Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Are Intelllectuals a Dying Breed?

There are still public intellectuals. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria is a public intellectual, as are writers on geopolitics like Robert D. Kaplan and Francis Fukuyama, lawyer/philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Robert Nagel and opinionators on the general state of the soul like New York Times columnist David Brooks. Hannah Arendt and the polymathic Susan Sontag, practically coined the terms as probably the two greatest public intellectuals of the 20thcentury. The Shakespearian scholar Stephen Greenblatt epitomizes the idea of a public intellectual in the way he moves from the scholarly to the global in books like The Swerve, which is a meditation on both Lucretius and his mother. But while intellectuals can still occupy a certain spotlight, the intellectual life as a calling is under siege. During the age of little magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary back in the 50s and 60s (remember the famous Woody Allen joke about Commentary and Dissent merging to form Dysentery)intense debates occurred that drew huge amounts of discussion amongst a relatively rarefied audience. One of the last of these occurred between Lingua Franca, a relatively old school literary review and Social Text, which was a sounding board for deconstructionism, with one of the editors of Lingua Franca perpetrating a hoax on its rival publication. Battles of ideas could indeed be ferocious. Remember Mary McCarthy’s famous snipe at Lillian Hellman, “every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the?'” The bite may have been greater than the bite, but still was heard. The problem today is that unless you’re one of the aforementioned stars, who are usually pretty adept at interfacing with social media, you’re not going to be heard. "The message" to quote Marshall McCluhan is definitely "the medium" and magazines with circulations of 5000 tend not to pay the freight. The discussion of great ideas in an extra academic arena devoid of jargonese is becoming increasingly extinct.

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

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