Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday conundrum: where are the public intellectuals?

I had lunch with my associate dean yesterday, always a good way to distract myself from the miserable soup and salad combination. We got on to the subject of public intellectuals, and whether there are or could be such things ever again. In the Victorian period, there were people like John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, essayists who were genuinely popular in the sense that a seriously large proportion of the population would have heard of them. I'd include Parnell in Ireland, and Newman across the Isles. Carpenter and the Webbs were probably too obscure, though I think George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells would have counted. Harold Laski and Gwyn Thomas were mid-century examples of this breed.

We moved on to the intellectual culture of the political parties. It's hard to believe now our politicians are ex-PR men and little more than ugly celebrities, but from the 40s to the 60s, UK political parties were stuffed with actual intellectuals, particularly the Labour Party. Harold Wilson was a former Oxford don, and he surrounded himself with similar people: Crosland, Crossman, Gaitskell (another party leader who died young), Taverne were all serious thinkers. Not that this made them pleasant or politically right, of course (largely too rightwing for my tastes), but there was a sense that public culture was and should be directed by philosophy and ideology. Now, intelligence is seen as a weakness: witness Cameron's witless bullying in the House of Commons and the general tactical opportunism of our politics and media's 'gotcha' obsession, or the unappetising sight of John Kerry being attacked during his Presidential campaign for 'looking French' (because he speaks it), let alone the Republican Party's absolute rejection of any candidate who thinks listening to scientists might be a good idea, and the candidates' rush to ingratiate themselves with the descendants of the Know-Nothings and Ham-and-Eggs populists at the expense of judgement, intelligence and moral authority. These people are 'pointy-heads' and Poindexters now.

What's striking about many of these people is how odd, spiky and complicated they were. Virtually none of them would get through the selection process of a major political party in the modern period. They often held contradictory or ambiguous views. They were independently-minded in a way that's entirely unacceptable in the 'managed democracy' of current parties. They led 'complicated' private lives (H. G. Wells reputedly had the biggest generative organ in literature, and was keen to exercise it). These people would have been horrified at the notion of being 'on-message'. They were also polymathic: the politicians weren't simply policy wonks: they knew about science, art, literature, abroad… and there were outlets for it. Scholars, literary critics, artists and others were frequent guests on shows such as The Brains Trust. On that show, intelligent people were asked to spontaneously answer wide-ranging questions from members of the public. It wasn't always clear in advance what the answer would be. In contrast, if you gave me a list of the guests on Question Time and a list of the questions, I could write down what their responses would be, in advance. Every politician comes armed with a list of put-downs and soundbites from which they won't be deflected. The businessman will talk about 'flexible employment' and 'market efficiency'. The union leader will promise a weak radicalism. Melanie Philips will connect environmentalism with antisemitism. They all go through the motions.

Then, intelligent people were expected to know about a range of subjects and became well-known by speaking about them. Now, unintelligent celebrities' opinions on subjects of which they know nothing are lauded for the dullest clanger. Knowing things is now suspicious and patronising - desperately sad if, like me, you mourn the passing of independent working-class auto didacticism, the Plebs League, the Central Labour College, the WEA and the various other institutes dedicated to refuting the association of culture with a narrow bourgeoisie.

Witness this magnificent encounter between Will Self, someone I would class as a public intellectual because a) he's an intellectual and b) he's an excellent and enthusiastic communicator, and one of the weakest Labour politicians we've ever had.

Who else counts as a modern public intellectual? It's hard in the multichannel era: people became well-known earlier because there were 1-2 TV channels, 3-4 radio stations, whereas now we have greater opportunities to watch what we're familiar with rather than share limited media outlets with the whole population.

My suggestions, with thanks to Twitter contributors:
Will Self.
Zizek to a limited extent: he's a cult figure.
Jonathan Meades: one of the few people who takes television seriously as an intellectual medium
Adam Curtis
Germaine Greer
Gore Vidal
Al Gore (perhaps)
Barack Obama
Richard Dawkins
Ben Goldacre
PZ Myers
Marina Warner
Naomi Klein
Paul Mason
Linda Colley
Noam Chomsky
Lisa Jardine
Mary Beard
Helena Kennedy
Shami Chakrabarti
Polly Toynbee
Caryl Churchill
Peter Tatchell
Shirley Williams
Alan Moore
Fintan O'Toole
Stewart Lee
Rowan Williams

