Talking Heads at the Dinner Party

A scholar's analysis of the rhetoric of successful public intellectuals focuses on their style. Scott McLemee wonders about their substance.

August 6, 2014

As discussed here last week, Anna M. Young’s book Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement (Southern Illinois University Press) is a recent addition to the literature on the opportunities and the burdens summed up in that slightly redundant expression “public intellectual.” The author is an associate professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and her approach to the topic comes from the oldest body of communications theory and practice: rhetoric.

She stresses the question of style in differentiating academics, whom she sometimes refers to as “traditional intellectuals,” from the public variety, which she sometimes calls “organic.” The terms come from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci -- although I would argue that Young, like many people in the humanities, errs in thinking that “traditional” equates to cloistered and hermetic, while “organic” implies someone using the vernacular and comfortable with pop culture. For Gramsci, the traditional intelligentsia includes the clergy and the legal profession, which must routinely deal with the public -- while his category of the organic intellectual covers not just journalists, folk singers, and labor organizers but engineers, whose knowledge and vocabulary are at times specialized, if socially important. (As with the use of “critique” as a verb, I complain about this without expecting to change it. Sometime in the late 1980s, an English major or sociology professor declared “I can be an organic intellectual by critiquing ‘Miami Vice’!” and the battle was as good as over.)

Be that as it may, Young’s emphasis on style did not pertain only to how public intellectuals and academics expressed themselves in words -- the former accessibly, the latter not so much -- but in demeanor and comportment. Her depiction of acceptable academic style was not flattering. It included a deficit of social skills (especially manifest in arrogance and a tendency toward monologues) and a wardrobe in which tweed and sensible shoes prevail.

Public intellectuals, by contrast, are all sartorial flair and savoir faire, and blessedly free of the pedantic manner that lay audiences find off-putting. Young identifies a half dozen stances or personae that public intellectuals adopt in bringing their opinions and expertise to the public, with the first three listed in her book’s title. The others are Sustainer, Narrator, and Scientist. Each gets a chapter, built around the portrait of an exemplary figure known to broad swaths of the American public – largely, it seems, through frequent television appearances.

What they have in common, apart from good agents, is the demonstrated knack for responding to the endless rush of oncoming crises (social, economic, ecological, etc.) which, as they pile up like cars in a highway disaster, create a demand for the ideas and opinions that public intellectuals can provide.

Her first category, the Prophet, derives from the tradition of lamentations and warnings embodied in an important segment of the Jewish scriptures. Our 21st-century Jeremiah – “the heir apparent to the Hebrew tradition,” writes Young, “a mystical denouncer of sin, claiming authority from a higher power, using ‘intellectual’ media (NPR, print) to castigate sinners, all the while maintaining a more marginalized and, therefore, more authentic persona” – is Cornel West.

The rhetorical resources available to West as theologian and social critic are obvious enough, but Young develops her broader point about public-intellectual style by discussing the message conveyed by his attire: “West’s ability to recognize the limits of the stylistic embodiments of the traditional ‘man of God’ enables him to be more effective in communities that might otherwise reject the do-gooder in the clerical collar…. His taste in clothing seems to channel Malcolm X – plain black suits, white shirts, black bowties.”

That last reference is puzzling (one may scroll through Google Images for quite a while without finding a picture of West in anything but a straight tie). In any event, the comparison to Malcolm X misses the more relevant source of West’s three-piece suits: W.E.B. Du Bois, whose impact on West’s vestiary style greatly exceeds any influence he might have had as a model of the public intellectual whose authority derived from building political and cultural institutions and publishing major works of scholarship well into his 90s.

A similarly religious (or perhaps more accurately religiose) quality characterizes the Guru, who exists in this world but not quite of it. Public intellectuals of this variety must, Young explains, “have real disciples and must strive to pass along an undiluted brand of spiritual wisdom or knowledge to the disciples such that once the guru is no longer alive or taking new disciples, his or her teaching will live on in the disciple that rises to become the new guru…. The guru is not a teacher but the teacher, always shrouded in intellectual mystery, using media to cultivate an intimate relationship with followers, marshaling the resources of two worlds.”

The example Young then introduces Dr. Deepak Chopra. His title is appropriate because, Young reminds us, Chopra is a board-certified endocrinologist. But his Guru role is carried on through his “over 65 books” which offer “a monetarily inexpensive way to know God.” You can also attend lectures and workshop, which tend to be not quite as monetarily inexpensive.

