Thursday, November 13, 2008

Public Intellectual 2.0

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?

- JF


aev said...

Blogs are an excellent way to break down barriers between public/private, academia/non-academia, accessible/elite. Isn't this blog a nice mix of the two, being affiliated with a university but open to everyone?

The same discussion is being held in the publishing world right now, that technically print journals are more esteemed and, as you describe, intellectual - and that online journals are the demise of great literature. However, isn't the latter more accessible? It seems hypocritical that most of us having these conversations don't even have subscriptions to said literary journals, and read most of our fiction/essays online (or from the free, public library - hooray librarians!).

Civis said...

My opinion:

If you are looking to feed your desire for intellingent discourse on blogs, you may starve. The blososphere is overrun with brainless blowhards. Blogging seems to bring out the worst in a lot of people because of the nature of the media. A large number of good people have stopped blogging in disgust.

That said, it is no more or less difficult to find intelligent commentary than it was before the blogosphere came into existence. Generally, I don't look for it anywhere on the net other than my e-mail account--though I have high hopes for this blog.

I think then as now, a person has to read widely. In so doing, you identify good writers, identify their angles/biases and build a set of good authors and journals from various schools of thought. It's an ongoing process. You keep reading widely to keep your antenna out, but chose carefully who and what to follow closely.

Josh said...

Civis -

I certainly agree with you that one should read widely from various schools of thought. Analyzing and ingesting a diversity of opinions and viewpoints is essential for a well-rounded education.

Before the advent of the internet (and by default blogs) ideas didn't spread as quickly. This, of course, has both a bad and good element. The word of Luther's 95 theses would have spread around the world in minutes in today's world. At the same time, it may have been drowned out by Lohan's new crush circulating the internet at an even faster rate.

In many ways, I view the blog as the 21st century version of the pamphlet. Technology has unlocked the voice of the masses. What comes out is simply a reflection of us, as a people - even the blowhards.

Hanno said...

Well, the blogs I read are by the "private intellectuals" that put out thoughts on the internet for a variety of reasons. In part, because they are friends, and we are simply continuing a conversation publicly. If folks want to listen in, or join, more power to them.

As such, this one (my part in it) is along the same lines.

Civis said...

One additional thought I had this morning:

The internet, 24-hour hyped up news and commentary on CNN/FOX, and talk radio certainly have people overstimulated such that they tend not to have patience with anything thoughtful.

I spoke with one of my friends who formerly worked for CNN and I said I thought that the media ought to try to really analyze issues. He said "That's not what people want. They do that on the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. Nobody watches that shit."

Unfortunately, some of the best commentary in the main stream media, comes from comedy shows on cable:

ce said...

But isn't a private intellectual who makes thoughts public at least straddling the threshold of becoming a public intellectual? One might be making the mistake of confusing accessibility with high hit count.

I think the underlying problem here is simply marketability. Intellectuals, unless they have winning personalities (whether loved or hated) and/or very controversial views (regardless of which way they lean) are simply not going to be able to compete with the Britney/Lohan types. The populace sways the way the populace has always swayed. Unless you're able to accommodate to some degree (whether it's authentic or inauthentic is largely beside the point) you're going to have a hard time competing with the sex and violence. The people like idols, and those idols tend to more Aphrodite than Athena.