplus intellectuals” unable to find employment in well-established institutions— were already disappearing. Or rather, new and altogether more comfortable circumstances were emerging.

The life of the intellectual freelancer had never been easy. It had been the product of a kind of double negation: the refusal of a refusal. Little magazines, avant-garde sects, and other marginal niches had operated by a certain cultural logic—to exclude the influence of institutions established and powerful enough to reproduce their power while excluding outsiders and deviants (racial, sexual, ideological, aesthetic). There is no sense in romanticizing any of this. The existence of such institutions had always been precarious, the cost often more than economic.

Another word for independence, in such conditions, is anomie: a condition of normlessness, of radical uncertainty about the relation between means and ends, even of despair, at times, about the possibility of coming to any solid notion of what “means” and “ends” might be. And this exacts its psychic toll. One can now find any number of nostalgia-infused accounts of the New York Intellectuals—those legendary champions of modernist aesthetics, anti-Stalinist politics, and polemical brilliance. But it might be worth keeping in mind other reminiscences, other stories, like that of the party in Greenwich Village at which two intellectuals got into a shouting match, with one accusing the other of doing nothing but imitating Dostoyevsky. The accused, simmering with rage, pulled out a book of matches and tried to set his own hair on fire, at least until his friends made him stop. The moral: It wasn’t all incisive essay writing and dialectical knife juggling. Bohemia can be fun if you have money; otherwise, it is hard on the nerves. But by the 1950s, something was starting to change. The possibility of being an independent (and/or anomic) intellectual had been deeply conditioned by the necessity, for many such people, of working in marginal circumstances.

Certainly, this did not happen overnight. Bit by bit, though, jobs and chances for publication were opening up, and the effect was bewildering. A sense that the critical edge was disappearing from American intellectual life was already acute by 1954, when Irving Howe published a long essay in Partisan Review called “This Age of Conformity.” It sketches the incipient form of those tendencies that Jacoby would treat as having reached their consummation by the time he was writing The Last Intellectuals:

The kind of society that has been emerging in the West, a society in which bureaucratic controls are imposed upon (but not fundamentally against) an interplay of private interests, has need for intellectuals in a way that earlier, “traditional” capitalism never did. It is a society in which ideology plays an unprecedented part: as social relations become more abstract and elusive, the human object is bound to the state with ideological slogans and abstractions—and for this chore intellectuals are indispensable; no one else can do the job as well. Because industrialism grants large quantities of leisure time without any creative sense of how to employ it, there springs up a vast new industry that must be staffed by intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals: the industry of mass culture. And because the state subsidizes mass education and our uneasy prosperity allows additional millions to gain a “higher” education, many new jobs suddenly become available in the academy: some fall to intellectuals.

Howe knew about this process firsthand. It wasn’t just that he had gone from marginal journals like Commentary and Partisan Review to more mainstream magazines; rather, he’d started out in the 1940s by contributing to esoteric publications of the Trotskyist left, so that even writing literary criticism for such a nonrevolutionary venue as PR must have seemed to him, at times, like embourgeoisement itself.

It hardly seems coincidental that Intellectualism, which Richard Hofstadter correctly noted Americans have always been hostile towards, had its heyday at the height of Communist funding of activities here and died out with the rise of congressional anti-Communist investigations.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2007 7:06 AM

Bohemia can be fun if you have money Wow! I wish I had said that. It's also absolutely true that lots of radical academics and professional rabble rousers are trust fund babies too or are financed by them.

Posted by: erp at September 13, 2007 8:16 AM