Journal: The new intellectuals

[ Tue. Nov. 20. 2007 ]

I'm going to attempt another of those free-wheeling posts in which I try to make some connections among articles, ideas and writers I've been reading lately. What I hope to accomplish is the beginning of a proposal, a modest call for attention, to establish a new conversation about intellectuals, those who think and feel something is not right in world of art, literature and creativity.

A menu of possible assertions:

1. Intellectuals need to talk less with each other and more to everyone else

2. Scientists have taken the traditional place of the public intellectual

3. Intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth

4. As newspapers recede, and the traditional hubs of intellectual activity recede with them, a new grassroots movement of intellectuals is needed to take its place.

Act 1: Theoretical bullshit

I'll start with something that I've returned to often (here and here and here, for instance): the disconcerting intellectual phenomenon that asserts that there is no such thing as objective reality, that epistemology is subjective, that facts are conditional.

I suppose I keep writing about it because without an fundamental agreement about what truth is -- and for that matter, what constitutes deception, equivocation, obfuscation, bullshit and outright lies -- how can we as critics, as mere human beings, accomplish much that is constructive, meaningful and significant?

Please don't get me wrong. I lean left, not right. I'm not trying to defend the high walls of Western Civilization. In fact, I argue that intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth as someone once ensconced in the Ivory Tower.

During my time at the University of Cincinnati, I became indoctrinated by literary critical theory. I came to believe in the postmodern condition of American culture. I believed in my ability to "read" anything like a "text," even non-semantic things like fashion, architecture and medical procedures. I suspected Enlightenment ideals like Reason and Truth were vestiges of imperial European colonization. Every subject -- whether porn, pulp fiction, romance novels, comic books -- all boiled down cynically to struggles for political and social power.

While I am grateful for postmodernism as a strategy for dismantling, or deconstructing, formerly entrenched ways of thinking, it's no humanist philosophy. There's little concern for people in it; there's little concern for morality in it. While postmodernist readings of, say, advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes (which I smoked) made "logical" sense, I felt that at its heart, postmodernism was a game of rhetoric, an argument over words and their struggle for meaning.

I left class many, many times feeling a kind of existential disorientation, a kind of out-of-body experience caught between a world constructed by language and a language that's always indeterminate. Hence, the world was indeterminate, like an illusion. If the world is indeterminate, possessing no ontological center independent of human consciousness, authoritative truth matters very little. Instead of one truth, there were many truths, with one being just as "good" as the other.

This kind of thinking is not exclusive to universities, or to people interested in and sensitive to intellectual inquiry. This postmodern relativism has trickled down to popular culture as well. Consider the book "Thank You For Smoking," Christopher Buckley's brilliant 1995 parody of Big Tobacco's downfall. The main character, Nick Naylor, is a master of postmodern relativism. No matter how much he was guilty of the sins of spin, by the judgment-free rules of postmodernism (it's a descriptive strategy, not proscriptive), his truth is as valid as any other, even if it's destructive bullshit.

And even if this kind of thinking is becoming passé in academe, which it is, it's influence lingers beyond the hallowed halls. Consider this response to our dearly departed Molly Ivins, who had offered one last cautionary tale about letting the amateur efforts of bloggers be confused with the professional, gritty and pain-in-the-ass tenacity of beat reporters. This reader was responding to Ivins' suggestion that bloggers try their hand at reporting a highway accident, just to see how difficult, challenging and rewarding determining the truth can be.

 

"If there is no objective truth, but only subjective truth (hence your five-car pile-up analogy) -- then what difference does it make if someone was a reporter or not? I am able to state subjective truth at a moment's notice -- it's always true for me!"

Act 2: The sins of our intellectuals

I don't think that it's overstating the case when I say that this kind of thinking is the result of academics and other intellectuals abandoning objective truth. And this attitude doesn't stop with fiction and the cranky comments of a Molly Ivins fan.

Harry G. Frankfurt, the moral philosopher formerly at Princeton, said the attitude is ubiquitous among a great many writers, artists and intellectuals in his 2005 treatise titled "On Truth," a follow-up to his bestselling book, "On Bullshit." In it, he said that "we live in a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect. ... this attitude -- or, indeed, a more extreme version of it -- has become disturbingly widespread even within what might naively have been thought to be a more reliable class of people."

He continued:

"Numerous unabashed skeptics and cynics about the importance of truth ... have been found among best-selling and prize-winning authors, among writers for leading newspapers, and among hitherto respected historians, biographers, memoirists, theorists of literature, novelists -- and even among philosophers ...

And:

"These shameless antagonists of common sense -- members of a certain emblematic subgroup call themselves 'postmodernists' -- rebelliously and self-righteously deny that truth has any genuinely objective reality at all. They therefore go on to deny that truth is worthy of any obligatory deference or respect. ... the postmodernists' view is that in the end the assignment of those entitlements is just up for grabs. It is simply a matter, as they say, of how you look at it."

In other words, it seems the intellectuals have failed us.

How can we talk about issues, debate points of view, engage in any kind of public conversation if there is no agreement on reality independent of human whim, desire, interest, folly, fear and ignorance? The intellectuals are suppose to talk about our country's important issues. Instead, for the past 30 years, they've turned inward, addressed themselves, left the pulpit to the pundits and undermined our ability to talk coherently, objectively and constructively about the things that matter most.

