Not that kind of public intellectual

public intellectual

Today, more than ever before, to think one’s time, especially when one takes the risk or chance of speaking publicly about it, is to register, in order to bring it into play, the fact that the time of this very speaking is artificially produced.

– Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television

It was an odd thing, finally getting around to reading Nick Kristof’s appeal to public intellectuals. The first oddity was, within my network, its utter incomprehensibility. My feeds were inundated with rebuttals well before I ever got around to searching out the original op-ed. There are no shortage of public intellectuals in my sphere. While that might be easily discounted because I am, in fact, an intellectual myself. I don’t understand how it is any harder for anyone else to have decided to follow the same twitter feeds, blogs, and news outlets I have. They are all equally public and while they may not have the mass appeal or global reach of the Old Grey Lady, they are not hiding.

Analyses of Kristof’s piece abound on the interwebs (I enjoyed these)

Intellectuals are thinkers. Public intellectuals think out loud. Gainfully employed public intellectuals ride unicorns to work.
2/16/14, 7:41 PM

but the question that keeps coming to me is: Does the public really want intellectuals? There was another Times opinion piece I read that seeks to discount the rationality of atheism. It was written by public intellectuals. With degrees. But that it sought to undermine why 62% of philosophers are atheist is troubling. Maybe this is why I read the Times for its headlines and otherwise let it exist as the populist paper it seeks to be (does that make me super elitist?). Because if we need a paper of record to reassure the public that it is irrational for the educated to be more secular and thus perfectly acceptable to believe in anything (Ken Ham makes a number of assertions in the ‘name’ of ‘science’), perhaps more public intellectuals is not really what the public is looking for.

Nietzsche says that what is important is not the news that God is dead, but the time this news takes to bear fruit.

– Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

No one likes being told that they are stupid, that their belief system is wrong, archaic, childish, or worthy of mockery. Not that an intellectual (or anyone) should ever adopt such a dismissive attitude towards the public, but absent a willingness to doubt belief systems and knowledge structures, that’s certainly how it can come across. Perhaps what is necessary in developing a large impact for public intellectuals is for the public to seek out the intellectuals, to meet us halfway. There are plenty of blogs and news outlets that are academic or don’t dumb down the research. Some journals may be behind paywalls but enough of them are not. There is a vast literature available in books (maybe not in your local library, but perhaps that can be remedied) and increasingly open access publishing.

Given the reaction that I have seen to Kristof’s argument, the issue is not a lack of intellectuals or a lack of desire to make our knowledge publicly available, accessible, understood. Perhaps the problem is that the public does not want us. Does not want us challenging the status quo, questioning belief systems, economic ‘certainties’, political and value structures, privileges. Or maybe you’re just not looking in the right places.

The least acceptable thing on television, on the radio, or in the newspapers today is for intellectuals to take their time or to waste other people’s time there. Perhaps this is what must be changed in actuality: its rhythm. Media professionals aren’t supposed to wast any time. Neither theirs nor ours. Which they are nonetheless often sure to do. They know the cost, if not the value, of time. Before denouncing, as is constantly done, the silence of the intellectuals, why not give some thought to this new mediatic situation?

– Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television