Two Hundred and Counting

The longest-running IHE column passes a landmark. Scott McLemee takes stock of an "Internet decade."

June 11, 2008

If my running tally is correct, this is the 200th installment of a column that began not quite three and a half years ago. In the world of online publications, that is a very long time – the equivalent of more than a decade, given the scale of what is sometimes called an "Internet year.”
By coincidence (and amidst comparable levels of disbelief) the guy behind the keyboard at Intellectual Affairs recently passed another milestone: his 45th birthday.

Column and columnist alike, then, are now incontestably middle-aged. It is a phase of life that -- like adolescence, which it otherwise does not much resemble -- tends to foster a kind of introspection, including a heightened sense of the gap between appearance and essence. Another keenly felt metaphysical problem, right about now, is the relationship between the potential and the actual. (This is something I regularly contemplate in regard to my checking account.)

That such musings are no merely individual quirk is confirmed by James Baldwin in an essay written in his mid-forties -- a portion of which I have copied out onto a small piece of paper and carried around in my wallet over the past several months. In it, Baldwin writes:

“Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wishes to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one's final margin, one's last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distance shall not become any greater.”

This passage helps me keep my bearings. But I’ve broken the quotation off at that point because Baldwin then shifts to a higher pitch of personal drama than quite resonates given my own circumstances: "One is attempting," he writes, "nothing less than the recreation of oneself out of the rubble which has become one's life....”

Well now that seems a bit much. Clutter, yes, but not rubble -- though in saying that, one has the sense of tempting fate.

While writing these two hundred columns, I have interviewed dozens of authors, discussed scores of books, and attended sundry academic conferences and publishing colloquia -- as well as digging out various otherwise largely forgotten works of scholarship that seemed to apply to events in the news or the mass-media “surround” at a given moment.

From the very start, my policy has always been to try to make Intellectual Affairs as diverse in content and format as possible. If one week was an interview with a sociologist, the next week might be a piece on a book about mathematicians. An intervention concerning a controversial topic in the news would be followed by an appreciation of a specialized piece of research. The first-person pronoun has been dominant on some occasion, absent on others, and quite incidental on many more. With the help of technologically proficient Inside Higher Ed staffers, I have interviewed people for podcasts. Who knows? There might be video yet, though the prospect terrifies.

In short, Intellectual Affairs has been an experiment in variety. At the same time, that effort has probably doomed it to a restricted audience. (Consider yourselves among the happy few.)

As the surrealist TV comedian Ernie Kovacs used to say, the secret of success is to find something that works, then just beat it to death. Thus it is that David Brooks, for example, will do his “comic sociology” analyses of the cultural divide between the Red Lobster States and the Blue-Blood Zip Codes (or however he is bending the schtick this season) for years to come. And the metaphysical condition of his bank statement will be no worse for this particular way of resolving the relationship between permanence and change. To quote the fitting line repeated throughout one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels: “So it goes.”

And so it has. All frustrations notwithstanding, I can at least face this column from week to week without the horrified expression of Bill Murray waking up each morning in "Groundhog Day." That, surely, counts for something.

The guiding principle of Intellectual Affairs has been a belief that it ought to be possible to clear an area where the books, ideas, and debates within academe might briefly engage with the world outside their particular disciplinary enclosures. That does not mean popularization, as such. Rather, it has involved trying to open up a space for questioning, as much as for exposition, by acting as if the existence of the “general, educated reader” could be taken for granted.

There are, of course, a thousand reasons why that is a dubious prospect. We can deconstruct the very idea of the public sphere -- let alone the adequacy of any given “actually existing” version of it -- until the cows come home. Yet operating as if that sphere were indeed possible, and even desirable, has been my guiding intention for more than twenty years. (Let the cows roam where they will.)

For better or worse, Intellectual Affairs is firmly planted in the “baffling geography” that Baldwin describes as occupying the zone between what one most deeply wants and that which actually exists. After two hundred columns, I still don’t have a map. But it’s too late to turn back now.


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