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.
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
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).
Last week this column offered an assessment, not exactly glowing, of Cornel West’s latest book, an autobiography of sorts. The review failed to say anything about race. That will sound like a paradox to some people but it is not meant to be. A commentary on a book by a prominent black academic is not necessarily a commentary on race in America. (Still less need it be an editorial on the state of African-American studies, which some people took my review to be.) Race matters, but it is not all that matters. The quality of the book as such also counts for something.
Nor did the column discuss West’s politics, which are more or less my own. It is not that I am uninterested in either race or politics, but they were not the focus of the piece. Rather, West’s book was. But people seem to want to discuss race and politics -- so let’s.
It is impossible to make any point so clearly that some portion of the audience will not grow wildly indignant because they think you are saying the exact opposite. You may repeat the point in various ways, hoping that the message will prevail. (Redundancy within a signal is what distinguishes it from the noise in a channel.) But there are limits to just how much good this will do. The will to misunderstand seems to be invincible, and some people enjoy indignation very much.
It would have been difficult to make any more explicit than I did that my disappointment with Brother West – and, yes, anger at West for perpetrating something comparable to the “book” that Sarah Palin “wrote” – followed from a deep admiration for his best work. It is a bad thing to see proof of someone’s talent and intellect being siphoned off by the entertainment industry. The corruption of the best is the worst. Such was the feeling my review expressed, more than once, and in more than one way.
Some readers did get the message. A few suggest that it matched their own impressions. “I read The American Evasion of Philosophy at the beginning of my graduate studies,” one person told me “and it changed my life, but now I look at the excerpt from this new book at MSNBC and it makes me feel despair.” Considering that Brother West was published by a prominent vendor of inspirational and self-help books, this seems like a bad sign on a number of levels.
But to a significant layer of the public, West is not someone whose actual work, as such, means anything at all. They celebrate it, or loathe it, but that does not mean they have ever given any part of his work five minutes of thought. For them, West is not neither an intellectual nor even an individual. He is a synecdoche. He stands for black academics in general, or hip hop, or the history of affirmative action, or the entire history of African-American writing beginning with Phyllis Wheatley. Or something.
This figure is an avatar in the video game of the culture wars. Depending on how the player has adjusted the settings, the character is (a) the relentless and noble freedom fighter whose every move on screen strikes a blow for human liberation or (b) Al Sharpton plus Cliff’s Notes.
Now, my own estimate of Cornel West shares nothing with either of those attitudes – nor do I have much time for video games, actual or metaphorical. But that did not keep lots of people from trying to enlist me in the fantasy.
One especially feverish player announced that the column was so racist that it had only just stopped short of sending West a box of fried chicken. It would be patently impossible to demonstrate this from anything the column actually said. But the statement, while lacking any correspondence to reality, could be regarded as at least coherent on its own terms, once the premises were unpacked.
The most important premise being that no white writer can say anything critical about a black writer without having vile and probably violent motives. This axiom is typically nested, in turn, within an assumption that American life is best understood as having two distinct cultural complexes. One is coded white and the other black. They are accessible via distinct (and well-guarded) entrances, and obey incommensurable zoning codes. You are supposed to stay in your proper matrix.
A system of internal colonies, between which a spirit of mutual disinterest prevails, is not my idea of a good society. As a basis for cultural criticism, “separate but equal” is not that appealing a principle. Nor do I feel deeply accountable to any “tolerance” found choking on its own stifled aggression. My sense of life owes a lot to the work of C.L.R. James, who thought that the multiracial crew of the Pequod was what made Moby Dick such a touchstone to understanding American possibilities.
We should leave racial essentialism to the stand-up comedians who finesse it best. This is a hybrid culture. That is perhaps the one good thing you can say about it. I don’t intend to give that up.
In any case, the notion that a white critic has no business assessing a black writer begs an important question. (And not just, "Does that apply vice versa too?")
One of the decisive early influences on my own writing was Anatole Broyard. For many years he was a critic at The New York Times; he died in 1990. Some time before that, I read a collection of his pieces called Aroused By Books, and looking it over again recently, it seems clear that my response was to steal everything about his style and method that wasn’t nailed down. A few years ago, the public learned that Broyard had taken considerable pains to conceal the fact that he came from an African-American family.
By the logic of old-fashioned, real-deal, no-doubt-about-it white supremacy, anybody who looks white but has a “single drop” of “black blood” is actually black. This is binary thinking gone berserk. But it creates a problem for anyone who wants to insist on criticizing the critic for wandering into someone else’s ethnic enclave.
