Public Intellectuals, Inc.

Public Intellectuals, Inc.
February 4, 2008

Public intellectuals in America have good reason to be discouraged. And so do those who look to them for intellectual leadership. Currently, it almost seems that the more public the intellectual, the less seriously he or she is taken by other intellectuals. Nevertheless, public intellectuals today have more media outlets and markets available to them than ever before. Due primarily to the rise of new technologies, the circulation and recirculation of their ideas are reaching wider and wider audiences. Consequently, as the intellectual influence of public intellectuals over other intellectuals (viz., non-public intellectuals) wanes, the market for their ideas and their entertainment value skyrockets.

An additional cause for discouragement for public intellectuals and those who look to them for intellectual leadership is that society at large just doesn’t seem to afford its iconic or star public intellectuals much respect anymore. Public intellectuals in America are merely "one side of an argument," so to speak. From the general public’s point of view, they are either Republican or Democrat; liberal or conservative; left-wing or right-wing; pro-choice or pro-life; and so on. Public intellectuals signify or are reduced by the general public to nothing more than a position -- and usually an extreme one -- on a topic of contemporary social and political concern.

The reduction of the discourse of public intellectuals to mere polarized positions is the most observable sign of a lack of respect. It serves to short-circuit and obviate subtleties of argument and render superfluous the need for evidence. Respect is afforded public intellectuals not by the mere “declaration” or “assertion” of a position (anyone can merely declare or assert a position). Rather, respect is granted to them through the opportunity to articulate and defend their positions in some detail or depth to a wide audience. It is further confirmed when their defense is thoughtfully received by an attentive audience. Public intellectuals are respected for the depth of their knowledge, and efforts to suppress it, such as the reduction of their knowledge to a mere position, is ultimately a sign of disrespect for them as intellectuals.

The lack of respect afforded our public intellectuals today is a major cause for concern. The current situation can be put into better context when one recalls that the history of public intellectualism in America includes figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Max Weber, and John Dewey -- figures who still have a powerful presence in the world of ideas. At present, public intellectualism in America is preoccupied more with the idea-in-itself that is being promoted than with the person who is promoting it. For much of the last century, Dewey, for example, was regarded as not just another expert commenting on the public school system in America. Rather, he was treated as one of America’s finest philosophers who just happened to be sharing his ideas on education to a respectful and attentive national audience. At the opening of the 21st century, however, the situation is much different.

The final cause for discouragement regarding public intellectuals is the tug of war between academe and the public-private sector in which public intellectuals currently find themselves. Public intellectuals play a crucial role in the circulation, production and identity of knowledge though the two worlds they inhabit -- academe and the public-private sector -- both compete for their allegiance and affiliation. The interests of these two worlds are very different, with the most obvious difference being that academe privileges highly specialized modes of discourse, whereas the public-private world favors generalized ones.

I believe that the fundamental terms of the relationship of public intellectuals to the academic and public-private sectorss must be changed. I will even go so far as to offer that we might consider replacing the phrase "public intellectual" with the arguably more apt (albeit controversial) one, "corporate intellectual." The motivation for my case, however, will come from a most unlikely and unconventional source -- Emerson. Even though Emerson was writing well before the rise of academe and the university in America, his thoughts on academics and public intellectuals are extremely insightful and provide a unique point of entry regarding the issues at hand.

Critical reflection on the role of public intellectuals in America is important at this particular time in our history. Recent social and political events such as the war in Iraq, the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, and our responses to natural disasters, such as increasing global warming and Hurricane Katrina, reveal that our society seems to have lost its ability to question authority, to separate knowledge from opinion, and to discern what is valuable from what is worthless. Public intellectuals can potentially play a central role in directing -- or even redirecting -- the social and political agenda of the nation as well as provide the public with reliable insight. However, the academy’s move toward increasingly specialized knowledge and discourse and the public-private sector’s movement toward increasingly generalized (and polarizing) discourse and knowledge places public intellectuals in a difficult position to accomplish these ends. If public intellectuals are to become relevant and respected again, viz., be able to (re)direct social and political beliefs and aims, the terms of their relationship with the public-private and academic spheres must be changed.

Affiliations and Academic Values

Academe is frequently characterized as an oasis from the market-driven forces of the public-private sector. Within the academy, ideas are said to be pursued without regard to their market value by individuals dedicated to the life of the mind. Students and teachers enjoy in academe a reprieve from the pressure to conform their practices to the requirements of "cash value" or "public sentiment." Academe is a site where knowledge is disseminated, discovered, and debated, and academic values are directly linked to these knowledge-driven practices.

