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Public Intellectuals

Having read far too many articles and heard far too many talks, I am confessing to writing like an academic.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #3, November 1992

I have a confession to make. In the essay I wrote for last month's issue of Bad Subjects, "Cynicism and the Election," I engaged in an unnecessary and perhaps even gratuitous use of theory: I made reference to the works of cultural theorists Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Zizek in order to explain the concepts of "cynical reason" and "cynical spectatorship." It wasn't necessary for me to mention them in order to make my argument effectively and clearly. However, I am a graduate student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley, and as such I am accustomed by training, habit, professional incentive and plain old peer pressure to feeling that unless I can drop a few theoretical references into my discussion, my arguments are going to seem weak, unimpressive ,inadequate. In other words, Sloterdijk and Zizek are there primarily to impress you, not to enlighten you — that latter task could have been accomplished quite well without the academic phrasings. And the term "academic" pretty much gives the game away: finally, I am simply confessing to writing like an academic.

From the perspective of academia itself, of course, this is hardly a sin to be confessed and atoned for; indeed, the practice of legitimating one's argument by studding it with theoretical terms and references is a sign of one's promise, a measure of how much one has succeeded in assimilating to the interests, protocols and conventions of the profession. As a graduate student, an academic in training, I am supposed to seek to impress my colleagues (peers and superiors) with my knowledge of the latest models or revivals of European theory — "theory" meaning simply the multiple philosophical and critical perspectives with which academics in the humanities, especially those who do "cultural studies," construct meanings from the increasingly various objects or "texts" that we study. "Theory" is certainly not all I am expected to know, but effective command over at least one or two theoretical "languages" is one of the main criteria by which the profession determines who qualifies for the top ranks and thus receives the best rewards, in the form of faculty support and sponsorship, fellowships, opportunities to speak at prestigious conferences and publish in prestigious journals, and — this is what it's finally all about, selling your labor power in a competitive market — who gets the best jobs at the best institutions.

I sometimes think that the professional hierarchy of prestige goes like this: those who "do theory" well, those who "do theory" at all, and those who don't "do theory." I have read far too many articles and heard far too many talks — especially when the talks are by individuals seeking academic employment — in which there is an argument, often a very interesting one, that might have been effectively and sharply presented in half the space and time that was actually taken, but which was overburdened with strictly academic terms and references because of the very real need to Impress The Audience, which in academia means Getting In As Many Theoretical References As Possible Without Showing Off Too Much. For it is not entirely a cynical joke within academia that the more obscure and difficult your argument is, the more impressed (or intimidated) your audience will be. Since I am convinced that most of us claim, in varying degrees, to read and understand more theory than we actually do, when confronted with a theoretically dense and opaque article or talk, our response is more likely to be a vaguely threatened "Wow! How smart!" rather than "Huh? What are you talking about?" — out of fear that we will be seen as intellectually deficient and thus unprepared to compete on the professional market. After all, the very last thing anyone wants in this profession is to seem stupid. Currently, the situation in academia is one in which an awful lot of very smart people are being rewarded for producing a great deal of arguably very bad writing — "bad" in this case because its very nature is to exclude all but a very specialized group of readers.

I am exaggerating the situation a bit, of course. But not much. On the other hand, and to be fair, from the perspective of the profession itself, what I have described is not a problem at all but simply the very nature of academic study. Specialization in both what we study and how we communicate our observations is healthy for the profession, the argument usually runs, because it expands the frontiers of knowledge, and eventually even the most arcane theoretical ideas will be translated into more accessible terms as they are disseminated, particularly through our teaching. And unless we are encouraged to compete and specialize, there will be no incentive for us to push forward the frontiers of knowledge, and thus no new wisdom to pass along to the less-educated minds behind us. There is certainly some validity to this argument, and I do not want to come across as hostile to theory and specialization; I merely wish to raise some questions about what academics tend to do with theory and specialization.

What is fundamentally at stake here is the question of accountability — to whom are we, as professional academics, finally responsible? According to the reasoning I have just outlined, academics must be accountable to their professional colleagues. These are the people who make the decisions that affect our livelihood, who determine who will get hired, get published, get tenure. This would make more sense if research within our professional fields were all that academics are expected to do — but we are also teachers, as well as citizens, and those of us who work for public institutions like the University of California are also public servants. But in terms of our careers, it is the judgment of the profession that matters most. While the situation certainly varies from place to place, professional prestige is mainly achieved by impressing our colleagues, not our students, and not the public at large. In fact, the competitive pressures to distinguish oneself professionally seem to foster an attitude of disregard if not outright contempt for the opinion of these latter two groups among many in the profession; and this is understandable, since it is currently very difficult to please all of these audiences simultaneously, and taking sides with the students and making teaching one's top concern is not the most promising career strategy.

