Just Above Sunset
September 19, 2004: If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?













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This is about intellectuals, the thinkers, and not necessarily the doers.

As a warm-up, some comments from others -

"I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches."
- Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist (“The Incredible Lightness of Being” and others) who a decade ago moved to Paris, learned French well, and now writes his novels in French, not his native Czech.  A show off?  A toothache undermines the premises of Cartesian epistemology?

"There's always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side."
- Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident playwright who seems still amazed that he became the leader of the country at the end of the Cold War.  He thinks winning undermines his credibility as a thinker?

"I've never been an intellectual but I have this look."
- Woody Allen (in Manhattan that will do)

"Humanity I love you because when you're hard up you pawn your intelligence to buy a drink."
e.e. cummings

It unfair to discuss a book before its release but consider this:

Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?
Subtitle: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
Frank Furedi
Continuum Books
Publication Date: November 1, 2004
ISBN: 0826467695
160 Pages
$19.95 (hardcover)

The publisher’s blurb -

 

The intellectual is an endangered species. In place of such figures as Bertrand Russell, Raymond Williams or Hannah Arendt – people with genuine learning, breadth of vision and a concern for public issues – we now have only facile pundits, think-tank apologists, and spin-doctors. In the age of the knowledge economy, we have somehow managed to combine the widest ever participation in higher education with the most dumbed-down of cultures.

In this urgent and passionate book, Frank Furedi explains the essential contribution of intellectuals both to culture and to democracy – and why we need to recreate a public sphere in which intellectuals and the general public can talk to each other again.

 

We need to do that? Don’t tell anyone. The general public will run for the doors.

Of course, what with Just Above Sunset and the daily web log As seen from Just Above Sunset, I suppose I fall under the heading of Facile Pundit, if that.  Or maybe I’m a Spin Doctor.  Whatever.  I don’t suppose I count as an intellectual.

But Furedi’s table of contents in amusing:

 

Introduction: A personal journey through the land of the philistines
Chapter 1: Devaluing the Intellect
Chapter 2: Trivial Pursuits
Chapter 3: Dumbing Down
Chapter 4: Social Engineering
Chapter 5: The Culture of Flattery
Chapter 6: Treating People as Children

 

These topics have come up here. I  shall track down the book as soon as I can.  Maybe I can claim I’m an intellectual if I read it.  I don’t look at all like Woody Allen so I do need some help.

The book has been released in the UK and Terry Eagleton, the author of the ever popular The English Novel: An Introduction (Blackwell) has an amusing review of this Furedi book in the current issues of The New Statesman.

Eagleton opens with a reference to music I don’t know (shame on me!) but I get the general idea.

 

The spooky music of Mastermind says it all. Intellectuals are weird, creepy creatures, akin to aliens in their clinical detachment from the everyday human world. Yet you can also see them as just the opposite. If they are feared as sinisterly cerebral, they are also pitied as bumbling figures who wear their underpants back to front, harmless eccentrics who know the value of everything and the price of nothing. Alternatively, you can reject both viewpoints and see intellectuals as neither dispassionate nor ineffectual, denouncing them instead as the kind of dangerously partisan ideologues who were responsible for the French and Bolshevik revolutions. Their problem is fanaticism, not frigidity. Whichever way they turn, the intelligentsia get it in the neck.

 

Oh woe is me, Terry seems to be saying.

But that’s the way it is. The 1964 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction went to Richard Hofstadter for his Anti-intellectualism in American Life, laying out how it has always been so on this side of the pond, from Colonial times to now.  (Order a copy here and you too can feel put upon and misunderstood.)

Eagleton says the classical intellectual, “in the heroic mould of Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt,” seems to have shut up shop.  We did inherit the idea of the intellectual from the 18th-century Enlightenment – all that stuff about truth, universality and objectivity – and those days are long gone.  These days? – all that stuff is suspect.  And Furedi seems to be asserting that these were formerly a problem for the political right.  Hey, if you’re going to appeal to prejudice, hierarchy and custom, then truth, universality and objectivity are not useful concepts at all.  But now the left doesn’t like these concepts either.  Odd that this happened, isn’t it?

Eagleton on why there is now no one around like Sartre, Fanon and Arendt (my emphases) -

 

In the age of Sontag, Said, Williams and Chomsky, whole sectors of the left behave as though these men and women were no longer possible. Soon, no doubt, they will take to imitating the nervous tic by which the right ritually inserts the expression "so-called" before the word "intellectual". Right-wingers do this because they imagine that "intellectual" means "frightfully clever", a compliment they are naturally reluctant to pay to their opponents. In fact, there are dim-witted intellectuals just as there are incompetent chefs. The word "intellectual" is a job description, not a commendation.

