Practicing Enlightenment: Public Intellectualism and a New Vision for Transforming the Public Sphere

posnerIn his 2002 book titled Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner laments many of the shortcomings he sees in our current generation of public intellectuals. For one, Posner criticizes the biased, careless and largely uninformed ways in which public intellectuals engage with the masses, arguing that today’s typical public intellectual simply responds to what the media reward, which often “has little to do with quality intellectual work and a great deal to do with fame and celebrity” (Farmer 204). As one scholar points out, this type of “celebrity status” is troublesome because it “has often come hand in hand with a loss of critical position and an eroding radical edge in public interventions” (Oslender 118). Other scholars such as Frank Farmer and Ellen Cushman have called into question and ultimately rejected Posner’s narrow definition of what it means to be a public intellectual in the 21st century. Farmer criticizes Posner’s “apparent inability to imagine public intellectuals as something other than academics with an identity crisis” (Farmer 203), and calls for a conceptual redefinition of public intellectualism that would encapsulate “the kind of public intellectual some of us would like to see” (204). For her part, Ellen Cushman finds the limited definitions of the public intellectual proposed by men such as Posner deeply problematic in their narrow understanding of the word “public,” and hence argues against the current tendency to “focus on a ‘public’ consisting of middle and upper class policy makers, administrators, and professionals,” one that effectively omits “an important site for uniting knowledge-making and political action: the local community” (Cushman 328). She later proposes a more broad definition of the term to include any intellectual who combines research, teaching, and community service efforts “in order to address social issues important to community members in under-served neighborhoods” (Cushman 329).

pundits

Today’s typical public intellectual simply responds to what the media reward, which often “has little to do with quality intellectual work and a great deal to do with fame and celebrity.”

In an article titled “How to be a Public Intellectual,” the late Christopher Hitchens appears to agree with Farmer and Cushman’s concerns over the “uses and abuses” of the term “public intellectual,” suggesting, “we probably do need a term that expresses a difference between true intellectuals and the rival callings of ‘opinion maker’ or ‘pundit,’ especially as the last two are intimately bound up with the world of television” (Hitchens 2008). Hitchens loosely defines a public intellectual as “someone who makes his or her living through the battle of ideas,” and then he somewhat sardonically points out that perhaps Posner’s point in subtitling his book “A Study in Decline” is proved by the very fact that Posner’s choice for number one in a list of 100 top intellectuals for the years 1995-2000 is “none other than Henry Kissinger” (Hitchens 2008, Grimes 2002). Hitchens’ observations hint at what Peter Dahlgren describes as a shift in the tradition of public intellectualism in which the more “romantic” or humanistic public scholar has been supplanted by the technical expertise and specialization of the “think tank” public intellectual (Dahlgren 97).

Scholars have pointed to a recent shift in the tradition of public intellectualism in which the more “romantic” or humanistic public scholar has been supplanted by the technical expertise and specialization of the “think tank” public intellectual.

Scholars have pointed to a recent shift in the tradition of public intellectualism in which the more “romantic” or humanistic public scholar has been supplanted by the technical expertise and specialization of the “think tank” public intellectual.

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Yet in the face of such alarming trends otherwise signaling the “decline” of the public intellectual, Dahlgren and other scholars have proposed a new vision for today’s public intellectual. This new vision ultimately asserts the possibility for public intellectuals to transform their communities and the university into the best of what Jürgen Habermas had in mind for the public sphere. After all, as Dahlgren observes, “[t]here are different ways of being intellectual and different ways of being public” (Dahlgren 99). What follows is a critical investigation of this new vision, a vision that is not only determined to justify the necessity of public intellectuals in a democratic society, but suggests how public intellectuals might use innovative pedagogy and new media to reach, expand, and help organize their audiences in a collective effort that has the potential to bring about yet another structural transformation of the public sphere.

An early image of the public sphere.

An early image of the public sphere.

