January 8, 2008


Big Brains, Small Impact: 20 years ago, the author chided his peers for their academic insularity. They roared in outrage. Of course, no one heard them. (RUSSELL JACOBY, 1/11/08, The Chronicle Review)

Twenty years ago, I published The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, which put into circulation the term "public intellectual." I offered a generational explanation for what I saw as the eclipse of younger intellectuals. Why in 1987 had the same intellectuals dominated for more than 20 years, with few new faces among them? Why was it that the Daniel Bells or Gore Vidals or Kenneth Galbraiths seemed to lack successors? Professionalization and academization appeared to be the reason. Younger intellectuals were retreating into specialized and cloistered environments.

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. [...]

Perhaps beyond the stage lights, a new group of younger intellectuals has taken shape. That is what one of my angrier critics, the New York-based freelancer Rick Perlstein claims. "A well-stroked three-wood aimed out my Brooklyn window could easily hit half a dozen" bright, talented, gutsy public intellectuals, he claims. But who are they? He doesn't say.

Even during their heyday, intellectuals recognized that Americans held them in contempt, and that was before the bill came due for several decades of rule by intellectuals. Given the spectacular success of the return to governance by the Stupid thirty years ago, it's little wonder that no one even knows who the new intellectuals are, nor cares.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2008 2:58 PM

Aiming golf balls at intellectuals is one of the better ideas Mr. Perlstein has had in a long time.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at January 9, 2008 4:40 AM

You think his aim with a golf club is better than his aim as a commentator of the passing scene. A jerk is a jerk is a ...

Posted by: erp at January 9, 2008 9:48 AM