The problem of the conflict between research and teaching among academics is something of a commonplace, and I don't want to belabor a point that so many of you are already familiar with. I am primarily interested here in what this problem means for academics who, like myself, identify themselves as "leftist" or "progressive." We are people whose political values and beliefs are democratic and inclusive, yet we have chosen a profession which is elitist and exclusive. And, especially as graduate students, we agonize over this contradiction, even as we allow ourselves to be complicit with it. Frequently the problem is framed in terms of the split between "academia" and "activism." One of the underlying and often unacknowledged assumptions of this perspective is that what we do as academics is politically worthless, so if you want to be "really" political, you become an activist outside of the university, or at the very least you march in demonstrations, write letters to Congress, or volunteer time with community-service organizations. I am not surprised that activists display such open contempt for what academics do (we don't "do" anything, according to the extreme version of this perspective, except sit around and bullshit while people suffer miserably in the streets outside our "ivory towers"); I regret it and I resent it, but it does not surprise me. What does surprise and sadden me is how many leftist academics share in this contempt for what they have chosen to do with their lives. It is something we all struggle with to some degree.

As well we should — there is more than a little truth to the anti-academic position, which is no doubt why it seldom fails to sting us a little. One response to the problem of "academia vs. activism" is to concede that the anti-academic position is correct, that our work as academic scholars is largely irrelevant politically, and that we are therefore disingenuous about our leftist commitments unless we are engaged in some form of "real world" political action. What is usually overlooked about this response is that one of its consequences is to allow academics freedom to be politically irresponsible, since if what we do as academics doesn't make any difference, then we are free to do whatever we please in our work. We need not worry about its political value, since by definition it has virtually no value. Thus the difficult question of how we might use our special skills as academics to serve progressive interests is thus conveniently side-stepped, and everyone can get on with business as usual.

A different response to the problem has been one that tries to resolve the contradiction by making academic work into a kind of activism, an approach that has had tremendous success over the past two decades, resulting in, among other things, the establishment of ethnic and women's studies programs and departments, the opening of the curriculum to new cultures, voices and perspectives, and the erosion of traditional disciplinary boundaries and the emergence of anti-disciplinary "cultural studies." The recent wave of attacks in the mainstream media on "political correctness" should be seen as testimony to the significance of these democratizing changes in the "ivory towers" of academia: at least some influential people are threatened enough by the political nature of these reforms to try to discredit them. Unfortunately, progressive academics have not done a very good job of responding to these attacks, which can be seen in the fact that "political correctness" has entered the vocabulary of popular culture with largely negative connotations: it is seen as either silly or repressive, or both. In the absence of a strong and credible defense within the mainstream media from progressive academics, a watered-down version of the reactionary view of "political correctness" has achieved the status of common sense. Too often, the reaction on the academic left to such attacks is either to whine about them or smugly ridicule them; seldom do we engage them substantively and publicly.

I think that the progressive "democratizing" approach to the politics of academia has accomplished enough that we can begin to assess its limitations. I am most interested here in the fact that while academics are now talking about a more diverse and truly representative range of subjects than ever before, we are still talking about them in much the same old exclusionary professional languages. So while we can now study Madonna's videos, or African-American urban street culture, or the politics of sitcoms, we still tend to write about these topics in ways that make our ideas largely inaccessible or incomprehensible to the vast majority of the people who produce and consume the objects we study — even as we claim that our work is somehow about "empowering" these very same people by taking their cultural preferences seriously. The history of what is known as "cultural studies" is telling: as many have noted, what started out as an arguably insurgent and political movement aimed at making academic work more relevant to the problems and concerns of people outside academia, particularly those we like to call "the oppressed," has increasingly become one more academic "discipline" among all the others, in which academics with potentially disruptive political perspectives can be contained by providing them with their own journals, conferences, and faculty positions.

So perhaps the time has come for those of us on the academic left to admit that making our work political by democratizing its content was a necessary step, but is no longer sufficient. We must consider the irony that there has probably never before been such an accumulated mass of scholarship showing in intricate detail the workings of oppression, both subtle and crude, at every level of society and culture; yet this accumulated critique has been more successful as a new growth industry within academia than as an effective intervention to change the very conditions that prompt us to make the critique in the first place. In other words, maybe the time has come for us to consider the question of our accountability. For I still earnestly believe that much of the knowledge and insight that leftist or progressive academics produce as cultural critics is potentially genuinely empowering; we just need to find the right ways of presenting it to the right audiences. The point I have been trying to make is that right now, we are mostly presenting such knowledge in the wrong ways to the wrong audiences. We are still largely trapped by the problem of a small elite of specialists talking to each other in specialized and exclusionary ways.