I notice this is an overwhelmingly white/heterosexual/anglocentric list, which certainly displays my ignorance and my cultural position (lazy fat white straight Irish lefty humanities academic), but also the structural bias of our public cultures. Other people are marginalised. I'd love to add Angela Davis to this list, for instance: the militant, intelligent voice of the 60s, but as a teacher, now marginalised. Similarly Elaine Showalter: huge in the field, unknown outside. Perhaps Vidal shouldn't be on the list either: the sarcastic court jester of Kennedy's Camelot is far too spiky and unpredictable to attract much media attention because he doesn't fit into a simple oppositional talking-heads frame. In fact lots of these people fill the newspapers I read and appear frequently on the radio stations I listen to, but make little or no impact on the wider public. There are lots more people I'd add because they're intellectuals, but can't because the public space isn't available to them: virtually none of those I've listed would be identified in a police line-up by the great British public, whereas Vernon Kay, Jordan and Stephen Fry are instantly recognisable.

On the other hand: my overly-nostalgic list of former public intellectuals is also deeply heterogenous. The intellectuals virtually all attended the same universities, were all male and what we'd call Establishment, even the radical ones. In an age when universities were open to 1-2% of the population, who populated the airwaves, newspapers and political sphere, only the arts were available to truly dangerous voice: witness poor Turing's fate.

Where are the new public intellectuals going to come from? They're on the net. They're on Twitter. The question is whether it's still possible to move from the narrowcast structure of these media to serious public attention: getting quoted on Radio 1, papped on the streets, declining a judge's chair on X-Factor and being slagged off in the Mail and hacked by the Sun.

However, maybe I'm displaying my reactionary qualities by even asking the question. Aren't we in the era of the aggregate Cloud, where the intellectual is content to contribute to a Wikipedia page without attribution or credit? Who needs leaders? We've got Sub-commandante Marcos, Anonymous and LULZSEC.

Add your suggestions to the list. Or challenge my assumptions. I've marking to do.


Ewarwoowar said...

Germaine Greer?! Shami Shami Shami?!

Oh Vole. I can only respond with this:

The Plashing Vole said...

You don't have to like them. Nor do I (though I have a lot of respect for Shami). But they are intellectuals.

Anonymous said...

Why do most of your list have whiney little voices whilst they mock or tear other people apart? They are so good at knocking but where are the builders of society amongst that lot. I get so fed up with the 'angry young man' attitude please can you identify some positive people who make a difference.

Plashing Vole said...

Well, anonymous, I don't think many of them are 'whiny'. Quite a lot of them have contributed enormously in the fields of literature, arts, politics and so on.

I note that you haven't submitted any alternatives. That tells me all I need to know.

Anonymous said...

And so is added another 'whiny' riposte it is so much easier than being constructive. I can certainly see why you like Will Self.

The Plashing Vole said...

Dear Anonymous,
you appear to have entirely missed the point: of this post and indeed of the entire internet. I've written a lengthy piece exploring the nature of the public intellectual: I'd claim that as 'constructive', more so than your replies.

I suggest you reread the very last line of my post. The one which invites you to 'add your suggestions'. I can think of very little that 'whinier' than someone who can't actually engage with the individuals I've suggested, nor come up with suggestions of their own. Your tone is unnecessarily aggressive.

Do you really think that Harold Wilson, Crossman, Crosland, Jonathan Meades, Al Gore, PZ Myers, Helene Kennedy and Shirley Williams haven't contributed to building society? Or are you so lazy that you haven't familiarised yourself with them even to the extent of clicking on the hyperlinks?

The Plashing Vole said...

I'd like to add some names to the list.

Conor Cruise O'Brien (now deceased) was exactly the kind of person I was thinking of: contrary, often wrong, a good communicator, never afraid to follow an argument to its logical conclusion, hugely intelligent, not afraid of controversy.

Owen Hatherley might yet become a public intellectual: his punchy views on architecture and politics deserve a greater platform.

Terry Pratchett: if there's ever a generation of Labour voters again, it's because his witty, thoughtful books repeatedly explore the inherent value in public services and liberal values.

The Plashing Vole said...

@DrMagennis suggests Rev. Giles Fraser: I really wish I'd remembered him. In support of her nomination:

The Vigilant Veggie said...