The public-private sector, however, is associated with a different set of activities and values. Moreover, arguably, this set of activities and values is defined as the opposite of those of academe. For example, if academe is dedicated to the life of the mind, then the public-private sector is not; if academe disseminates, discovers, and debates knowledge and ideas, then the public-private sector does not; if academe is not motivated by market values, then the public-private sector is. In sum, the public-private sector is a site where ends are pursued relative to their potential either to appease public and private sentiment or produce "cash value," whereas the academy is not.

Affiliation with the public-private sector is often akin in the academy to "selling out," namely, abandoning the pursuit of knowledge for the pursuit of market share. This perception is part of the reason that terms such as "public intellectual" and "academic" are at times used in a mutually exclusive manner: either one is a public intellectual or one is an academic. One cannot be both.

Public intellectuals promote or sell ideas whereas academics pursue or discover ideas; public intellectuals speak to and for the masses, whereas academics speak to and for academics. Moreover, public intellectuals are often distinguished by considerations of quantity, whereas academics are differentiated by considerations of quality. For public intellectuals, the more attention that their ideas or they themselves receive, the more valued they are as public intellectuals. In other words, one cannot be a valuable public intellectual without a public, and the greater the public, the greater the value that is ascribed to the public intellectual. Academics, however, are valued differently.

The key factor in judging the value of academics is quality: quality research in their discipline, quality teaching of their students, and quality service to their institution and community. While quantity can sometimes positively influence determinations of academic value, quantitative value is always tempered by considerations of quality. Standards of academic quality are determined within the academic community and may vary from discipline to discipline. In large part, quality in academia is a relative and subjective affair, as much depends on the standards established by the community. This notion of academic quality is particularly true within the humanities, but arguably holds as well in the sciences. Quality, the relative and subjective factor at the center of determinations of academic value, is much different than the key factor used to determine the value of public intellectuals. Issues of quantity are largely objective and empirical. As we shall see, for some, one only needs a tally-sheet and a calculator to determine the value of a public intellectual, whereas one needs very discipline-specific information to determine the value of an academic. This lack of reliance on discipline-specific information in quality judgments of public intellectuals is troubling.

The Decline of Public Intellectuals

We are living in a time when both the meaning and function of public intellectuals are being radically reshaped. The rise of new media and the growth of the entertainment industry have resulted in an unprecedented need for individuals to participate in it. Increasing numbers of academics are entering this growing marketplace for ideas, while at the same time the number of institutionally unaffiliated persons is decreasing. And while the "decline" of the public intellectual in America has been presented in numerous ways by numerous commentators, the most notorious and noteworthy example is the recent study from the legal commentator Richard Posner.

In his widely debated book Public Intellectuals (2002), Posner argues that American public intellectualism is in "decline" and presents a range of empirical evidence to support this conclusion. By a variety of methodologically questionable means, including statistics on media mentions, Internet traffic, and scholarly mentions, Posner presents a list of 546 major public intellectuals. He also offers a list of the top 100 public intellectuals most frequently mentioned in the media, with Henry Kissenger, Pat Moynihan, George Will, Larry Summers, William Bennett, Robert Reich, and Sidney Blumenthal at the top. Posner’s taxonomy of public intellectuals is as worthless in some respects as E.D. Hirsch’s list of “What Every Literate American Knows” in Cultural Literacy (1987) or Robert Maynard Hutchins’ selection of the Great Books of the Western World (1952). Nevertheless, it is as symptomatic of our times as People magazine’s annual personality taxonomies or David Letterman’s nightly Top Ten Lists.

While Posner’s study of public intellectuals is interesting and well intentioned, the fact that his quest for the biggest figures in the intellectual world literally is solely based on quantitative factors, and never on qualitative ones, is disappointing. Posner’s method furthers the notion that public intellectualism is merely a matter of "getting noticed" and never a matter of the quality of contribution one is making, let alone its epistemological, social and political value. Work like Posner’s continues to promote the unfortunate notion that public intellectuals are identifiable and worthy of merit based solely on the size of the market for their ideas, with no methodological allowances made for the quality of their contributions to public discourse. In addition, Posner treats public intellectualism in America as though it were merely part of the entertainment industry -- which it very well may be -- and, as such, judged by standards more akin to the Nielson ratings than the tribunal of reason.

Work on public intellectuals by cultural theorists like David Shumway, Jeffrey J. Williams, Sharon O’Dair and Cary Nelson is vastly superior to work like Posner’s. Their work seldom gets bogged down in the quantitative and who’s-who aspects of public intellectualism, but rather focuses on the cultural and disciplinary logic of what they call “the star system.” Effectively, their work on the star system is a commentary on the transition of some individuals from (private) academics to public intellectuals: a transition noteworthy for its shift between differing criterions of value, among other things.

