A new documentary puts cultural historian and academic gadfly Russell Jacoby on screen. Scott McLemee gets a front-row seat.
Time has not been especially kind to Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard, 2001). The frequent complaints about scholars wandering beyond their areas of expertise to pontificate on the Clinton impeachment feel like yesteryear’s editorials. The book’s statistical tables tried to quantify the influence of various thinkers and writers – as registered, for one thing, by Google’s turn-of-the-millennium algorithm. And even Posner’s overarching generalizations seem now to have been overcome by events. It retains some interest as a landmark, though, even at this growing distance.
Posner took the old notion of a “marketplace of ideas” in a new direction by treating the activity of public intellectuals as governed by supply and demand. “With hundreds of television channels to fill,” he wrote, “with the Internet a growing medium for the communication of news and opinion, and with newspapers becoming ever more like magazines in an effort to maintain readership in the face of the lure of continuously updated news on television and over the Internet, the opportunity cost to media of providing a platform for public intellectuals has shrunk.”
The ultimate consumer of the public intellectuals’ “symbolic goods” was the lay reader or viewer, who lacked (and presumably desired) the specialized information, the command and context, and the analytical tools used by the commentators. Unfortunately this also meant that the public was in no position to judge the quality of the goods being proffered. “The media through which the public intellectual reaches his audience perform virtually no gatekeeping function,” wrote Posner. “The academic whose errors of fact, insight, and prediction in the public-intellectual market are eventually detected can, as I have emphasized, abandon the market, returning to full-time academic work, at slight cost.”
Rereading the book now, I get the feeling that Posner had a satirical novel inside him that might have held up better than its nonfiction substitute. His model is specific to roughly the last half of the 20th century. It takes as a given the one-way flow of communication from academic specialists, through mass media, to a mass audience incapable of judging what it receives and unable to generate any “symbolic goods” of its own.
All that has changed, for good and for ill. The credentialed specialist and the uninformed layperson turn out to be endpoints of a continuum, rather than absolute opposites. Any given idea or analysis can now inspire a Socratic colloquy. Of course, it’s just as likely to inspire a howling mob of abject ignoramuses, but of course Socrates’s interventions in public discourse did not always turn out well, either.
The term “public intellectual” itself, according to Posner, “was coined by Russell Jacoby in a book published in 1987.” In fact it was first used by C. Wright Mills in 1958, but the phrase entered wide usage only in the wake of Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Mills and Jacoby were referring to something quite different from Posner’s cohort of moonlighting celebrity academics. Rather, they had in mind generations of writers and thinkers for whom the demands of either the university or mass media were a minor concern, if even that. My essay for Bookforum on the 20th anniversary of The Last Intellectuals discusses the cultural ecology that made such figures possible, and the changes rendering them all but extinct.
Since the book appeared, Jacoby has published a few more volumes, as well a great many essays and reviews, though seldom through an academic press or journal. And his position in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles is sufficiently irregular – he is listed as “professor in residence” and does not have tenure – to suggest someone half in the door and half out. He lists among his awards the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair in Critical Theory -- an homage to the late social theorist Paul Piccone, founding editor of the journal Telos. The improbable name Moishe Gonzales was the pseudonym Piccone used for some of his particularly scathing critiques of academic trends.
The news that someone had made a documentary about Jacoby came as a surprise. It also made me realize that, after reading him for more than a quarter of a century, I had no idea what he looked like. If the Posnerian public intellectual is a talking head, clearly the Jacobean variety is not – or was not, anyway, until the appearance of "Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia," available on DVD and currently available for viewing as part of the Humanity Explored film festival hosted by Culture Unplugged, which describes itself as a “new media studio.” (Not sure how that would work unplugged, but never mind.)
Ten or 15 minutes into watching "Velvet Prisons," curiosity about its origins got the better of me, so I hit pause and made contact with Kurt Jacobsen, one of the producers and directors, whose name was familiar from various publications including Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture (here) where he is book-review editor. With Warren Leming -- an actor and musician who has directed a number of documentaries – he founded Cold Chicago Productions, which brought out two films before "Velvet Prisons," its latest release. (Another, "American Road," will be out this summer.)
