You are here

The Voice of Authority: Michel Foucault's Problematization of the Intellectual

What makes somebody an intellectual? You may not be able to establish with absolute certainty that someone is an intellectual, but you will still know an intellectual when you see one. If you see one.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #52, November 2000

What makes somebody an intellectual? It is commonplace to explain the difference between human beings and other creatures in terms of intellectual capacity. Although research on higher mammals such as primates, whales, and even pigs has made it harder to think this difference in black-and-white simplicity, most people remain confident in their status as exceptions to the rule of nature. Animals may be conscious, but they are not self-conscious in the way that we are. They may indeed use a kind of language as a means of managing group behavior, but lack the ability to contemplate language from a theoretical standpoint. They are, in short, deficient in powers of abstraction.

Or at least that's what we like to tell ourselves, as we pat ourselves on the back for having a totally rad species being. Yet this recognition of our exceptional status on the planet rarely leads to the conclusion that everybody is an intellectual. On the contrary, the difference we discern between human beings and other creatures is almost always reinscribed in our analyses of society. When we restrict our attention to human beings alone, we suddenly find it necessary to distinguish between those few people who get to deploy their intellectual capacity as "intellectuals" and the rest of the population. This compulsion to draw distinctions is only tenuously connected to the attempt to measure intelligence quantitatively. It's not like you can submit people to IQ tests in order to determine whether they are intellectuals or not. To paraphrase the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, you may not be able to establish with absolute certainty that someone is an intellectual, but you will still know an intellectual when you see one. If you see one.

You're far more likely to hear one on National Public Radio or its equivalents. The bleak reality of our televisual culture is that talking heads don't sell. You may see the odd major intellectual speaking briefly as the voice of authority on some PBS or cable documentary or giving a lecture on C-SPAN II. But most people who fall into the category of "intellectual" as it is presently constituted will rarely grace your TV screen, unless it doubles as a computer monitor. Unlike models or politicians, then, intellectuals do not acquire their status on the basis of their looks. Yet that status is still a matter of perception. The way people's ideas are received will largely depend on their position in society. Two individuals may have identical thoughts on a topic, but if only one of them is considered to be an intellectual their words will probably not be accorded the same respect.

And this phenomenon can even be observed in situations where the person considered to be an intellectual knows a lot less about the topic than the person who isn't. In many cases, expertise actually seems to impede a person's attempt to be taken seriously. Expertise is in the details. But details are not readily translated into public discourse, precisely because it takes expertise to understand their importance. We confront this paradox in political campaigns, where a candidate's experience is only considered strong if she or he can speak effectively in a language that does not presume too much experience.

There are exceptions to the pattern described above. Within the United States, for example, there is a longstanding tradition of anti-intellectualism that regards the division of mental labor with suspicion. Yet even within that context, the people asked to speak publicly on matters of concern still tend to be those who are considered to be intellectuals. It is they who get invited to give lectures, they who are included in roundtable discussions, they who find it easiest to secure a book contract. And the more widely their reputation spreads, the more likely it is that they will be asked to speak, regardless of whether they have the time or inclination to speak from a position of real knowledge.

Michel Foucault, the influential French social theorist, spent a lot of time thinking about this peculiar circumstance. He was particularly interested in the production of authority. How does a discourse acquire legitimacy in the public eye? And how do individuals learn to inhabit that discourse, speaking in the voice of legitimate authority? Foucault grappled with these questions throughout his career. Although he eventually became an "insider" within the intellectual life of postwar France, he never lost sight of the outsiders whose words fall on deaf ears. In fact, a good deal of Foucault's activism centered on efforts to construct an audience for those outsiders. He also devoted considerable attention to the fate of those people who, although they spend most of their time doing intellectual work, are not considered to be intellectuals; people whose right to speak is circumscribed by institutional constraints and subtle prejudice.

It is within this context that Foucault developed the idea of the "specific intellectual." Reacting to Jean-Paul Sartre, who played the role of leading left-wing intellectual with self-confidence, if not self-righteousness, Foucault tried to imagine an alternative to the "star system" exemplified by Sartre. "For a long period, the 'left' intellectual spoke and was acknowledged the right of speaking in the capacity of truth and justice. He was heard, or purported to make himself heard, as the spokesman of the universal. To be an intellectual meant something like being the consciousness of us all." From Foucault's perspective, this sort of intellectual vanguardism had been thoroughly discredited by the 1960s. "Some years have now passed since the intellectual was called upon to play this role. A new mode of the 'connection between theory and practice' has been established. Intellectuals have got used to working, not in the modality of the "universal', the 'exemplary', the 'just-and-true-for-all', but within specific sectors, at the precise points where their own conditions of life and work situate them (housing, the hospital, the asylum, the laboratory, the university, family and sexual relations)."

Foucault takes pains to point out that the rise of specific intellectuals need not be interpreted as a reactionary development. "I believe intellectuals have actually been drawn closer to the proletariat and the masses, for two reasons. First, because it has been a question of real, material, everyday struggles, and secondly because they have often been confronted, albeit in a different form, by the same adversary as the proletariat, namely the multinational corporations, the judicial and police apparatuses, the property speculators etc." Precisely because intellectuals of this new kind devote their energy to the sectors in which they have the most expertise, rather than spending it on broad pronouncements about politics-in-general, they are more able to bring about tangible change. At least, this is what Foucault believes.

