Blogging and Public Intellectuals?

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…)

2 thoughts on “Blogging and Public Intellectuals?

  1. The absence of serious public intellectuals from the media, and the absence of anthropologists from the limited roles that are available, is something I’ve thought long and hard about. Just yesterday, I got a call from a producer at 60 Minutes (the Australian version, so not quite as big a deal). He was calling me back after a conversation we had in November, letting me down easy, in a sense, because an interview that he had wanted to set up had fallen through. The story turned out to sort of take care of itself, he said, and I don’t have much doubt of that because I suspect I would have gotten no call at all if I was a crap interviewee. But he was also asking me to call him if I had any story ideas for 60 Minutes to do.

    In fact, anthropologee-ish stories had sort of appeared on 60 Minutes Australia, including an ABSURD piece on the ‘last cannibals on Earth’ that introduced a tragic child character, Wa-Wa, supposedly in danger of being eaten by his own relatives as a sorcerer after his parents died though he was only around nine years old. That story featured an ‘anthropologist’ of sorts, an absurdist figure who’s qualifications are that he writes for Smithsonian Magazine, mind you, always about the most exoticist topics they publish. I think we discussed the case over at Culture Matters, but it careened from ridiculous into the territory of high camp after another station sponsored their most mercenary, soul-less newscaster to go to Irian Jaya to ‘rescue’ Wa-Wa, and she was stopped by Indonesian police (allegedly after a tip off from a rival Australian station).

    Okay… so what does this long, meandering commentary have to do with public intellectuals and Pinker, etc.? Well, in this environment, it takes serious effort to insert oneself into public sector discussion. Universities have media offices who pick out scholars that they think they can promote. ‘Big’ crossover books, like Pinker’s work, doesn’t come out of university presses, and rather have the backing of major media outlets (like the ones that publish his op-eds) and presses with more marketing muscle, to get the books into the sorts of places where they will catch fire. I’ve never talked personally with someone like Pinker, or Stanley Diamond, or Antonio Damasio,but I suspect that the path to recognition as a ‘public intellectual’ (or public scientist) requires a bit of a team effort.

    So I don’t think public intellectuals have perished. I just think that there’s more competition to be one. I’ve been surprised, for example, at the degree to which prominent science writers have become, themselves, figures in the science world, not just writing columns but also getting interviewed about science. After all, when Pinker writes in the New York Times or Time magazine, he’s usually doing something like what a science writer does — not what a serious scientist does — that is, commenting on someone else’s research (funny, that’s what bloggers kind of do, too). I think Pinker is a success, in part, because he combines the virtues of the science writer (clever, timely, accessible) with those of a serious academic (stature, title, institutional backing — though often not scholarship).

    Sure, one can get brief exposure — say, if my 60 Minutes interview had come through (I’ve actually done a few media things, like a Nat Geog documentary and something on a CNN racism report) — to keep oneself in the media is actually quite hard. And it does require a certain kind of ‘scholarship,’ which Todd has pointed out, is not really up to the standards of scholarship in our fields. And it requires a certain dependability; it seems that Pinker is a really dependable source. Whatever discovery one is building a story around, he can be counted on to have an opinion that reflects well on the seriousness of the discovery.

    I suspect that our blog has ridden (however short the ride) the coat tails of Pinker, attracting a lot of attention when we post on his articles. And we’ll probably continue to do that (hats off to Daniel for discovering the techniques) in order to attract more serious readership. But there’s a bit of an irony in that it gives more credit to ‘scholarship’ that is so second rate. I hope that, at the same time, we can continue to post comments and discussion on more serious peer-reviewed scholarship, using the coat tails to get an audience for our more challenging material.

    But there seems to me to be growing opportunities for scientists-science writers as the translation of discoveries into public media-ready materials needs quite a bit of work. I’m looking at ways to position myself to serve that role more here in Australia. In fact, one of the great drawing cards of Australia was the ‘small pond’ possibilities of doing so without having to give up serious research and scholarship. It also is one of the attractions of doing research on sports, my primary area of research. Like Daniel’s work on addiction and health, these are topics with a built-in public, in some cases, with serious issues that need to be addressed which are already in public awareness (racism and racial difference in sports, the role of social factors on addiction, illness, and recovery, etc.). Choosing a more esoteric, academic subject might make establishing a public niche more difficult. Obviously, it shouldn’t change our intellectual trajectory, but it might be something we consider when we set out to use science to intervene in public debates.

  2. I just came across a very relevant piece “Public Intellectuals Inc.” by Jeff Di Leo at Inside Higher Ed. Here’s the link:

    The opening paragraph goes: “Public intellectuals in America have good reason to be discouraged. And so do those who look to them for intellectual leadership. Currently, it almost seems that the more public the intellectual, the less seriously he or she is taken by other intellectuals. Nevertheless, public intellectuals today have more media outlets and markets available to them than ever before. Due primarily to the rise of new technologies, the circulation and recirculation of their ideas are reaching wider and wider audiences. Consequently, as the intellectual influence of public intellectuals over other intellectuals (viz., non-public intellectuals) wanes, the market for their ideas and their entertainment value skyrockets.”

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