In his seminal text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Jürgen Habermas explains how Kant envisioned the public sphere as both “the principle of the legal order and as the method of enlightenment” (Habermas 104). In expanding upon Kant, Habermas adds that not only is enlightenment uniquely mediated in the public sphere, but the “practice” of public enlightenment, that is to say, the public use of reason, should be “at first as a matter for scholars” (Habermas 104). Thus, the ideal public sphere is one in which scholars and the public engage with one another in the task of “practicing” enlightenment. In so doing, “common sense” solutions can be achieved, solutions that reflect “the genuine needs and correct tendencies of common life” (Habermas 120). Yet, as Habermas goes on to describe in the latter half of the book, late capitalism has brought about an era of refeudalization by co-opting the public sphere and turning it into a vehicle for the “psychological manipulation of advertising” (Habermas 190), the “engineering of consent” (192), and, most alarmingly, an agent for oppression. In his final chapter, “On the Concept of Public Opinion,” the consequences of this transformation of the public sphere are laid bare with Habermas’ observation that “all those behaviors of population groups would be designated as public opinion that are apt to modify or preserve the structures, practices, and goals of the system of domination” (Habermas 243).

Scholars such as Peter Dahlgren and Ulrich Oslender have connected Habermas’ ideas on the public sphere, the refeudalization of society, and the “colonization of the life world” to the debate over why public intellectuals are a crucial part of any just, humane, and democratic civilization. Writing at the height of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ulrich Oslender views the current world climate as being shaped by a “re-emerging binary thinking and the construction of old dualisms in new disguise” such as the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and the mindset of “us versus them” (Oslender 99). Calling for new public voices to emerge and speak out against what Habermas described as the “colonization of the life world” (Oslender 100), Oslender argues that public intellectuals are distinctively capable of countering “discursive reductionist constructs and denounc[ing] their underlying logics of war and domination” (99). He asserts there is a “collective desperation in the air,” one that “makes us thirst for intelligence as opposed to numbing down, for critically engaged arguments rather than brainwashed repetitions that insult our very notion of reasoned thinking” (Oslender 100).

Likewise drawing on Habermas’ idea of the colonization of the of the life world, Dahlgren argues that the trend toward placing a higher value on scientific and technical thought within public discourse “becomes problematic when it gains hegemony in domains that ultimately have to do not with the physical realities of the world, but with values, i.e. issues that are to be socially negotiated” (Dahlgren 106). In other words, issues that had previously resided in the realm of politics and reasoned interpretation, questions such as “how should we live?” or “how should we confront various dilemmas?” have increasingly become “more the terrain of technical expertise” (Dahlgren 106). This, Dahlgren asserts, is why it is not uncommon to see so-called scientific experts repeatedly appearing in the media to offer advice on topics such as love relationships, economics, and child rearing, advice which often perilously omits any sort of enlightened “reflection on values and politics” (Dahlgren 106).

Scholars have begun to envision a new role for intellectuals, one that requires them to venture outside the "safety zones" of academia.

Scholars have begun to envision a new role for intellectuals, one that requires them to venture outside the “safety zones” of academia.

As a way of resisting and possibly reversing this unfortunate trend, in an article in The Nation magazine on the public role of writers and intellectuals, Edward Said affirms that the public intellectual’s responsibility should extend far beyond merely offering scientific and technical advice; in fact, he writes, the intellectual’s role is “to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power” (Said 2001). More specifically, Said challenges public intellectuals to offer a “dispassionate account” of how we have constructed a system of “counterfeit universals” in the form of tacitly approved phrases such as the free market, privatization, and less government, phrases which are often deployed “not as they sometimes seem to be—as instigations for debate—but quite the opposite, to stifle, preempt and crush dissent” (Said 2001). In this climate, argues Said, what the public intellectual can offer is a counter testimony to how entities such as “identity, tradition and the nation” are ultimately constructed ones, and most often and more disturbingly, these entities are constructed in “the insidious form of binary oppositions that are inevitably expressed as hostile attitudes to the Other” (Said 2001). By rethinking Habermas’ ideas on the public sphere and the colonization of the life world, Oslender, Dahlgren, and Said have begun the work of envisioning a new role for intellectuals, one which, in the words of Ellen Cushman, reflects “a growing pressure for intellectuals to make knowledge that speaks directly to political issues outside of academe’s safety zones” (Cushman 329).