There are a couple of points in Foucault's description of the specific intellectual that merit closer scrutiny. The first one is that his model reframes left-wing discussions of the workplace. Without explicitly abandoning the Marxist concept of alienated labor, Foucault encourages us to focus on local struggles within the workplace. That is, he underscores the possibility that, even as workers are estranged from the product of their labor, they may still use their expertise to improve the conditions under which they labor. In other words, his argument is something like the one that left-wing trade unionists have traditionally deployed against radicals who desire only outright revolution. It must be noted, of course, that Foucault is thinking primarily of white-collar workers when he talks about specific intellectuals, since they are more likely to have the time and the opportunity to think self-reflexively about their work.

It's easy to see how an educated person working for an impersonal, bureaucratic institution could take solace in the idea of the specific intellectual. People who imagine themselves to be specific intellectuals can concentrate on making interventions at the "local" level, rather than agonizing over the inability to stop the machine from pursuing its relentless course. At the same time, however, the idea of the specific intellectual can also function as a convenient rationalization for people who are doing nothing to disturb the status quo. Part of Foucault's thesis is that academics have largely taken the place that writers once occupied in the intellectual firmament. Without disputing his thesis that academics have become "privileged points of intersection" in the "global process of politicization of intellectuals," it must be stated that there are a lot of academics who conceive of themselves as radicals, but function more like "competent instances in the service of the State or Capital."

The second point to be made about Foucault's argument is simply that the trajectory of his career undercuts it. Although Foucault was undoubtedly committed to the idea of the specific intellectual, he ended up being a public figure of nearly Sartre's status. And, because he wrote about such a wide range of topics, he became one of those intellectuals asked to speak on almost any subject. The Publisher's Weekly review of the book Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings of Michel Foucault, 1977-1984, quoted on the back of the paperback edition, reveals the extent to which Foucault eventually found himself in the position of the universal intellectual. "Here is a candid, unbuttoned Foucault who praises rock 'n' roll as a cultural catalyst, who admits how boring it is to write some of his books, who sounds off on everything from France's social security system (he hates it) to Khomeini's fundamentalist revolution (he glorifies it as a manifestation of Iran's collective will)." In addition to rather blatantly distorting the points Foucault actually makes in interviews, this passage makes it clear how thoroughly mainstream society still expects intellectuals to be big names who "sound off on everything."

Foucault shouldn't take all the blame for the way his work was received. But it should make us more dubious of his thesis. Even if the idea of the specific intellectual has proven useful in local struggles, we still must confront the fact that specific intellectuals who meet with success in their work have a way of metamorphosing into universal intellectuals. From Stephen Jay Gould to Andrew Ross, there is a long list of contemporary thinkers who have transcended the boundaries of their disciplines to become the sort of public figures mentioned in The New York Times. Does this mean that people should refrain from talking about matters that exceed the bounds of their professional expertise? It is hard to imagine what good such devotion to purity would inspire. After all, when one person declines to comment on a topic, the media moves on to the next likely candidate. The word, in other words, is going to get out regardless of anyone's misgivings about universal intellectuals. If the intellectual who does end up talking to CNN or Newsweek is at least aware of the problems inherent in seeming to be "the consciousness of all," there is a chance that she or he will be able to forestall some of the negative consequences of becoming a spokesperson.

One strategy would be for well-known intellectuals to redirect the media's attention to less familiar names, particularly those who lack a convenient outlet for their ideas. Donna Haraway might say, "You know, rather than answer your questions about cyborgs, I'm going to give you the name of a graduate student who is doing some really interesting work in the area." A lot of public figures already do this, of course. But in this impatient age, it's increasingly difficult to find reporters with the time to follow up on these secondary sources. Not to mention that, like it or not, it is the big names that most people, intellectuals included, look for when they are reading a story.

A more promising approach might be to continue the laborious task of constructing sustainable outlets for the alternative media, where the pressures of marketing would be less likely to necessitate a name-centered approach. In the right hands, an alternative weekly or website can radically reshape our sense of which opinions matter. There's no reason why a story about steelworkers coping with new technology couldn't use steelworkers themselves as sources, not only for details about their working conditions but also for reflections on the broader implications of the new techniques being implemented.

But perhaps the simplest way of complicating a rigid division of mental labor would be for intellectuals to pose questions instead of answers. Asked why he refused to take clear stands on certain political questions, Foucault would reply that he didn't think it was his task as an intellectual to do so. He has taken a lot of heat for this seeming evasiveness. Yet when we place it in the context of his preoccupation with questions of authority, it can be interpreted as a reflection of his political convictions. If the production of intellectuals cannot be dissociated from "the multinational corporations, the judicial and police apparatuses, the property speculators," then it is incumbent upon those few individuals who do attain the status of intellectual to resist speaking in the voice of authority.

Foucault underscores this point in statements about his own practice as an intellectual. "The role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they have to do. By what right would he do so?" Once again, Foucault seeks to distinguish himself from Jean-Paul Sartre. Whereas Sartre argued strenuously that left-wing intellectuals should demonstrate political engagement, Foucault proposes the opposite. "What can the ethics of an intellectual be — and I claim this title of intellectual, though, at the present time, it seems to make certain people sick — if not this: to make oneself permanently capable of detaching oneself from oneself (which is the opposite of the attitude of conversion)?" As Foucault sees it, the task of the radical intellectual should not be to engage the politics of the moment, but to disengage them. "The work of an intellectual is not to shape others' political will; it is, though the analyses that he carries out in his own field, to question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people's mental habits, the way they do and think things." These are words to live by, not only for intellectuals who are asked for their "expert" opinion about something in which they lack expertise, but for any of us who want our politics to translate into practical results. After all, if you step far enough back from the dominant worldview, you could say that every one of us is an intellectual. And it wouldn't hurt to try.

Charlie Bertsch teaches in the Department of English at the University of Arizona, and is presently recovering from the break-up of his favorite band Pavement.

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.