Jacobsen refers to the enterprise as Debtors Prison Productions, since “the budget came out of our thin pockets, like everything else we do.” In 2008, Leming invited Jacoby to come to Chicago for extensive interviews, running to six hours of footage. Jacobsen, a research associate in political science at the University of Chicago, held Jacoby’s work in high regard and was glad to participate in the interviews, although the project itself seemed unlikely to get much funding. “We went ahead because it seemed a needed thing,” he writes in an email note, “a necessary intervention.” The producers spent five or six thousand dollars out of pocket: “That leaves out the incalculables of hundreds of hours of free labor by myself and Warren and some others.”
"Velvet Prisons" sketches Jacoby’s intellectual development from high school through his years on the academic job market, while also working in brief characterizations of most of Jacoby’s books – some of them, such as Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology (1975) and Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981), in very broad strokes, to be sure.
“Our key challenge,” Jacobsen says, “was how to keep a solo talking head, no matter how provocative or profound, visually interesting. Initially we thought we might only hold the most dedicated viewers for half an hour but eventually worked out and settled on a 55 minute version.” The finished product incorporates historically pertinent film footage and book covers, as well as portraits of philosophers and sociologists, sometimes accompanied by passages from their work read in voice-over.
One particularly memorable and effective sequence appears in the course of Jacoby’s very sharp comments on the academic mores that marginalize writers with an interest in addressing a general and educated audience – an ethos that “rewards careerism and networking and backslapping” and people “making quiet non-contributions to micro-fields” rather than “taking it big,” as his hero C. Wright Mills encouraged young sociologists to do. As he begins to discuss the forces pushing scholars to focus on talking about their work only with one another, the screen fills with photographs taken in the meeting rooms and auditoriums of hotel conference centers. The chairs and the ambiance are always the same. (My immediate reaction, on first viewing, was to scan the pictures, expecting to find a familiar face.) How is this in any way preferable to what Posner complained about – the colleagues willing to provide grist for media blather mills?
"There is nothing said in ‘Velvet Prisons,’ by the way,” Jacobsen tells me in the course of our e-mail discussion, “that does not resonate with my own experiences and observations in the darling groves of academe.” He calls the documentary “the proverbial labor of love, and lament…. [The] worst thing I've heard [about Velvet Prisons] is a British scholar friend calling it an ‘elegy’ -- and he probably has a point.”
He says that Jacoby “was very genial, quite modest and, I think, awfully shocked when we actually came up with the doc.” As a matter of fact, by that point Russell Jacoby himself had answered a request for his thoughts on the film, and they corroborated the director’s impressions.
“I did not think they were serious,” Jacoby responded by e-mail. “Why me? I did indeed sit for some interviews, but I really thought that I would never hear from them again. I could not imagine the project going forward. To my great surprise it did go forward. It turned out they were serious. I still don't get it. I'm in no position to judge it. I find it embarrassing to watch.” His response to seeing himself hold forth on screen was “Who is that idiot?”
Hardly a fair assessment. "Velvet Prisons" will irritate some people very much, while many more will watch it with interest and sympathy and even decide to go read Jacoby’s books. All to the good, either way. But my own impression is that the documentary feels unfinished, perhaps because Jacoby’s interpretation of “American culture in the age of academe” is unfinished.
It is at very least in need of an update. Arguing that the pursuit of tenure distorts the development and ethos of young intellectuals has begun to sound like someone complaining that the visual quality of a film is ruined when put on VHS. It may be true, but it’s a problem for fewer and fewer people all the time. At the same time, Jacoby has little to say about the situation of the public intellectual now, with the means of communication between thinker and public in flux. "Velvet Prisons" itself is an example of instance of such change.
It would be worth having another documentary in which Russell Jacoby follows up the arguments left undeveloped in his cinematic debut. But that, alas, remains unlikely. “My cinematic debut,” he told me, “will converge with my cinematic exit.”
Search for Jobs