I prefer to say nothing more about Deepak Chopra, now or ever, and would simply question whether remaining “always shrouded in intellectual mystery” while “using media to cultivate an intimate relationship with followers” counts as public intellectual activity at all. An answer to that comes from Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” which declares:

“Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one understanding without guidance from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but rather of resolve and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere Aude!  [Horace: Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own mind! Thus is the motto of Enlightenment.”

The line of thought laid out in the opening pages of Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits is entirely compatible with enlightenment in the Kantian (or at least non-Guru) sense. But by Young’s second case study, it is clear that public intellectuals of the sort she had in mind bear little resemblance to writers and thinkers of earlier eras. The contrast became especially clear in her account of the Pundit – a term that (like Guru) was imported from India and took on a quality of awe mingled, at times, with slight mockery.

The prototype was the foreign-affairs columnist Walter Lippman, who also wrote a number of works on political and social thought that still provoke discussion after several decades. Indeed, the “public” in “public intellectual” has the connotations of an important argument he conducted with John Dewey in the 1920s. (That the closest thing to Lippman on the American scene today is probably Thomas Friedman is probably a sign of cultural entropy.)

Whatever you thought of Lippman’s punditry, the man had ideas – while the contemporary Pundit style, as Young understands, it represents a near-perfect vacuum of thought: “The Pundit downplays the intellectual for the public and the political, making effective use of media resources to be seen by as many people through as many different channels and for as much of the time as possible.”

The example we are given to ponder is Paul Begala, a public-policy professor at Georgetown University with constant access to CNN, whom Young calls “every person’s liberal geek,” a phrase it seems a matter of time before someone trademarks. An affable talking head, he is also a political consultant for the Democratic Party. “Intellectual life is about critical and analytical thinking, about asking tough questions, and, ultimately, about depth,” Young explains. “The pundit engages in summary, superficial questioning and is concerned with 'breadth,' " the latter term evidently applying both to multimedia presence and the ability to form an opinion on whatever is churning in the 24-hour news cycle at any given moment.

On the back cover of Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits we read that it is “a training manual for intellectuals who seek to connect with a public audience and effect change writ large.” Some of the roles Young describes are better-staffed than others. In the case of the Sustainer (a sort of ecological leader-by-example) I suspect she has generated the type from a single specimen: one William McDonough, who designs buildings and clothes that are environmentally sound. He also offers “a line of greeting cards, a documentary, a six-CD box set of his interviews,” and much else besides.

The Sustainer's, then, is a frontier enterprise, with little or no competition to the would-be stakeholder.. By contrast, you cannot hurl a dead gopher in downtown Washington without hitting a Pundit, or at least an understudy for the role. The final two public-intellectual roles Young identifies are the Narrator, who puts current events and concerns into perspective by storytelling, with Christiane Amanpour being the example; and the Scientist, understood not as lab researcher but as capable explainer of new discoveries and reassuring avatar of the principle that science gives us an edge in handling problems that the universe, and our species, throw at us. Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have occupied the Scientist rhetorical slot, while today Young points to Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York and best-selling author. It is not clear what the market may be for these last two categories of public-intellectual labor. The Scientist role sounds the most demanding in regard to the investment of time and effort -- perhaps because, of the six categories, it is the only one clearly engaged in the production, assimilation, and transmission of new knowledge.

After finishing the book, I felt glum for a while. Its opening and closing chapters were suggestive and thoughtful, while most of the rest felt like an unusually ambitious issue of People magazine.

The author referred a number of times to the public intellectual’s capacity to speak in the media as if a well-informed guest at a dinner party – holding the floor without hogging it. And to be sure, plenty of smart people would get more of a hearing if they cultivated the social graces, or at least aspired to social competence. But like the book’s great emphasis on the signifiers of stylishness (with Christiane Amanpour as the living negation of academic frump), the dinner-party paradigm for civilized discourse confuses the attainment of poise with a consolidation of authority.

Furthermore, while Young’s proposal to analyze the various rhetorical elements of successful public-intellectual interventions is a good idea – one that other scholars can and should pursue – her criterion of success is defined exclusively by mainstream-media visibility and the successful commodification of message.

Other standards of efficacy may apply. Someone who learns about the chemical output of a trash burner and investigates the political and economic reasons why it is being relocated to a low-income neighborhood is engaged in public intellectual activity – and all the more so when time comes to present that research to all the parties affected. That individual’s rhetoric and style (in Young’s broad sense) merits study every bit as much study as that of someone whose books are offered as premiums during a public-broadcasting pledge drive. And arguably more.


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