One aspect of the star system is that a small coterie of academics make the transformation from being merely the most recognizable face of the life of the mind (academic stars) to being quite literally part of the entertainment industry (super-stars). As super-stars, their entertainment qualities and market value exceed those of mere academic stars. They operate in a value system more like that of movie stars than that of academic stars. If one can raise a stir, then one achieves a higher value in this system.

The nature of public intellectualism in America is in crisis partly because a wedge has been driven between the interests of academe and the interests of public-private sectors. One is either a mere academic or one is a mere public figure. As an academic, one’s audience is at best the members of one’s profession, and at worst, the members of one sub-area of one’s profession. In either case, the audience is strictly delimited. As a public intellectual, while one finds one’s audience expanded beyond the limits of one’s profession, one also finds it increasingly difficult in America to carry on a high and relevant level of discourse.

Given the unfortunate situation of academic and public intellectuals in America today, it might be instructive to look back to a time in America when the promise of a strong relationship between intellectuals and both academe and the public-private spheres existed and then ask how this relationship might be re-established. In looking back, I would like to comment on Emerson, in whose work there is the promise of a compromise between mere academics and mere public intellectuals; in looking forward I would like to suggest that we consider abandoning the academic-public intellectual dichotomy and establish a new category that might be called the "corporate intellectual" -- a term more consonant with the values of the new academy as well as with the public-private sector.

Transcendental Scholars

In his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa society, “The American Scholar,” Emerson envisioned the American scholar as a person who would do whatever possible to communicate ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals. Emerson regarded the American scholar to be a whole person while thinking. As a whole person, the American scholar would speak and think from the position of the “One Man,” which “is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier."

In the act of thinking, the intellectual becomes this whole person. Emerson writes: "In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking. "

Isn’t this still true today? Doesn’t public intellectualism suffer from the exact form of degeneracy noted by Emerson? Are there not too many public intellectuals who are parrots in the public arena, speaking merely from the parameters laid out for them by others? Is regurgitating established discourses and strictly defined conceptual frameworks a sign of public intellectualism or public propaganda? Emerson is right in asserting that such things both discredit the ideas of individuals and render suspect the quality of their thoughts.

In all fairness though, perhaps “parroting” is more of a practical necessity today than it was in Emerson’s time. The need to affiliate one’s ideas with a group, school or individual is perhaps a function of the sound-bite age, where metonymic or telegraphic communication abounds. We demand labels for and from our public intellectuals, and when we don’t have them, we become nervous. And the labels we put on and demand from our public intellectuals are perhaps more important than what they actually think. "He’s a Republican" or "She’s a feminist" go a long way in the public arena in terms of persuading people of the value of our "thinking"; phrases like she sides with "moral values" and he is "against big government" serve as short-hand for more complete explanations and serve to cut off public debate and thought. This labeling process presents the conditions for an unending repetition and circulation of crystallized, unchanging doctrines within the public sphere.

As a public intellectual, Emerson’s whole person thinking wears a number of different hats. "The office of the scholar," writes Emerson, "is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation." "He is one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart." Emerson closes his address with a beautiful vision of public intellectuals as a group: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence."

Emerson provides us with a very clear response to the relationship of intellectuals to the public-private and academic spheres. For him, intellectuals live among these spheres, but do not affiliate with either one exclusively. For him intellectuals are always already involved in the public and private spheres as well as in the academic spheres and others. The concept of an "intellectual" for him implies a relationship with public, private and academic interests. Emerson himself, as perhaps the premier public intellectual of his day, if not in American history in general, both promoted or sold his ideas as well as worked hard to pursue or discover ideas; he both spoke to and for the masses as well as to and for the scholar.

From Public Intellectuals to Corporate Intellectuals

Public intellectualism today seems remote from the ideals of the Emersonian intellectual. In contrast to Emerson’s notion of the intellectual, our own appears overly narrow. The notion of the intellectual as "trapped" between affiliating with academe and the public-private sector is foreign to Emerson’s all-embracing intellectual. The rise of the corporate university allegedly pulls intellectuals away from the realm of academic values and into the realm of corporate and market (or neo-liberal) values. The general conclusion of most commentary of this type is that the intellectual’s values and identity are compromised in some way -- a conclusion that is reached by assuming that corporate and academic values are fundamentally incompatible.