To bring this down to the matter at hand: How do you know I am white? How, indeed, do I? This society tells me that I am. But then, this society tells me plenty of things that serve its own interests – usually in ways it wouldn’t want questioned too closely. Perhaps obsession with patrolling the perimeters of our gated communities is not a good thing. I’m just putting that out there.
In any case, I want to make clear that there is no way I would ever send Cornel West a box of fried chicken. If we’re going to indulge in identity politics, let me just mention that I come from a Southern working-class family. If I had a box of fried chicken, I would eat it myself. Cornel West earns more in a weekend of public speaking than I do from a year of writing. Let him buy his own food.
As to politics.... It is said that American universities are under the control of tenured radicals trying to continue the revolution by other means. This is constantly repeated but it is utter nonsense. A thin layer of such people do exist, but their power is limited. The prevailing culture of the institution seems far more responsive to the spirit of corporate governance than to any belief that “democracy is in the streets.”
On that score, my admiration for Cornel West remains very much alive. People criticizing him as a “typical” leftist professor could not be more mistaken. For many soi-disant radical academics, the policing of one another’s verbal behavior is as close to activism as they will ever get. By contrast, Brother West gives intriguing glimpses of his involvement with the Black Panther Party, the Social Text collective, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Although the book does not mention it, he also contributed to the socialist journalNew Politics in the 1980s, when it was barely getting revived again after a long period of suspension. As a member of the current New Politics editorial board, I want to express thanks to him for that, and hope he got the copies sent as payment.
Cornel West's heart is in the right place. You can tell that it beats harder when there is a movement towards justice. He walks the walk. This cannot be taken for granted. But here, again, Brother West proves so terribly disappointing. It conveys nothing, absolutely nothing, of what it is like to work in a movement. Politics is not just exhortation. The ability to make a fiery speech is part of being an activist; that is true. But so is assessing your experience as part of a group of people trying to work together. Not a bit of that comes through in his writing.
“From each according to his abilities,” as the old spiritual says, “to each according to his needs.” The professor’s needs are being well met. It is how he is using his abilities that is in question. This is called taking someone seriously.
My review did so – but at the cost of violating certain norms of etiquette. This was explained to me, after the fact, by a tenured professor who is an admirer of West. A cardinal if unwritten rule of the academic world, it seems, is that one must never go on the record with a pointed criticism of anyone prominent or influential. This was not so much a moral principle as the wisdom required to survive in the marketplace. After all, they might retaliate.
Well, so much for speaking truth to power. You can’t please everyone. It would be pretty craven to try.
This column now approaches its fifth anniversary. At the risk of succumbing to the contagious influence of Brother West, I will say that it has had a mission. It has engaged with hundreds of books and authors with the simple intention of trying to communicate and assess their essences for as wide an audience as cares to pay attention – using a variety of formats and tones, and employing whatever degree of vigor, or earnestness, or broadness of humor, or allusive riffing, or explicit citation, or double-encrypted irony, as may seem necessary and appropriate at any given moment.
“Will it ever stop?” as the poet so memorably puts it,
Yo I don’t know. Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow. To the extreme, I rock the mic like a vandal, Light up the stage and wax a chump like a candle.
One of the turning points in my life came in 1988, upon discovery of the writings of C.L.R. James. The word “discovery” applies for a couple of reasons. Much of his work was difficult to find, for one thing. But more than that, it felt like exploring a new continent.
James was born in Trinidad in 1901, and he died in England in 1989. (I had barely worked up the nerve to consider writing him a letter.) He had started out as a man of letters, publishing short stories and a novel about life among the poorest West Indians. He went on to write what still stands as the definitive history of the Haitian slave revolt, The Black Jacobins (1938). His play based on research for that book starred Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture. In 1939, he went to Mexico to discuss politics with Leon Trotsky. A few years later -- and in part because of certain disagreements he'd had with Trotsky -- James and his associates in the United States brought out the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (By the early 1960s, there would be a sort of cottage industry in commentary on these texts, but James planted his flag in 1947.)
He was close friends with Richard Wright and spoke at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. At one point, the United States government imprisoned James on Ellis Island as a dangerous subversive. While so detained, he drafted a book about Herman Melville as prophet of 20th century totalitarianism -- with the clear implication that the U.S. was not immune to it.
Settled in Britain, he wrote a book on the history and meaning of cricket called Beyond a Boundary (1963). By all accounts it is one of the classics of sports writing. Being both strenuously unathletic and an American, I was prepared to take this on faith. But having read some of it out of curiosity, I found the book fascinating, even if the game itself remained incomprehensible.
