As of this week, Intellectual Affairs has been running for 10 years, which is nearly as long as Inside Higher Ed itself has been around. My title when it all began was Essayist at Large, as in fact it still is: I can’t imagine a nicer euphemism for being, in effect, a perpetual student -- and somehow making a job of it to boot.
Few publications would offer such a position to a writer; fewer still, if any, would give a columnist such a long tether for such a long time. Inside Higher Ed’s exact launch date is not clear. The beta version went live during the Modern Languages Association’s annual conference at the very end of 2004, which the founding editors covered as it happened. But a placeholder page (the gamma version?) was online even before that. In any event, Intellectual Affairs made its debut on Feb. 1, 2005 -- a short time after IHE hit the ground running as a fully functioning (if, for a time, woefully understaffed) news organization, reporting on academe and publishing throughout the workweek.
As it happens, the column premiered almost exactly 19 years after my first article for the late, lamented magazine Lingua Franca. Being so alert to the passing of anniversaries is undoubtedly a tic of consciousness, but in this case it underscores something that’s informed the column from the start: an effort to carry forward into the digital era as much of the tradition of the journalism of ideas and haute vulgarization as possible. The models I had in mind included the sort of review-essay that Francis Jeffrey fostered in The Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century, the more casual and sprightly genres of the feuilleton and the causerie, and the mode of confessional criticism practiced by Seymour Krim, one of this column’s patron saints.
While the rise of e-publishing may be irresistible, it seems that reports of the death of the traditional book are somewhat exaggerated. But the shape of the public-intellectual sphere has been forever changed by the past decade. It may amuse younger people to know that in 2005 the idea that scholars would blog was controversial. Just try to stop them, I remember thinking. (For a taste of what went on, search “Ivan Tribble.”) Both digital boosterism and neo-Luddism have always struck me as dead ends. Each evades the task of paying attention to the world and checking how well one’s stock of ideas and attitudes holds up in the flux of experience.
Writing in the preface to the American edition of his essay collection Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco said something that left a huge impression on me and set the course leading to this column: “I believe that an intellectual should use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them, and then [you] forget about them.” It would seem that I took this even more to heart than I realized: by the time something is published, I don't want to spend another minute thinking about it. Sharp-eyed readers will occasionally point out a blunder or, more often, a garbled passage. (There is a very efficient gremlin who occasionally removes something important from a sentence, such as its verb, or the word "not.") Repairs are made, but otherwise my habit after filing a column and responding to edits is to go to work immediately on the next piece without looking back.
But here's a selection of columns that seem to have held up reasonably well, assembled with the help of friends with better memories than mine.
A handful of pieces elicited discussion far beyond the ivory tower, such as the early one on the 19th-century American novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, considering how and when her work had ever been called back from its richly deserved neglect. Another column from that period was among the very first articles about Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" when Princeton University issued it as a hardback booklet. The review had little or nothing to do with On Bullshit's subsequent best-seller status, but it was surely the only mass-media response taking into account the secondary literature. A column on the postpublication peer review of Robert Service's biography of Leon Trotsky seems to have made its way around the world and, if memory serves, into French translation. But the most notorious column, it seems, expressed my dismay at the as-told-to autobiography of Cornel West, a good man undone by mere celebrity.
The closest runner-up would probably be the piece discussing a publisher's effort to whitewash the abundant and well-documented scholarly transgressions of Michael Bellesiles. While distasteful to write, doing so was a basic obligation of intellectual hygiene. Much more agreeable was writing the profile of George Scialabba, an important cultural critic who now has the wider audience he deserves. It's also been gratifying to be able to alert readers (academic and otherwise) to university-press books shortly after they've appeared, such as a French historian's memoir on working in the archives, or a fascinating monograph on Santa Muerte, "the skeleton saint," who hears the prayers of spurned lovers, gangsters and entrepreneurs. And likewise to share the news that a fellow C. L. R. James scholar had discovered the long-lost script for a play about Toussaint Louverture in which Paul Robeson played the lead. And the column's readers heard about The New Inquiry (here and here, for example) a year or two before The New York Times got to it.
Publication of Zizek's Jokes by MIT Press provided the opportunity to confess my secret shame at having dubbed the Slovenian thinker "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- an endlessly repeated phrase that will surely outlive me, despite it being, on the whole, fairly idiotic. Among the earlier Intellectual Affairs columns was a literature review on the field of Oprah studies, followed in due course by an interview with the organizer of the first academic conference on a reality TV show called Jersey Shore. More interesting and rewarding was a book that established how career criminals signal their competence to each other (despite the lack of an established credentialization process) and applied its findings to the world of incompetent-but-powerful senior faculty in Italian universities. The column explored such 21st-century questions as the sociology of trolling and the value of a comprehensive and professionally curated archive of Twitter.
The troubling developments at Miskatonic University were a challenge to report on, and I still regret covering part one of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, which gave the expression "train wreck" a whole new meaning. Reviewers have said that the budget and quality declined sharply with each new installment. I find that impossible to imagine but am glad to take their word for it.
The humanities and social sciences have received more attention in the column than mathematics or the natural sciences, and by an enormous margin. I regret this, and have made it a point at least to try, particularly with mathematics (see this and that). A few pieces have taken up topics such as the geology of the (literal) underworld, the world of subatomic particles and advances in cryptozoology.
Finally: I've written a number of commentaries and tributes following the deaths of various people, including the historian Philip Rieff and pomo prophet Jean Baudrillard. Thanks to the Google, I see that references to each of them have turned up in later years, including a description of J. B. as being, "in his day, [a] major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing," which still seems apt. So does the obit that says, "Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet," especially given Reed's place as a student of the poet Delmore Schwartz. A couple of the tributes were hard to write because the subjects were friends. Over the first few years of the column, I always kept in mind that the novelist and critic John Leonard was out there in the audience reading it. He said as much, which was inspiring and intimidating at the same time, and I miss him.
By contrast, the suicide of Aaron Swartz -- who, when we met, didn't look old enough to shave -- still seems difficult to believe. Yesterday I saw his photo while going through the spring catalog for The New Press, which is bringing out The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz in May. A worthy effort, but it's hard to feel anything but numb at the prospect of the posthumous collected works of an author who died at 26.
Ben Goldacre writes something in the preface to I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That which left me slightly dreading today's column: "Reading your own work from 10 years ago is a bit like being tied down, with your eyelids glued open, and forced to watch ten-foot videos of yourself saying stupid things with bad hair." Indeed! It's been a week of careful, strategic combing, that's for sure. It has been an interesting decade -- and while the work seems never to get easier, in a sense the effort is its own reward. (I wouldn't want the editors to take that too literally, because I'm counting on the paycheck.) And as the guy in a medieval shtetl is supposed to have said about his job keeping watch for the Messiah so he could blow a horn to tell everyone else: "Well, at least it's steady work."