What I am proposing is that academic leftists need to start seeing ourselves as primarily accountable not to our fellow academics, but to a larger public — however that may be defined. We need to reimagine ourselves as public intellectuals. We already have some good role models to imitate: the names of Barbara Ehrenreich, Anita Hill and Noam Chomsky immediately come to mind, each offering a very different sort of example, yet each qualifying, I think, as a courageous "public intellectual." All have tried to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible. Their success is debatable; their efforts are not. One important task of the academically-trained and university-based public intellectual would be to work as a kind of translator: to make the insights and perspectives of our professional work accessible, meaningful and relevant to as broad a public as possible. We need to justify our work, to show that it matters. (As for "leftist" academics who don't think that what they do matters, I can only wonder why they do not simply find a new line of work.) There is, of course, one way in which academics are already serving as public intellectuals, and that is as teachers in classrooms at the undergraduate level, where we routinely present ourselve s and our ideas to an audience of people from diverse backgrounds, who will go on to occupy a broad range of positions in society. The idea of teaching as a form of public activism for academic leftists is one I'll leave for a different essay; for now, let me just say that I think that if we are truly serious about our political commitments, then everything we say and do in our classrooms, every aspect of our teaching from the syllabus to our relations with our students, should be seen as an extension of and reflection upon our political values. If we believe in those values, then we want our students to embrace them, too: we are there to set an example.

In calling upon the academic left to start thinking of itself in terms of public intellectuals, I am all too aware of the difficulties involved. So much of our profession works against the idea. We are certainly not encouraged in our professional training to appeal to a general audience in our thinking and writing, especially at the formative level of apprenticeship as graduate student. In order to succeed, we must cultivate habits of mind that serve the interests of colleagues and superiors, and these are very specific and specialized interests indeed. Habits of the mind, once firmly entrenched, are difficult to break: that's the problem I confront every time I sit down to write a piece for Bad Subjects. Another very real problem is that the writing we do for non-academic audiences isn't likely to count for much in terms of professional prestige and recognition. Getting a smart and accessible critique published in, say, the Sunday supplements may provide you with an audience vastly larger than an academicized version in a scholarly journal, but only the latter will help you get tenure. In other words, we have to face up to the fact that our political commitments may be in real conflict with our professional ambitions. If time spent on writing fo r a non-academic public is time taken away from scholarly research and writing, then those of us who call ourselves academic leftists may have to make the painful decision to sacrifice some individual professional success in order to serve our larger collective political interests. But isn't this the very definition of public service?

It will take us a lot of time and practice to figure out just what it would mean to conceive of ourselves as public intellectuals. This is where Bad Subjects is relevant. The purpose behind Bad Subjects, at least as Annalee Newitz and myself have envisioned it, is to provide a public forum, however limited, in which leftists and progressives can experiment with imagining and building some kind of new public culture. In particular, we hope that graduate students (among others) who feel frustrated by the lack of opportunities to make their academic work more relevant and accessible will use Bad Subjects for that purpose. As we said in the first issue, Bad Subjects is intended to promote public education about the political implications of everyday life. It is also meant to be a platform upon which we might begin to build alliances. As academics we have few resources beyond our highly specialized intellectual skills. One reason for trying to make those skills of service to a broader public is to demonstrate our usefulness to others who possess skills and resources academics don't have. Politically-committed academics won't be able to do much without forming coalitions with others outside academia — but that doesn't mean we have to renounce our distinctive abilities to do so. We must simply prove our value. We must be accountable.

Bad Subjects, then, is an experiment. We do not claim that our audience represents "the general public" or "society at large." But while this particular essay is addressed mainly to academics, Bad Subjects in general is not. We are addressing the Berkeley campus community, and that's a relatively diverse group of potential readers; it is certainly more diverse than the audience academics write for professionally. We know that our readership includes graduate students and undergraduates, faculty and staff, as well as people who do not fall into any of these categories. This makes for some genuine confusion about what sort of language to adopt, the sort of confusion that was a factor in the "gratuitous use of theory" I confessed to in this essay's opening. A big part of the point in writing for Bad Subjects, for me at least, is to get some practice with developing the voice of a "public intellectual." We need to hear from more of you, and not just those of you who are academics, because the more examples we have to consider, the more we will all learn about what the voice of the leftist public intellectual might sound like.

Finally, then, this article is a pitch for submissions. Without contributions from you, and soon, Bad Subjects will be history. This is how we're doing so far: More than 250 copies of Issue #1 went into circulation, and more than 400 copies of Issue # 2; we expect to print 400 to 500 copies of this issue. People have also been photocopying Bad Subjects and distributing it themselves (thank you!), but we don't know how many copies have been produced this way. We know that people are reading Bad Subjects not only in Berkeley and the Bay Area, but also in Los Angeles, Boston, Madison (Wisc.), and in Cairo, Egypt. Most intriguingly, perhaps, we know that several copies of the first two issues were made available in one of the installations where Department of Defense work on military communications satellites is done at Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California. And again, that's just what we know about. I hope this information will encourage more of you to contribute: Bad Subjects is getting some attention, and thus so will you if you write for it. Politically speaking, Bad Subjects is no solution to anything. It could, however, be a tool with which we might be able, collectively and individually, to build some solutions.

Copyright © 1992 by Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.