Daniel Drezner's article on public intellectuals and blogs was recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In this article he bemoans the idea that public intellectuals are no longer in existence. More often than not, the internet is pointed at with an icy finger as the culprit in the demise of the public intellectual. Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, is a good example. The general thesis is that good, intelligent commentary and discourse is lost amongst the immature, uneducated masses composing blogs, webpages, and facebook pages. However, the underlying assumption is that traditional media and publishing outlets (books and magazines) are somehow superior and conceal no hidden agenda or bias. Mother Jones is still published in print and the bias is quite obvious.
The argument becomes misguided when the focus becomes the disease of the internet. The real argument should focus on the definition of a public intellectual. As Dezner points out, a public intellectual is someone who writes serious-but-accessible-essays on ideas, culture, and society. I believe most critics forget the public part of public intellectual. When social and intellectual curmudgeons bemoan the lack of public intellectuals they really mean private intellectuals with wider distribution: someone affiliated with a university, publishing in an academic press or journal. However, these works are often written for fellow scholars and the discourse is narrowly focused and inaccessible to the uninitiated. Hence, the public does not read these works (even when the ideas are great and in need of wider dissemination).
The turf war is over intellectual territory. Intellectuals writing for the masses with jargon-free prose but unaffiliated with universities find the internet (blogs in particular) to be the easiest and best form to disseminate their ideas to the masses. Moreover, you don't need a pricey subscription to access the information. Private intellectuals (those affiliated with universities) largely disdain amateurs writing on their topics and won't play on their turf (the internet). Why would they? The history of scholastic publishing is well documented in the university and they hold the monopoly. However, Drezner points out that even academics in the ivory tower have something to gain from blogging:
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.So what do you think? Do you think the internet (blogs in particular) continues to erode the idea of a public intellectual or does it define him/her?