Monday, May 09, 2011

Witter and Fritter

I don't know what qualifications there are for the job of "public intellectual." I don't know where one applies, and I'm not interested in filling the position. I do know that other people have commented in the past that the United States does not have any public intellectuals. I rather think, the way the term is applied in other countries, we have too many of them and therefore, in effect, have none. In other countries, intellectuals and knowledge workers who use their expertise in their own fields to analyze and offer solutions to public problems or public cultural phenomena are public intellectuals.

My favorite public intellectual is Umberto Eco. A professor of linguistics and medieval history who is undaunted in analyzing the press, social decline, and the phenomenon of semantic and social power is a hero, even if he's wrong. Jean-Paul Sartre was one. In fact, we can find them in Europe. In the United States, we read Sartre and Eco and Artaud and Robertson Davies, and we go and do likewise, or we long to go and do likewise. In the past, we couldn't, because publishers were necessary accomplices, and they were convinced that brainy stuff don't sell. Indeed, it is unlikely that the public would ever buy a book by an intellectual. If someone were to write about science, that might be alright, and if someone were to write "inspirational," then that sells (like Praying Hands sculptures and naughty "angels"), but they could not imagine giving a chance for an intellectual linking theology, organized religion, and a critique.

At any rate, the publisher has disappeared. More specifically, the publisher has "de-rezzed." Their image has broken into a trillion pixels, their inventory into a terraflop of bytes, and their editors -- long ago fired as unnecessary fussbudgets -- have become budgetary fustian of ages past. Now, therefore, the public intellectual is any intellectual who dares, and Americans are known for their daring.

In fact, one need only go to the parent of this blog -- blogspot -- to find genuine intellectuals offering good and sound advice on public matters. If one wishes to go to WordPress instead, then there are intellectuals there, too. If one goes to a "community" site like DailyKos, then there are intellectuals there as well. In fact, there are hundreds of intellectuals, and I mean the term genuinely, who are writing well, speaking truly, and offering sincere advice.

Therefore there are no public intellectuals in the United States.

We, like depression, are legion. We speak with a thousand voices in a hundred ears. We are myriad spirits attempting to possess a single body. No one pays us any attention unless we do something to achieve spectacle or unless some microcardial politician whose stirp goes to Tail Gunner Joe decides to investigate us.

So, why do we not speak? We do. We talk all the time. Why do you not hear us? You do. You hear us through a filter, probably, as our ideas show up in reaction shots on politicians' faces or in phrases that candidates use or in ideas that politicians reject as frankly absurd. We lack the powerhouse of e-mail forwards that move conspiracy theories from place to place, and we will never get the television.

For myself, I worry that the public intellectuals of the United States, by being so varied, various, free and ignored, have no way to develop an idea. There is no point in having them, if they can't actually use their minds to mature ideas. It's wonderful when a journalistic intellectual says something and each lonely garret responds, but it would be so much better if the conversation took that thesis, debated, refined, and made it practical and pragmatic without the need for walls or pay or paywalls.

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