The return of the last intellectual

by Rob Horning

15 September 2007


America has a reputation for being fairly anti-intellectual, which is an impression created mostly by how the reactionary religious aspects of American culture have influenced politics and by extension culture—politicians cater to small but noisy constituencies who are invested in repression, straitened gender roles, self-righteous moralism, and censorship, and then suddenly Janet Jackson’s tit exposure becomes big news, a societal touchstone. But put aside that element, and America is a pretty good place to be an intellectual, for the reasons Scott McLemee touches on in this review of Russell Jacoby’s somewhat notorious book, The Last Intellectuals. In America there are lots of ideologically derived jobs that call for public intellectualizing, only in America we shy away from calling those who perform them intellectuals. (Thanks to that aforementioned corps of reactionaries, intellectual, like feminist or liberal, have become pejorative appellations in America.) Often these people are functionaries in the media feeding the voracious maw of the new outlets online, or they are adjuncts at state-supported universities. They are writing proposals or grants for a wide variety of philanthropies or NGOs; they are producing research or policy papers for one of any number of lobbies or think tanks. They are part of the army of commentators, professional or semiprofessional, supporting the edifice of mediated public life, convincing us that celebrities are important, or that the new books and TV shows and films and songs coming out are critically important and crucially significant. Perhaps America seems anti-intellectual because so many people have reasonable cause to fancy themselves as intellectuals, and the word has lost all relative meaning. What were once rootless intellectuals have become today’s “creatives,” who are repopulating cities to lead their boundlessly creative lifestyles, absolutely sure of their own centrality to the zeitgeist, their own fecundity.

McLemee cites this observation of Irving Howe’s:

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.

Bohemia as a site of struggle and intellectual foment disappeared, to be replaced with a consumerist phantasmagoria. Intellectuals were drafted into the business of marketing, sometimes in positions were it was easy to disguise one’s own promotional function from oneself, particularly when what was being marketed was “cool”, and the intellectual labor to market hipness could be fobbed off as some sort of process of self-discovery.

Jacoby’s book is often cited as one of many works pointing out the irrelevance of academics as opposed to the intellectuals who truly did affect culture and steer the avant-garde from their rootless place at society’s margin and is thus seen as a lament for some lost golden age. But McLemee aptly points out that there was probably nothing particularly glorious in that life of insecurity, even if it did generate truly penetrating critiques of society from an “unattached” outsider’s perspective. But their critical apparatus didn’t prevent them from selling out at the earliest opportunity. Consumer capitalism was able to thrive so vigorously in post-war America in part because it found a place for these erstwhile rootless intellectuals, who primarily became apologists and heralds for the new order. Those who didn’t work to commercialize the public sphere and make it safe for “cool” retreated into obscurantism and hyperspecialism, content to rehearse overly subtle arguments for no one’s behalf. McLemee traces this point to Marcuse:

Marcuse admitted that his analysis yielded “two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.” But the recuperative capacities of a prosperous, bureaucratically administered consumer society were formidable, tipping the balance. Such a condition, as Marcuse wrote, “shapes the entire universe of discourse and action, intellectual and material culture,” and generates “an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives.”

So the position of unaffiliated intellectual has been swallowed up by history. Where does critique emanate from now? From blogs and other unpaid, unrequested forms of mental labor being performed at the far reaches of the long tail? Or are these too just niches being filled to smooth over and firm up the impenetrable facade the consumer culture and the cult of narcissistic self-fashioning now present us with?

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