Todd, who commented on the Wending post, has an interesting discussion of “On Being A Public Intellectual” over at his blog Todd’s Hammer. He engages Russel Jacoby’s argument that public intellectuals have basically perished given the post-modern turn, the professionalization of the academy, and the rise of modern media.
I might counter that we have a new breed of public intellectual—people like Steven Pinker. The star professors who write popular books and who appear on television, and who command super-sized salaries from universities. They sell ideas and, in many cases, reassurances to the American public. To take a comment by Robert Steele, a top 50 reviewer on Amazon, about Joseph Nye’s book, Soft Power:
This book, perhaps deliberately so, but I suspect not, is out of touch with mainstream scholarship such as the last 50 books I have reviewed for Amazon. It is one massive “Op-Ed”, and its sources are virtually all “Op-Eds” (a number of them not written by the purported authors), with the result that this book gets an A for a good idea and a C-, at best, for scholarship. One simple example: the sum total of the author’s references on “virtual communities”, one of the most important ideas of this century, is one Op-Ed from the Baltimore Sun.
But in looking at the posts on this blog, the ones that have attracted the most attention are ones in the public domain—the critique of Steven Pinker or the Time Magazine article on love—as well as ones that address issues of everyday discussion—our mood affecting our health, IQ and race, our sense of balance.
So perhaps things are not quite as bad as Jacoby says, to quote Todd again, that “blogging is a further deflection from public intellectualism.” Some of our blogs seem to find interested readers, though we certainly do not get the attention and funding of blogs about movie stars. And I have fairly certain that I can reach a lot more people through this blog than will read most of my articles. I also have students who are excited about posting blog entries rather than simply turning in a final paper to me.
In the end, I share the same hope as Todd, that we can “do research and thinking that [will] somehow matter beyond [our] narrow social circles in academia.” Like trying to do neuro-anthropology, it might require some thinking outside the box and engagement in public activities, like community based research or public policy discussions, that get us outside our narrow academic circles.
Public, I believe, is broader than getting caught up in the public’s fickle gaze of attention—going after what sells and quoting plenty of op-ed articles. It involves doing things that make a public difference. To quote from a site on Public Anthropology, it involves: “addressing important social concerns in an engaging, non-academic manner. Public, in this sense, contrasted with traditional academic styles of presentation and definition of problems.”
In this way, our blogging can hopefully be public, even to small groups of people who otherwise would not intersect much with the life I lead as a professor.
(However, the more ironically minded might note that my “scholarship” in this piece consists, basically, of other bloggers and their statements on the Internet. Damn, not quite at the Op-Ed level yet…)