This is, of course, an extremely abbreviated survey of his life and work. The man was a multitude. A few years ago, I tried to present a more comprehensive sketch in this short magazine article, and edited a selection of his hard-to-find writings for the University Press of Mississippi.
In the meantime, it has been good to see his name becoming much more widely known than it was at the time of his death more than two decades ago. This is particularly true among young people. They take much for granted that a literary or political figure can be, as James was, transnational in the strongest sense -- thinking and writing and acting "beyond the boundary" of any given national context. He lived and worked in the 20th century, of course, but James is among the authors the 21st century will make its own.
So it is appalling to learn that the C.L.R. James Library in Hackney (a borough of London) is going to be renamed the Dalston Library and Archives, after the neighborhood in which it is located. James was there when the library was christened in his honor in 1985. The authorities insist that, in spite of the proposed change, they will continue to honor James. But this seems half-hearted and unsatisfying. There is a petition against the name change, which I hope readers of this column will sign and help to circulate.
Some have denounced the name change as an insult, not just to James's memory, but to the community in which the library is located, since Hackney has a large black population. I don't know enough to judge whether any offense was intended. But the renaming has a significance going well beyond local politics in North London.
C.L.R. James was a revolutionary; that he ended up imprisoned for a while seems, all in all, par for the course. But he was also very much the product of the cultural tradition he liked to call Western Civilization. He used this expression without evident sarcasm -- a remarkable thing, given that he was a tireless anti-imperialist. Given his studies in the history of Africa and the Caribbean, he might well have responded as Gandhi did when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."
As a child, James reread Thackeray's satirical novel Vanity Fair until he had it almost memorized; this was, perhaps, his introduction to social criticism. He traced his ideas about politics back to ancient Greece. James treated the funeral oration of Pericles as a key to understanding Lenin’s State and Revolution. And there is a film clip that shows him speaking to an audience of British students on Shakespeare -- saying that he wrote "some of the finest plays I know about the impossibility of being a king.” As with James's interpretation of Captain Ahab as a prototype of Stalin, this is a case of criticism as transformative reading. It’s eccentric, but it sticks with you.
Harold Bloom might not approve of what James did with the canon. And Allan Bloom would have been horrified, no doubt about it. But it helps explain some of James's discomfort about the emergence of African-American studies as an academic discipline. He taught the subject for some time as a professor at Federal City College, now called the University of the District of Columbia -- but not without misgivings.
“For myself,” he said in a lecture in 1969, “I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies. There are studies in which black people and black history, so long neglected, can now get some of the attention they deserve. ... I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political setting, and, particularly, during the past two hundred years. It’s impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”
James’s argument here is perhaps too subtle for the Internet to propagate. (I type his words with mild dread at the likely consequences.) But the implications are important -- and they apply with particular force to the circumstance at hand, the move to rename the C.L.R. James Library in London.
People of Afro-Caribbean descent in England have every right to want James to be honored. But no less outspoken, were he still alive, would be Martin Glaberman -- a white factory worker in Detroit who later became a professor of social science at Wayne State University. (I think of him now because it was Marty who was keeping many of James's books in print when I first became interested in them.) James was the nexus between activists and intellectuals in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and his cosmopolitanism included a tireless effort to connect cultural tradition to modern politics.To quote from the translation he made of a poem by Aimé Cesaire: “No race holds the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.”
Having C.L.R. James’s name on the library is an honor -- to the library. To remove it is an act of vandalism. Please sign the petition.
In the context of the news that day in February, the announcement was almost jarring in its banality. On a day when legislators at all levels and all over the country were in full panic mode about budget deficits, and at a time when public investments in education, particularly higher education and most particularly the liberal arts, were being offered as examples of excessive government spending, a new commission had been formed.
At the request of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had gathered a group of distinguished citizens and asked them to recommend 10 actions "that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being." A bipartisan request to form a group to engage in long-range planning about the nation’s intellectual well-being by focusing on the liberal arts — such an announcement not only seemed out of place in the newspapers that day, it seemed almost to come from another generation.
Had these people not heard that, as House Speaker John Boehner put it, "We’re broke"? Didn’t they — these misguidedly bipartisan legislators and anachronistic advocates of the liberal arts — realize that we were in a crisis that precluded long-term planning and collective action? How could they fail to see that education today must focus on job training and economic competitiveness? And what were they thinking in focusing on liberal arts?
It has indeed been hard in recent months to hear anything other than the voices of doom. But the language spoken by these voices represents its own form of crisis, for it is almost entirely economic, as if all relevant factors in our current situation could be captured on a spreadsheet or a ledger. The reduction of complex social and political issues to economics signifies a failure of imagination; and "fiscal responsibility," while an excellent principle at all times, has come to serve as a proxy for our fears that we have lost our way in the world, that the future will not be as bright for our children as it was for us when we were young, that America is being outcompeted by countries that used to be "third world," that the future has somehow gotten away from us.