Cushman, along with other scholars, has proposed a new vision for the role of public intellectuals, one that requires them to venture outside the “safety zones” of academia. By integrating service learning and activist research, Cushman argues, public intellectuals can transform and reposition the university as a new and important site for the public sphere. Both Cushman and Frank Farmer give concrete examples of how college professors, particularly composition faculty, can incorporate service learning into their curriculum. In reviewing several book-length studies on service learning and composition studies focused on the public sphere, Farmer proposes an additional term—community intellectuals—to remind us “that there are other publics and other intellectuals” whose “often unheralded” work makes “an authentic difference in the lives of our neighbors” (Farmer 204). Yet, as Stanley Aronowitz points out in a 2010 op-ed piece that reiterates many of the problems he describes at length in The Knowledge Factory, the type of institutional change proposed by scholars like Cushman and Farmer is difficult to achieve for several reasons.

Perhaps most significantly, Aronowitz criticizes how the vast majority of “educational liberals” have “accepted the dominant framework: education or, more accurately, schooling should serve the economy; first and foremost students should be prepared to take their respective places in the world of work” (Aronowitz 2010). Within this framework, despite the liberal “rhetoric of the centrality of critical thinking,” most schools have been relegated to technical and vocational “training grounds” (Aronowitz 2010). Not surprisingly, Aronowitz’s more recent suggestion for transforming the corporate university is the same as it was over a decade ago:

What the educational radicals should offer the handwringing liberals is what radicals do best: go to the root of things. Education should be a preparation for life, especially helping kids become active in determining the conditions that most affect them (Aronowitz 2010).

Service learning gives students the opportunity to become involved in their communities and helps "enact citizenship in a larger sense."

Service learning gives students the opportunity to become involved in their communities and helps “enact citizenship in a larger sense.”

To this end, Cushman offers examples of how service learning and activist research can be incorporated into (and by definition beyond) the university writing classroom. In seeking to help students become involved in their communities and “[t]o enact citizenship in a larger sense,” Cushman recommends that the public intellectual “can begin by developing service learning or outreach courses” in which students are asked “to test the merit of what they learn in the university classroom against their experiences” by volunteering in their communities at sites such as homeless shelters, primary and secondary schools, and old-age homes (Cushman 330). Cushman goes on to describe how, by engaging in activist research (which she defines as the combination of “postmodern ethnographic techniques with notions of reciprocity and dialogue to insure reciprocal and mutually beneficial relations among scholars and those with whom the knowledge is made”) (332), public intellectuals can “find and generate overlaps between aesthetics and politics,” or, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt, “forge a more secure link between the love of art and human decency” (334).

Henry Giroux, perhaps one of the most outspoken scholars addressing the role public intellectuals might play in re-shaping the public sphere, affirms that within rhetoric and composition studies there “has been a long legacy of attempting to combine theoretical rigor with social relevance” (Giroux 9). This legacy explains why theorists in the field have consistently “approached language and writing as a form of cultural production” by linking “academic discourse to the material relations of power shaping everyday life” (Giroux 9). Particularly in a post-Littleton era, Giroux insists that educators must strive to unite “the politics of schooling with political struggles,” and suggests this can be accomplished in part by challenging the corporate culture industry’s “exclusive emphasis on the private good” and thus reconnecting critical pedagogy “to a notion of the public good” (Giroux 31). Borrowing Cornel West’s term “crisis of vision” to characterize “all levels of schooling and culture in the United States,” Giroux calls upon rhetoric and composition educators, as well as other academics, teachers, students, and parents, to organize and confront today’s “growing ascendancy of corporate power” marked by the “shrinking of non-commodified public spaces” and “the spread of market values that has undermined those elements of care, respect, and compassion for others that must be central to any decent democratic society” (Giroux 35).