One mark of the classical intellectual (more recently dubbed a "theorist") was that he or she refused to be pinned to a single discipline. Instead, the idea was to bring ideas critically to bear on social life as a whole.

… In fact, a snap definition of an intellectual would be "more or less the opposite of an academic". Once society is considered too complex to be known as a whole, however, the idea of truth yields to both specialism and relativism. Because you can now know only your own neck of the woods, the general critique as launched by the conventional intellectual collapses. There is no longer any big picture, a fact for which our rulers are profoundly grateful. And given that anyone's view is now as good as anyone else's, the authority which underpinned that critique is downsized along with it. To suggest that your anti-racist convictions are somehow superior to my anti-Semitic ones comes to sound intolerably elitist.

 

Ah, so no one really knows anything much these days.  There is no big picture.

But we do value knowledge.  People still trot off top graduate schools and the economy depends on a core group of folks who know lots of stuff – management theory, complex computer systems, logistics and distribution, probability and chaos theory as it applies to the trading of financial derivatives, and automobile and aircraft and satellite design.  We live is a “knowledge economy” after all.

But there is a catch -

 

A society obsessed with the knowledge economy, Furedi argues, is oddly wary of knowledge. This is because truth is no longer precious for its own sake.
… At an earlier stage of capitalism, knowledge was not so vital for economic production; once it becomes so, it turns into a commodity, while critical intellectuals turn into submissive social engineers. Now, knowledge is valuable only when it can be used as an instrument for something else: social cohesion, political control, economic production. In a brilliant insight, Furedi claims that this instrumental downgrading of knowledge is just the flip side of postmodern irrationalism. The mystical and the managerial are secretly in cahoots.

 

Huh?  I’ll have to think about that last comment – but not too hard.   When intellectualism became useful it became useless?

Eagleton explain this, as I understand him, by saying we’re short on critical intellectuals – as “thinkers” became “experts” and, in general, culture and education “lapse into forms of social therapy.”

 

The promotion of ideas plays second fiddle to the provision of services. Art and culture become substitute forms of cohesion, participation and self-esteem in a deeply divided society. Culture is deployed to make us feel good about ourselves, rather than to tackle the causes of those divisions, implying that social exclusion is simply a psychological affair. That to feel bad about ourselves is the first step towards transforming our situation is thus neatly sidestepped. What matters is not the quality of the activity, but whether it gets people off the streets. Extravagant justifications for culture are piously touted: it can cure crime, promote social bonding, pump up self-assurance, even tackle Aids. It helps to heal conflict and create community - a case, ironically, dear to the heart of that bogeyman of the anti-elitists, Matthew Arnold. As Furedi points out, art can indeed have profound social effects; but it rarely does so when its value as art is so airily set aside.

 

Well, people do want what the do to be useful – we are a utilitarian lot.  Art for art’s sake?  That doesn’t pay the bills or make us feel better.

And what about education these days?  As a former teacher of the useless – English and music – I found this amusing -

 

The feel-good factor flourishes in education as well. University academics are discouraged from fostering adversarial debate, in case it should hurt someone's feelings. Why indulge in it anyway, if what matters is not truth but self-expression? "Student-centred learning" assumes that the student's "personal experience" is to be revered rather than challenged. People are to be comforted rather than confronted. In what one American sociologist has termed the McDonaldisation of the universities, students are redefined as consumers of services rather than junior partners in a public service. This phoney populism, as Furedi points out, is in fact a thinly veiled paternalism, assuming as it does that ordinary men and women aren't up to having their experience questioned. Rigorous discriminations are branded as "elitist" - an elitist attitude in itself, given that ordinary people have always fiercely argued the toss over the relative merits of everything from films to football clubs. Meanwhile, libraries try frantically not to look like libraries, or to let slip intimidatingly elitist words such as "book".

 

Ouch!  Too true.  Did I worry too much about my students’ self-esteem?  Perhaps I should have undermined it by making them intellectually uncomfortable.  Well, actually I did some of that too.

What a mess.  We need to identify how we got to this sorry state, where thinking the uncomfortable and challenging each other is a social taboo.

It seems Furedi does not see “market forces or the growth of professionalism as the chief villains in this sorry story.”  The problem is the politics of inclusion – seeing a virtue in everyone agreeing without much examination of just what it is to which they are agreeing.  Can’t we all just get along?

Some of us say no.  That does not necessarily make us intellectuals, but it’s a start.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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