Intellectuals: alive and well and going nowhere

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, by Stefan Collini (Oxford University Press 2006)

What do people mean when they say that intellectuals aren’t what they used to be, or that Britain is unusually hostile to intellectuals? Stefan Collini shows that it is hard to support such statements in simple empirical terms. The lament that intellectuals are either missing from public life or in terminal decline is as old as the term itself, and indeed Collini argues that to make such a complaint, in Britain or anywhere else, is to play the role of the intellectual – it is a paradoxical shibboleth signalling that intellectuals are in fact alive and well; a bit like saying, ‘Ain’t nobody here but us chickens’.

There is indeed a whole genre of books debating the condition of intellectuals, all of whose authors themselves fit the description of intellectuals. Recent examples include Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectual and Richard Posner’s The Public Intellectual: a Study in Decline in the USA, and in Britain, Frank Furedi’s Where Have the Intellectuals Gone? and Helen Small’s collection Public Intellectuals (including an essay by Collini himself). Collini’s book is not a contribution to this genre, however, and he does not engage with recent examples at length. He is less concerned with debating whether intellectuals are declining or thriving than with analysing ‘thequestion of intellectuals’ itself and how it is tangled up with issues like the role of the university and the media, or political dissent and concerns about dumbing down.

Collini has a nose for cliché, and by taking a long view of the discussion since the beginning of the twentieth century when the term intellectual began to be used, he is able to identify patterns and recurring motifs that call into doubt the idea that intellectuals are or were seriously threatened at any given time by developments such as academic specialisation or the rise of the celebrity:

Where the topic of intellectuals is concerned, it is also characteristic of such accounts not just to ignore or understate the extent to which the two developments in question have long histories, but also to appear entirely oblivious to the fact that the despondent conclusions drawn from these developments also form part of a repetitive pattern themselves, stretching back over many decades. (p452)

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the question of intellectuals, even in its most clichéd form, always signifies the same thing. A weakness of Collini’s approach is the tendency to assume that we’ve seen it all before, rather than asking what lies behind the concern about intellectuals at any given time. For Collini, there is an inevitable and timeless trade-off between academic respectability and public profile. He shows that concerns about the demise of intellectuals have tended to alternate between the contention that increasing specialisation is taking academics further from the public and the opposite complaint that intellectuals are abandoning academic rigour in pursuit of celebrity.

The role of the intellectual, on my analysis, is constituted by the movement between these two poles, and it is hardly surprising, therefore, if the very existence of intellectuals is always thought to be vulnerable to the overweighting of one at the expense of the other. (p452)

But this movement between two poles is not the only way to think about the role of the intellectual. Intellectuals can also address the public through media that allow them to establish authority, rather than merely asserting it, drawing on a reputation made elsewhere. Books are the most obvious example. It may be rare for an author to produce a book that satisfies both academic peers and casual readers, but there is a world of possibility between the scholarly journal article and the two-minute radio spiel. (Furthermore, neither of these is by definition inaccessible or uninteresting to the ‘opposite’ audience, which, as Collini points out, will often mean the same person in different mode.) No doubt the ‘popular science’ market is largely sustained by unwanted and unread Christmas presents, and there are reasons to be sceptical of any book pitched at a ‘general reader’ rather than any particular reader, but there is no doubt that well-written books – like, it has to be said, Absent Minds – can win theirauthors genuine intellectual authority with readers, regardless of either academic credentials prior to publication or ‘media splash’ afterwards.

Moreover, this phenomenon is not limited to books. Collini complains that the state of intellectual life is too often judged by the frequency with which intellectuals appear on television. He is quite right insofar as this means dons popping up to give soundbites on insubstantial news and cultural chat shows, but this is not the only kind of television. Jacob Bronowski’s celebrated BBC series The Ascent of Man, for example, stands as an intellectual achievement in its own right, building on his own and others’ scholarship without depending on academic credentials to be effective (though, granted, the audience has to believe implicitly that Bronowski is not making this stuff up as he goes along). To take a more straightforward if less intellectual example, it is surely David Attenborough’s mastery of the medium of television, rather than unseen zoological credentials, that accounts for his prestige in television natural history, which is indeed something like an artform in its own right rather than a medium for scholarship. Who is to say that others might not use the same medium to play a more political intellectual role? (The first example likely to spring to mind, Michael Moore, is not auspicious, but if nothing else, Moore’s reputation stands and falls on his use of the medium itself; unlike Noam Chomsky for example, his politics do not rest on an academic reputation.)

Whatever the intrinsic difficulties of using popular media while maintaining intellectual credibility, other factors influence intellectual life at any given time, and give fresh impetus to seemingly timeless concerns. The largely unnoticed elephant on the carpet in the contemporary debate about intellectuals, which is left undisturbed by Collini, is the end of the Cold War and the demise of ideological politics. When politics is no longer about how society is organised, the remit of intellectual discussion – in the media, in universities and not least in Parliament – is dramatically curtailed.