The failure of the intellectuals, some say, has lead to America's cultural and political decline. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, noted in a widely read speech to graduates at Stanford University in June that such decline has occurred even as our economy has flourished and renewed itself since the '60s.

" ... surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture."

Gioia continued:

"This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life."

In 1963, the novelist and chemist C.P. Snow wrote a book that provided a vision of just the kind of intellectual transformation that Gioia talks about. It was called "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," a follow-up to his 1959 book "The Two Cultures." In the first book, Snow talked about the division between literary intellectuals and scientists, how each didn't understand the other. In the second book, he envisioned a middle way, a "third culture" that was a consensus in which intellectuals talked with scientists, scientists to intellectuals, feeding the expertise and creativity of each other.

But that never happened.

Act 3: Being replaced by scientists

"The traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost."

Those are the words of John Brockman, author, impresario and book agent for Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, writing on his website, Edge. Note such words as "reactionary," "nonempirical," "the real world gets lost."

In 1996, Alan Sokal did something that illustrated just how far the real world had gotten lost in the hyper-jargon of literary theory. A physicist at New York University, Sokal submitted a paper to Social Text, an academic journal devoted to the discussion of postmodern literary theory. In it, he argued that quantum gravity is a social construction with profound political implications.

In other words, it was utter nonsense. I'm not really sure I've paraphrased the paper well. But it doesn't matter, because the point is that Social Context thought he was serious, lending credence to suspicions that such things as honesty and truth don't matter. As Sokal wrote in an article in Lingua Franca explaining his "experiment":

In the first paragraph I deride "the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook": that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in "eternal"' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the "objective'" procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

Why did Sokal do this? To make a point:

... What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- meaning postmodernist literary theory -- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and "text,'' then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and "language games,'" then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.

Postmodernism had already been under attack by right-wing jeremiahs like Alan Bloom in "The Closing of the American Mind." What Sokal's experiment showed, however, was that postmodernism is not just a tool for exposing the power structures of the status quo, to be naturally attacked by defenders of that power, but also, at its core, a poor and perhaps even harmful foundation for intellectual inquiry.

While the editors of Social Context, including the luminous scholar Andrew Ross, author of the near-impenetrable tome, "No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture," were busy accepting a hoax as serious scholarship, John Brockman was getting to work communicating with real people about things that really matter.

According to this piece in the London Guardian titled "The new age of ignorance," Brockman has done more than anyone to break down C.P. Snow's divide. But instead of encouraging literary intellectuals to communicate with scientists and then in turn communicate what they find to an engaged, educated reading public, Brockman has devised a "Third Culture" that doesn't need any help thanks.

"'The Third Culture' consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are," he writes on his website, Edge.

He continued:

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book "The Last Intellectuals," the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.

In short, the scientists don't need the intellectuals anymore.

They're doing it themselves.

The Guardian article also notes that Ian McEwan is one of the few novelists to contribute to the Edge's ongoing debates and that he suggests the project is not so far removed from the "old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists."

Why can't literary and aesthetic intellectuals talk like this anymore?

Act 4: The new intellectuals

Brockman, via the Edge and the Edge Reality Club, a kind of scientist's salon, is doing wonders for advancing the national conversation about science and scientific thinking. There are more magazines devoted science than ever more, more hunger for science and more books about science, even some that advance atheism.

But what about the literary and aesthetic intellectuals? What about them? They are around, but their influence seems to be shrinking even more drastically thanks to shrinking exposure given to them by Big Media, especially newspapers.

Book sections have traditionally been the forum for such conversations and we all know where these are going: newspapers in LA, Chicago, Minneapolis, Raleigh and Atlanta have all either sacked their books editors, reduced their book pages, consolidated them or even moved them from their historical place on Sundays.

Newspapers, in short, are not going to cut it. So what to do?

Perhaps an answer can be found in a new grassroots publication in Connecticut. Called the New Haven Review of Books, the publication is the result of numerous writers in that city who believe someone has to pick up where the newspapers have left off.

As Mark Oppenheimer, a former editor of the New Haven Advocate and author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture," writes, these are times that require innovative thinking by innovative people who live just about everywhere, not just in LA and New York.

In an age of shrinking book-review holes in newspapers, we're going to have to find new ways to get the word out about great books. Some of those ways will be local, and small in scale. We may never publish another issue of the New Haven Review (our motto is "Published Annually at Most"), but by just publishing once, we've made a statement in support of literary culture. Wouldn't it be cool if other small- and medium-sized towns -- Austin, Des Moines, Albany, etc. -- decided they wanted local book reviews, too? [italics mine] Maybe such reviews would feature local writers doing the reviewing, the way ours does, or maybe they would feature reviews of books by local authors. Either way, they would be reminders that major urban publications do not have to be the sole instruments for book reviewing.

And that leads us to the second statement that even one issue of a small, local book review makes: there are writers everywhere. Just here in New Haven and the surrounding towns we managed to round up Alice Mattison, Bruce Shapiro, Debby Applegate, Deirdre Bair, Jim Sleeper, Amy Bloom, and a couple dozen other greats. Many of us have never even met one another. We don't have a literary "scene" in this modest city; there is no cocktail-party circuit. But there are writers.

This model won't replace the big-city, big-time book reviews; we still need them. And unless some angel comes along to fund another issue, this may be the last you hear of the New Haven Review of Books. But we're in an age of renewed attention to localism and regionalism, and book reviews -- like farmers' markets, or even local currencies -- can do their part.

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