I'd offer Brian Cox but the comments on this post have been a bit 'frosty' so far so I'm a bit insecure about contributing! Oh fuck it: Brian Cox. I enjoy his work.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Vigilant. I was just about to add Prof. Cox myself - can't think why I didn't come up with his name on the original one.

I don't know why people are sniffy about him - I presume his professorship was awarded for serious amounts of research, and he's an excellent communicator.

Sorry about the tone of other posts. I guess it was too much to expect civil exchanges of views on the internet.

Anonymous said...

God you are so easy to wind up. So now I will answer your request and give my list:-
Alan Bennett
Noam Chomsky
Paul Collier
Brian Cox
Carol Ann Duffy
Eamon Duffy
Stephen Hawking
Seamus Heaney
Helena Kennedy
Hilary Mantel
Julia Neuberger
Fintan O'Toole
Simon Schama
Zadie Smith
Tom Stoppard
Fay Weldon

Without reasons as I believe the names speak for themselves. Now you can pull it apart

The Plashing Vole said...

Interesting choices. Some of them are in my list, and I wouldn't disagree with your other suggestions.

The Plashing Vole said...

Chatting to my colleagues, it seems that for a public intellectual to be important, they have to make an impact on a matter, such that the general public (if such a thing still exists) would know who they are. People like this existed: Jacob Bronowski, Kenneth Clarke, Malcolm Muggeridge, perhaps Raymond Williams.

It's harder to have that effect now: multichannel TV means smaller audiences. Bully-pulpits are awarded to the Clarksons of the world: the media wants heat, not light, and good thinkers tend to prefer the latter.

bsels said...

You want to know why people don't trust intellectuals - it's because most of them are corrupt. Just follow the money and who pays them handsomely to sound off with phony science. Look at the medical, pharmaceutical, chemical, insurance, and agricultural complex if you want to see corrupt science - genetically engineered food, food contaminated with pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, vaccines whose safety has not been proven, and doctors who prescribe pills that cost you dearly but don't make you well. Give me an honest person over a corrupt intellectual any day.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks BSELS, but if you don't mind, I'll point out a few problems with what you said.

Firstly, I don't think there is a general distrust of intellectuals: I think there's an intellectual-shaped hole in the public discourse, which has been filled by charlatans and media whores.

Secondly, I'd disagree with your definition of public intellectuals, which is what I was talking about: clever people working in their fields aren't 'public intellectuals': they may be intellectual but they aren't public.

Thirdly, you just can't claim that 'most' intellectuals are 'corrupt'. It's a meaningless term. They may be doing things with which you - and I - disagree, but that doesn't make them corrupt.

Fourthly, what's 'corrupt' about GM food? I have moral and political objections to it, but the science isn't corrupt: it's the application which I find abhorrent. That's not the same as corruption. And of course 'most' is a disgracefully broad accusation. 'Most' scientists aren't designing fake drugs or GM foods.

Are you in the US? Here in the UK, healthcare is paid for from general taxation - there are problems with pharmaceutical companies' behaviour, but it's not nearly as acute as over there.

Anonymous said...

At first glance I really like the idea of the "public intellectual", but the more I look into it the more I'm finding the "public" doesn't go with my personal ideal of the "intellectual". Are you sure the two are compatible even?

As a scientist I also tend to think, as many of us do, that any one in our fields who panders to the scientifically illiterate (which these days pretty much sums up 90% of the non-scientist population) is a sellout and a fraud, a pseudo scientist at best. Bit different talking about intellectuals in the arts I suppose, such fields are bound to generate more "public" personalities because of the nature of their work.

"Corrupt intellectuals" is an intriguing term too. I notice your poster who coins this phrase targets the scientific community in particular, no doubt inspired by ignorant screen writers. If we're all so corrupt, please tell me, where's the money? Yet to meet a scientist with earnings in the same league as most policemen, let alone bankers and politicians.

When so many of the real issues of today can only really be solved by science it's interesting how marginalised science has become isn't it?

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Anonymous.
I am convinced that public and intellectual CAN and SHOULD go together, than in certain circumstances they HAVE - but I don't think they currently DO!

I agree with your point about public scientists: popularisers are really important, but the structure and frameworks of the awful media we have means that they're likely to be too populist, media slags (Susan Greenfield is a danger to science) or famous for having coloured hair or a past pop career. We need many more scientists in public life, just not those who wheel out rubbish like 'most depressing day of the year' and associated crap.

Everything else you say, I totally agree with.