In a recent article declaring that public education’s democratic mission is “under assault by a conservative right-wing reform culture,” Giroux likewise makes a bold claim that public schools are currently under the attack of market-driven forces “not because they are failing (though some are) but because they are one of the few public spheres left where people can learn the knowledge and skills necessary to allow them to think critically and hold power and authority accountable” (Giroux 2012). Giroux implores today’s educators to refuse to succumb to the pressures of bringing up student test scores by narrowing their pedagogy and, in consequence, stifling critical thinking. Instead, they should view themselves “through the lens of civic responsibility” and re-envision the classroom as a “democratic public sphere” (Giroux 2012). As public intellectuals, Giroux believes today’s educators have the obligation to “focus their work on important social issues that connect what is learned in the classroom to the larger society and lives of their students” (Giroux 2012). Naming issues such as climate change, globalization, the growth of the prison-industrial complex, and student debt, Giroux envisions a pedagogy that “can be addressed as a moral and political discourse,” one that empowers students to “speak with conviction” and “enter the public sphere in order to address important social problems and demonstrate alternative models” (Giroux 2012).

Other scholars, such as Daniel A. Gilbert, agree with Giroux’s assessment that educators are the “essential guardians” of the public sphere (Gilbert 2). Like Aronowitz, Gilbert points to the corporatization of the university and the casualization of intellectual labor, and argues these forces necessitate “a reconsideration of the question of the public intellectual” (Gilbert 1), for “there is no such thing as a guaranteed public sphere” and academic workers must organize “before we ourselves, along with our ideas and our academy, are swept under the rug” (10). It should be noted that one key distinction between theorists like Gilbert, Farmer, Cushman, Said, Giroux, etc. and the neoliberal views on public intellectualism expressed by Richard Posner is how the former have consistently offered a radical new vision for the role of public intellectuals in creating a more just and democratic society. Posner simply relies on pseudo-scientific data and capitalist terminology to catalogue a decline in the “market” for public intellectuals, yet offers no real solutions for the way forward (Boynton 2002). In light of this, it may very well be time for a new term to signify “the kind of public intellectual some of us would like to see” (Farmer 204).

While Farmer and others have proposed the term “community intellectual,” Edward Said has suggested sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the “collective intellectual” may be more helpful to describe the intellectual’s intervention in the public sphere. Bourdieu maintains that the work of re-shaping the public sphere, particularly the obligation to offer a critique of abuses of power and authority:

…cannot be done, as some thought in the past, by a single great intellectual, a master-thinker endowed only with the resources of his singular thought, or by the authorized spokesperson for a group, or an institution presumed to speak in the name of those without voice, union, party, and so on. This is where the collective intellectual can play its irreplaceable role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias (quoted in Said 2001).

It has been suggested that the sole “intellectual superstar” such as Bernard-Henri Lévy is primarily useful only to the “news-as-snippets mass media, for whom it is important to present a (preferably good-looking) figurehead as commentator on public issues."

It has been suggested that the sole “intellectual superstar” such as Bernard-Henri Lévy is primarily useful only to the “news-as-snippets mass media, for whom it is important to present a (preferably good-looking) figurehead as commentator on public issues.”

