'Prophets, Gurus and Pundits'

A new book argues that public intellectuals possess not just knowledge and opinions but something academics lack: style. Scott McLemee considers the rhetoric.

July 30, 2014

Many a thick academic tome turns out to be a journal article wearing a fat suit. So all due credit to Anna M. Young, whose Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement was published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. Her premise is sound; her line of argument looks promising; and she gets right to work without the rigmarole associated with what someone once described as the scholarly, “Yes, I read that one too” tic. 

Indeed, several quite good papers could be written exploring the implicit or underdeveloped aspects of her approach to the role and the rhetoric of the public intellectual. Young is an associate professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington. Much of the book is extremely contemporary in emphasis (to a fault, really, just to get my complaint about it out front here). But the issue it explores goes back at least to ancient Rome -- quite a while before C. Wright Mills got around to coining the expression “public intellectual” in 1958, in any case.

The matter in question emerges in Cicero’s dialogue De Oratore, where Young finds discussed a basic problem in public life, then and now. Cicero, or his stand-in character anyway, states that for someone who wants to contribute to the public discussion of important matters, “knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous.”

On the other hand -- as Cicero has a different character point out -- mere possession of learning, however deep and wide, is no guarantee of being able to communicate that learning to others. (The point will not be lost on those of you surreptitiously reading this column on your mobile phones at a conference.)

Nobody “can be eloquent on a subject that he does not understand,” says Cicero. Yet even “if he understands a subject ever so well, but is ignorant of how to form and polish his speech, he cannot express himself eloquently about what he does understand.”

And so what is required is the supplementary form of knowledge called rhetoric. The field had its detractors well before Cicero came along. But rhetoric as defined by Aristotle referred not to elegant and flowery bullshit but rather to the art of making cogent and persuasive arguments.

Rhetoric taught how to convey information, ideas, and attitudes by selecting the right words, in the right order, to deliver in a manner appropriate to a particular audience -- thereby convincing it of an argument, generally as a step toward moving it to take a given action or come to a certain judgment or decision. The ancient treatises contain not a little of what would later count as psychology and sociology, and modern rhetorical theory extends its interdisciplinary mandate beyond the study of speech, into all other forms of media. But in its applied form, rhetoric continues to be a skill of skills – the art of using and coordinating a number of registers of communication at the same time: determining the vocabulary, gestures, tone and volume of voice, and so on best-suited to message and audience.  

When the expression “public intellectual” was revived by Russell Jacoby in the late 1980s, it served in large part to express unhappiness with the rhetorical obtuseness of academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. The frustration was not usually expressed quite that way. It instead took the form of a complaint that intellectuals were selling their birthright as engaged social and cultural critics in exchange for the mess of pottage known as tenure. It left them stuck in niches of hyperspecialized expertise. There they cultivated insular concerns and leaden prose styles, as well as inexplicable delusions of political relevance.

The public intellectual was a negation of all of this. He or she was a free-range generalist who wrote accessibly, and could sometimes be heard on National Public Radio. In select cases the public intellectual was known to Charlie Rose by first name.

I use the past tense here but would prefer to give the term a subscript: The public intellectual model ca. 1990 was understood to operate largely or even entirely outside academe, but that changed over the following decade, as the most prominent examples of the public intellectual tended to be full-time professors, such as Cornel West and Martha Nussbaum, or at least to teach occasionally, like Judge Richard Posner, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago.

And while the category continues to be defined to some degree by contrast with certain tried-and-true caricatures of academic sensibility, the 2014 model of the public intellectual can hardly be said to have resisted the blandishments of academe. The danger of succumbing to the desire for tenure is hardly the issue it once might have seemed. 

Professor Young’s guiding insight is that public intellectuals might well reward study through rhetorical analysis -- with particular emphasis on aspects that would tend to be missed otherwise. They come together under the heading “style.” She does not mean the diction and syntax of their sentences, whether written or spoken, but rather style of demeanor, comportment, and personality (or what’s publicly visible of it).

Style in Young’s account includes what might be called discursive tact. Among other things it includes the gift of knowing how and when to stop talking, and even to listen to another person’s questions attentively enough to clarify, and even to answer them. The author also discusses the “physiological style” of various public intellectuals – an unfortunate coinage (my first guess was that it had something to do with metabolism) that refers mostly to how they dress.

A public intellectual, then, has mastered the elements of style that the “traditional intellectual” (meaning, for the most part, the professorial sort) typically does not. The public perceives the academic “to be a failure of rhetorical style in reaching the public. He is dressed inappropriately. She carries herself strangely. He describes ideas in ways we cannot understand. She holds the floor too long and seems to find herself very self-important.” (That last sentence is problematic in that a besetting vice of the self-important that they do not find themselves self-important; if they did, they’d probably dial it down a bit.)

Now, generations of satirical novels about university life have made clear that the very things Young regards as lapses of style are, in fact, perfectly sensible and effective rhetorical moves on their own terms. (The professor who wears the same argyle sweater year-round has at least persuaded you that he would rather think about the possible influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on The Federalist Papers than the admittedly large holes.)

But she longs for a more inclusive and democratic mode of engagement of scholarship with the public – and of the public with ideas and information it needs. To that end, Young identifies a number of public-intellectual character types that seem to her exemplary and effective. “At different times,” she writes, “and in different cultural milieus, different rhetorical styles emerge as particularly relevant, powerful, and persuasive.” And by Young’s count, six of them prevail in America at present: Prophet, Guru, Sustainer, Pundit, Narrator, and Scientist.

“The Prophet is called by a higher power at a time of crisis to judge sinners in the community and outline a path of redemption. The Guru is the teacher who gains a following of disciples and leads them to enlightenment. The Sustainer innovates products and processes that sustain natural, social, and political environments. The Pundit is a subject expert who discusses the issues of the day in a more superficial way via the mass media. The Narrator weaves experiences with context, creating relationships between event and communities and offering a form of evidence that flies below the radar in order to provide access to information.” Finally, the Scientist “rhetorically constructs his or her project as one that answers questions that have plagued humankind since the beginnings….”

The list is presumably not meant to be exhaustive, but Young finds examples of people working successfully in each mode. Next week we'll take a look at what the schema implies -- and at the grounds for thinking of each style as successful.


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