Those academics who can be heard discussing historical events in the present tense pompous on Radio 4 are certainly intellectuals, and even public ones in the sense that they are addressing a relatively wide audience. But they are not ‘public intellectuals’ in the sense that they inform a public debate about where society is going and how we as a society might take responsibility for it. Indeed, it is precisely such a debate that is in fact ‘missing’ from public life. For all the heated discussion about history, or indeed the war in Iraq, avian flu or the true meaning of the latest Paris riots, to take a few recent examples, nobody is able to bring to bear a coherent worldview that might suggest a particular course of political action, as is evidenced by the dire state of contemporary politics. This is not a problem with intellectuals so much as politics itself, but it certainly has bearing on the role of intellectuals, and perhaps imbues that role with a certain urgency.

Whether or not the term ‘public intellectual’ is used, it is impossible to discuss the role of the intellectual without considering what we mean by ‘public’. Collini suggests we talk about ‘publics’ rather than ‘the public’, in recognition that there are a number of distinct if overlapping audiences for ideas. Indeed, the notion of ‘publics’ usefully cuts across the specialist/non-specialist distinction, and calls into question Collini’s insistence on seeing the public intellectual role as necessarily separate from the specific role through which an intellectual earns authority.

It may be those figures who enjoy most success in reaching a non-specialist audience who most need to be reminded that a condition of their status is the continued perception that they are also doing work in a specialized sphere which measures up to the highest standards of that specialism (whether literary, artistic, scholarly, scientific or whatever). (p486)

No doubt this is quite true of those ‘media whores’ who are all too willing to use their worn academic credentials to hazard an opinion on issues they actually know nothing about. But the intellectual role does not necessarily imply using borrowed authority to address ‘non-specialists’ in this way. The ‘academic public’ brings its own knowledge to bear in judging new work, even by scholars in different disciplines. Readers of novels do not need to be assured that the authors they enjoy are esteemed by a specialist elite (to the extent that literary criticism works on that model it is surely impoverished); rather, they make that judgement as readers. Most importantly, political authority is not derived from obscure academic credentials in the disciplines of politics or sociology, but from open engagement with the public as competent adults who know their own interests.

To earn authority as a public intellectual in the way that term is commonly understood is to establish a particular kind of relationship with a particular kind of public, one that is fundamentally political rather than being parasitic on academic or other credentials. There was never a time or a place where intellectuals performed this role perfectly, and as Collini makes clear, the ‘publics’ for the likes of Orwell or Sartre or Arendt, say, tended to be relatively small, even elite. Nonetheless in a political context dominated by mass movements of left and right, ie most of the twentieth century, the scope for playing such a role was far greater than it is now. The lingering glamour attached to the idea of the intellectual surely in part reflects nostalgia for headier political times, for the moral clarity of the struggle against fascism and the excitement of les événements of 1968, both moments that continue to figure in the popular (or at least elite) imagination.

Detached from actual political movements, however, such nostalgia is self-indulgent and the ‘dissident’ role suspect. Collini is rightly harsh on Edward Said’s almost psychological conception of the intellectual as a pure soul constantly wary of being co-opted or bought off, and more generally he is suspicious of the idea that intellectuals must necessarily be oppositional.

As soon as one’s views did carry the day either by persuading those who have power or by contributing to a transfer or redefinition of that power, one would then, to remain consistently oppositional, have to oppose precisely those who now agreed with one’s earlier position. (p469)

But this objection only applies in the abstract; it arises precisely because ‘being oppositional’ has become a psychological disposition rather than a political position, and this is a consequence of political change rather than mere intellectual posturing. For most of the twentieth century, ‘opposition’ was not an end in itself but implied opposition to capitalism, at least in its existing form, and support for more or less radical alternatives; conservative thinkers and those sceptical of mainstream alternatives nonetheless had the same points of reference. When people lament the absence of intellectuals from public life today, what they often mean is that we don’t have the same kind of big ideas or grand narratives that once shaped public debate, and gave specific content to ideas like opposition and dissent. This is not a purely intellectual problem, but it certainly presents an intellectual challenge – and not just for those who think of themselves as intellectuals.

Absent Minds forces those who are interested in this challenge to take the intuition that something is missing beyond the level of the tropes and clichés Collini exposes. To blame academic specialisation or celebrity culture is a misdiagnosis of the problem, but there is already more to the debate today that does not fit Collini’s pattern. Intellectuals are alive and well and going nowhere. That is the problem, but it could also be part of the solution.

First published on Culture Wars.