Fear, whose radical form is terror, has temporarily crippled our national imagination. Many young people today can barely recall a time when we were not subject to the shadowy horrors of terror and terrorists. Today, 10 years after 9-11, terror is a fact of life, and fear makes all the sense in the world. How else to explain the emergence of what are in effect survivalist and vigilante attitudes among so many of our political leaders?
At this time, it is useful for those with longer memories to recall that "other generation" that the current effort to support the liberal arts so strongly evokes. This would be the generation that, having fought their way out of the Great Depression, went out and won World War II. That generation, like ours, had things to fear, but they conquered their fears by taking action, including creating a commission charged with long-term planning for the nation’s educational system, focusing on liberal education.
This commission, created by President James Bryant Conant of Harvard, was formed in 1943, in the middle of the war, and completed virtually all of its work while the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Still, the vision its members announced was confident, spacious and radical. Their report, General Education in a Free Society — or the “Redbook,” as it was called — outlined a program of liberal education for both high school and college students, with required courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The intention was to extend to masses of people — including the hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers who would be going to college on the new GI Bill — the kind of non-vocational education previously available only to a select few.
Such a program, the commission thought, would be profoundly American in that it would prepare people for citizenship in a democracy, giving them what they needed not just to find a job but to live rich and abundant lives, the kinds of lives that people in less fortunate societies could only dream about. Announcing the great mission of American education and the new shape of American society after the war, the Redbook was hailed as a powerful symbol of national renewal, and served as an announcement of America’s cultural maturity. Its main arguments were translated into national policy by the six-volume 1947 "Truman Report," called Higher Education for American Democracy.
The program bespoke confidence in democracy, and in the ability of people to decide the course of their lives for themselves. It suggested, too, a conviction that a democracy based on individual freedom required some principle of cohesion, which would, in the program they outlined, be provided by an understanding of history and culture, which they entrusted to the humanities.
Of course, not every institution of higher education has followed this extraordinarily ambitious and idealistic vision. Indeed, by one recent account, only 8 percent of all American institutions of higher education give their students a liberal education. But that 8 percent includes virtually every institution known to the general populace, including Cal Tech and MIT. With their unique dedication to liberal education, American universities are acknowledged to be the best in the world at two of the central tasks of higher education: educating citizens and conducting research.
Mass liberal education was advocated in the face of challenges every bit as great as those we face today. As a consequence of the war, the national debt had exploded, reaching unprecedented levels (121 percent of GDP in 1946, compared with 93 percent in 2010). And as the grim realities of the Cold War set in, including the prospect of nuclear annihilation and the widespread fear of enemies within, many people felt that the nation was vulnerable in ways it never had been. It would have been understandable if the nation had tried to hedge against an unpredictable future by cutting spending, turning inward, and retooling the educational system so that it would produce not well-rounded citizens but technocrats, managers, nuclear engineers, and scientists.
Instead, we created the Marshall Plan, built the interstate highway system, and increased access to higher education so dramatically that, by 1960, there were twice as many people in higher education as in 1945. And incidentally, the middle class was strong and growing, and the fight for civil rights acquired an irresistible momentum. Things were very far from perfect, but we unhesitatingly call the generation that accomplished all this "the greatest."
What really distinguished the American philosophy of higher education in the generation after WWII was its faith in the future. People educated under a system of liberal education were expected not to fill slots but to create their lives in a world that could not be predicted but did not need to be feared. The lesson for today is perfectly clear. Terrors will always be with us, but we can choose to confront them through collective action and a recommitment to the core principles of democracy, including access, for those who wish to have it and are able to profit from it, to a liberal education. "We’re broke" is a sorry substitute for the kind of imagination and boldness needed now, or at any time. We must take the long view, the global view, and the view that does the most credit to ourselves.
I would not presume to tell the new commission which steps to support the liberal arts they should endorse. But I would urge on them a general principle: that liberal education should not be considered a luxury that can be eliminated without cost, much less an expensive distraction from the urgent task of economic growth, but a service to the state and its citizens. It is an essential service because it reflects and strengthens our core commitments as a nation, without which we truly would be broke.
“What you gon’ do with all that junk? All that junk inside that trunk?”
While the Black Eyed Peas’ answer to those questions involves getting “love drunk off my hump,” some professors at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, offer up an entirely different response to the lyrics -- one aimed at helping their students understand the “commercialization of hip-hop” and the role students have in evolving the genre.