But why do we need to continue to regard corporate and academic values as incompatible? Can there not be some common ground between them that allows not only for the continuing integrity of academic values in themselves but also of corporate values in themselves? Furthermore, what would happen if we postulate the intellectual from the position of the compatibility of academic and corporate values? Would the resultant intellectual be admirable or despicable? Progressive or reactionary? A monster or an angel?

One might reasonably call the type of intellectual that is the result of the rise of the new corporate university a "corporate intellectual." This designation would not only be appropriate, but also ultimately a fair one. While some might look upon the designation "corporate intellectual" with fear and disdain, I will offer that it is no less disdainful than the shopworn and outmoded designation “public intellectual.” More often than not, public intellectuals function in America today as part of the entertainment industry -- as part of a space set apart from academe. Most American academics are not public intellectuals, even if many of America’s public intellectuals are academics.

The recent rise of the corporate university leads one to the conclusion that academe is no longer nor will it ever be again an oasis divorced from private and public interests. Therefore, if intellectuals believe that the recent demand to straddle academe and the public-private sector is the continuing condition of the academy, they will be obligated to develop a sense of intellectual self-identity that does not view itself as "trapped" or "compromised." As the nature of academic identity changes, so too will, of necessity, the identity of intellectuals.

These changes in the configuration of the university call for academics to consider the markets for their ideas. In other words, instead of merely pursuing ideas in themselves or ideas as such, academics would weigh the market value of their ideas along with more purely knowledge-based considerations. This would simply be an extension of market-based practices already well established in academia. For example, most doctoral candidates balance the knowledge-based virtues of possible dissertation topics against the potential of these topics being appealing to prospective employers. Moreover, this market-based decision making is not limited to graduate students alone.

Professors of all levels working on manuscripts with an eye toward publication are remiss if they do not consider the market for their manuscript in the early stages of its development. Academic presses are increasingly behaving more like trade presses in that they are with more frequency refusing to publish otherwise academically sound manuscripts that do not have much potential for sales. On the down-side, this trend puts more pressure on academics to publish books with appeal beyond a small coterie of specialists; on the up-side, it compels academics to think in terms of a wider-audience for their ideas and to pursue projects that engage a broader set of interests and knowledge.

Furthermore, while it would be easy to be disdainful of the type of intellectual that results from this process, one should avoid this judgment and maintain an open mind as to the potential of these intellectuals for producing progressive change in both their particular professions and society at large. Corporate intellectuals would be persons who would always take into account at some level the market for their ideas and who would never merely pursue ideas as such. Market considerations of one’s ideas of necessity bring them into the public sphere -- and ultimately to a wider audience. Consequently, corporate intellectualism would in effect be a new type of public intellectualism. Moreover, given the current state of public intellectualism in America, this transition might not be a bad thing, particularly if it brings into the public sphere more of the progressive kinds of knowledge and questions pursued by academics.

The necessary condition for proper academic values and identity should not be gauged by one’s disassociation of interest with the market. As “corporate intellectuals,” members of academe would configure their identity as allied to both the “insular” world of the academy and to the public sphere. Not only is this a potentially more positive, socially responsible identity for intellectuals, it is more in tune with the current and continuing material conditions of the academy. So, for example, in considering writing a book or offering a course, intellectuals would weigh market considerations with academic concerns, asking both whether the project would have a market and whether it would further academic discourse. This reconfigured identity will resonate with academics seeking ways to have more public influence.

Rather than feeling trapped between academe and the public-private sector, academics should take advantage of the opportunity to align their identity with the public-private sphere. One of our goals as intellectuals might be to find ways to bring the two spheres to work together more organically, exercising public accountability without compromising our intellectual freedoms. In the process, increasing numbers of academic intellectuals might come to be regarded as public intellectuals. While the phrase “corporate intellectual” might grate against those ideologically opposed in toto to the corporatization of the university, it will be much more difficult for them to reject prima facia the notion that academics should weigh market considerations along with purely knowledge-based ones. If nothing else, the phrase “corporate intellectual” will spark much needed conversation about the positive role for academics in the emerging corporate university, particularly with regard to their relation to the public sphere. This will be one of the more encouraging consequences of the corporatization of the university, a material condition that does not appear to be passing away very soon. In the end, these newly minted corporate intellectuals have the potential not only to alter the meaning and nature of the American intellectual, but also to capture, as Emerson says, the world’s eye and the world’s heart. Hopefully, this is something that they will be able to do without seriously jeopardizing the pursuit of knowledge.


Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston at Victoria. He is editor and publisher of the American Book Review and editor of symploke, where a version of this essay first appeared. His most recent publications include A ffiliations: Identity in Academic Culture, On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy and Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation (with R.M. Berry).



Please review our commenting policy here.


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Loading results...
Back to Top