According to Said, Bourdieu’s idea of the collective intellectual is devoid of “any utopian teleology toward which human history can be described as moving,” leaving intellectuals with the collective task of inventing or hypothesizing “a better situation from the known historical and social facts” (Said 2001). Accordingly, though one obviously “can’t do or know everything, it must always be possible to discern the elements of a struggle … that can be elucidated dialectically, and also to sense that other people have a similar stake and work in a common project” (Said 2001). This is arguably the very sort of dialectical enlightenment Habermas described as being possible within a true public sphere, which might help explain why the singular term “public intellectual” has indeed become inadequate. After all, as Ulrich Oslender observes, the sole “intellectual superstar” such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Bernard-Henri Lévy is primarily useful only to the “news-as-snippets aesthetizising mass media, for whom it is important to present a (preferably good-looking) figurehead as commentator on public issues” (Oslender 109). In this sense, Posner is correct to condemn the “slapdash, interested, and typically uninformed manner” in which today’s public intellectual performs his or her duties (Farmer 203). But the conversation needn’t stop there.

The advent of the information age and consequent “digital transformation of the public sphere” has arguably created new and exciting possibilities for today’s public intellectual.

The advent of the information age and consequent “digital transformation of the public sphere” has arguably created new and exciting possibilities for today’s public intellectual.

In writing about the duty of educators to provide “a language of resistance” against neoliberalism, Giroux describes hope as “a referent for civic courage” that empowers intellectuals to connect teaching and learning with the public sphere, a sphere that is always evolving with the “force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic and social transformation” (Giroux 2012). By way of conclusion, the 21st century has provided a unique opportunity for this “unending project” of public/community/collective intellectualism. Though there is much more to be said on this topic, the advent of the information age and consequent “digital transformation of the public sphere” has arguably created new and exciting possibilities for today’s public intellectual (Dahlgren 101). Noting how the Internet’s decentralized, participatory logic has provided an “alternative to the top-down structure of the older mass media,” Dahlgren asks, “Who would have thought from the beginning that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would become important institutions of the public sphere?” (Dahlgren 100). While there are reasons to be cautious about this shift, the digital transformation of the public sphere has certainly given rise to a “wave of optimism in regard to its democratic potential” (Dahlgren 100). What exactly we do with this potential remains to be seen, but there are many reasons to be hopeful that the information age has, among other things, opened up new and collective ways of practicing enlightenment.

 Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley. “Education Reconsidered: Beyond the Death of Critical Education.” Truthout. 16 Sept. 2010. 24 Nov. 2012. <http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/72&gt;

Boynton, Robert S. “‘Sounding Off,’ a review of Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals,” The Washington Post Book World, (20 Jan. 2002). Web. 23 Nov. 2012.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” College English, 61:3 (Jan. 1999): 328-336.

Dahlgren, Peter. “Public Intellectuals, Online Media, and Public Spheres: Current Realignments.” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society, 25.4 (20 Sept. 2012): 95-110.

Farmer, Frank. “Review: Community Intellectuals.” College English, 65:2 (Nov 2002): 202-210.

Gilbert, Daniel A. “The Corporate University and the Public Intellectual.” Working Group on Globalization and Culture, Breaking Down the Ivory Tower: the University in the Creation of Another World, 2005.1: 1-10.

Giroux, Henry A. “Can Democratic Education Survive in a Neoliberal Society?” Truthout. 16 Oct. 2012. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/12126-can-democratic-education-survive-in-a-neoliberal-society&gt;

—. “Public Pedagogy and the Responsibility of Intellectuals: Youth, Littleton, and the Loss of Innocence.” Jac: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, 20.1 (2000): 9-42.

Grimes, William. “Another Top 100 List: This Time, Intellectuals.” The New York Times. 19 Jan. 2002.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991. Print.

Hitchens, Christopher. “How to be a public intellectual.” Prospect Magazine. 24 May 2008. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/what-is-a-public-intellectual/&gt;

Oslender, Ulrich. “The Resurfacing of the Public Intellectual: Towards the Proliferation of Public Spaces of Critical Intervention.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6.1 (2007), 98-123. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Said, Edward W. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” The Nation, 273.8 (17 Sept. 2001): 27. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

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