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Intellectuals—Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them, Part I

Re-considering the democratic roles of the intellectual as revealed this week in Public Seminar

Intellectuals: democracy can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They pose a fundamental challenge to democratic life when they assert that they know better. On the other hand, democracy needs intellectuals. This week: can’t live without them, anticipating Thanksgiving. Next week: can’t live with them, after the Thanksgiving festival.

Intellectuals have the knowledge and the experience required for people themselves to govern well. I am thinking of this today as I read the news and as I think about our work here at Public Seminar, drawing on my own long investigation of the sociology of intellectuals.

My work on intellectuals is based on Georg Simmel’s study of the stranger. The stranger, Simmel noted, is a person who is both present and absent in a particular social world. There is something different about them, even as they are not simply foreigners, from elsewhere. Simmel was thinking about the merchants and Jews of pre-modern Europe. They were locals who also knew that the way things were done in their immediate here and now, was not necessarily the only way. My study of intellectuals notes this and notes that intellectuals are such strangers because of their comparative (in both time and place) and systematic knowledge. They share with their neighbors their experience of their neighborhoods, but see dimensions in the experience that their neighbors don’t see, because of their expertise. They, as Simmel noted about strangers, are more mobile, objective, and able to generalize about specificities.

When we act as intellectuals, though, we are not simply experts. As intellectuals, we reach out to our neighbors, a more general public, using our expertise to address common concerns. We engage with the non-expert audience. How we do this is consequential. When we tell others what they must do, when we speak as if our position on a political issue is the only sound position, we are dangerous. We silence those who disagree. The tyranny of the philosopher king can result. This is nicely revealed this week here by Vladimir Tismaneanu.

Yet, when we speak to the public to inform debate, not to short circuit it, we enable the rule of the people to be intelligently considered. We support democracy in critically important ways by showing political enemies how they can become opponents, and opponents can become collaborators and colleagues. We civilize differences. Claire Potter demonstrates this in her review essay of Naomi Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough and also in her weekly Purple Wednesday posts. We, as well, contribute to democracy when we reveal concealed problems, when our civilized culture hides overlooked problems. When we subvert unexamined commonsense, we contribute to democracy, as is demonstrated in a series of posts from the Law and Sexuality Online Public Seminar classMolly Oberman, Avery Felman and Malia Transue each illuminated this week fundamental problems in gender matters that have been hidden from public view.

These pieces give us an inside look at an ongoing discussion in a college seminar, moving beyond the seminar to the more general public of Public Seminar. They show how students and faculty apply their study to a pressing problem of our times, the problem of sexual violence, beyond screaming headlines and endless chatter. A theoretically informed consideration of the marriage contract and of the relationship between reproductive rights and gender equality more generally, and an examination of the complexities of sexual violence visibility, and the reaction to the visibility, helped me get beyond my shock and awe at the dimensions of the problem. It also helped me think in a more informed way about what needs to be done, trying to work out an answer to the question Oberman poses: “Is there another way we can approach this without having to show our scars?” Note: I don’t fully agree with these pieces, and I recognize, as an editor, that they come out of a classroom in which ideas are being tested and pushed. But I believe this is their value. They show serious thought in formation and action, opening up informed investigation and discussion beyond the empty speculation about the relative seriousness and possible equivalency of the actions of Roy Moore, Bill Clinton and Al Franken. They help us, the posts’ readers, to think more seriously about systemic sexual violence closer to our own homes, and places of worship, recreation and work.

Last week, I promised to explain how we at Public Seminar work to fulfill our responsibilities as democratic intellectuals, as I gave a quick gloss of the argument I make in Civility and Subversion. I trust I have delivered on my promise here. But it also strikes me that the limitations of the arguments I presented in 1998 were apparent in one of the pieces we published last week, and that this has implications for the future development of Public Seminar.

We again posted an elegant video by GIDEST. This one on a film, “The End of Life.

In the film, John Bruce and Paweł Wojtasik focus on five people at various stages of the end of life. The video gives an overview of the film. I found it meaningful for both personal and theoretical reasons. My mother recently died. I observed her end very closely, as I , along with my sister and our families, accompanied and supported mom to the end. The video suggests a meaningful sensitivity to the complexities of the journey that I, therefore, deeply appreciated. But more than personal appreciation, it highlights dimensions of the intellectual role that I inadequately addressed in my earlier work: the importance of feelings, the importance of all communicative arts and the importance of showing, making things visible (my colleague and future co-author, Daniel Dayan, would name it “monstration”) in public life. Informing public life, I am reminded is not only about discussion. It is about acting, speaking and appearing, and we must keep in mind that this is accomplished not only through words, but, as our motto indicates: “by any means necessary.”  In the near future, I hope more artists, designers, composers, performers of all types will, thus, be joining us, bringing their expertise to a non-expert public.

Intellectuals can contribute to an informed public life that democracy requires. Next week, I will explore the wisdom and foolishness of the anti-intellectualism that is knitted into democratic society.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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