Intellectuals & the Public
Ideas can define and transform society, but how healthy is intellectual life today? In recent decades, many observers have expressed concern about the ‘dumbing down’ of culture, noting an increasing tendency toward specialisation within academia, and a resulting demise of ‘public intellectuals’ capable of writing for and engaging with a non-specialist audience. All of these claims are disputed, and the ensuing debates reveal much about contemporary society. The question, however, is not merely academic. The state of intellectual life is inextricably linked to cultural and political life more generally. For ideas to be more than just commodities, there must be a dynamic relationship between intellectuals and the public, and a degree of political room for maneouvre, so that ideas can make a difference to society.
Culture Wars takes a broad definition of public intellectuals: rather than seeing intellectuals as an exotic priesthood, we are interested in all serious thinkers who concern themselves with public life. Here, we review books, talks and television programmes that address the public as citizens as well as scholars and consumers. We are also interested in discussions about public intellectuals and related issues, from the role of popular philosophy to the meaning of academic freedom.
It takes courage to ask different questions, or accept that evidence may lead us into new paths and new ways of thinking. Time’s Anvil is a book that offers important insights into the processes that have shaped the history of England, and the processes that shape our own approach to the past.
The Duchamp season at the Barbican is a tribute to the most significant of Duchamp’s reincarnations, his American revival as the godfather of a new and irreverent attitude towards art’s institutionalisation and its obsession with the nature of the medium.
Even with the facts in hand, it is a fantasy to expect that those who reject universalism - or who advocate its violent and oppressive forms - will be converted without the conscious efforts of human beings to persuade them. From the Ruins of Empire, beyond all the great names, famous battles and obscure sects that adorn its pages, can perhaps be read as a defence of the importance of argument and debate, or, at the very least, critical engagement.
In considering Westbourne Grove, he writes of its ‘empty launderettes, iffy supermarkets, sparsely furnished letting agencies, unreconstructed Indian restaurants, beer halls, booths offering rock-bottom price international phone calls, money exchanges, cheap carpet shops and heavily defended mini cab offices.’ With a complete lack of socio-babble we’re straight back into the Notting Hill of Colin Maclnnes’s early yoof novel Absolute Beginners, or the film Performance, as if the superficial sleekness of Cameronian gentrification had never existed.
Seeing these two exhibitions within a couple of days of each other was a fascinating contrast in museological approach. Bronze aims to entertain, to impress and even to overwhelm with its accumulation of great works. But it deadens the soul with poor display and foolish presentation. In every respect Raphael is the more worthy exhibition.
Where the call for ‘science’ in policymaking is legitimate – in deciding between different policy options within an already established political framework – it is technocratic and mundane; elsewhere it rapidly becomes either eccentric or authoritarian, closing down the scope for political action.
This predicament of the academy, and its alienation from its primary noble mission, has its roots in the political, ideological and economic condition of our times: the shift in capitalism’s paradigm and its recent serious crisis, the influence of a set of ideas that has become known postmodernism, and also the marketisation of education, leading to a managerial ethos alien to the academy’s quest for truth and excellence.
The invocation of divine status leads Bloom to claim that Shakespeare’s intellect is greater than that any other writer, including ‘the principal philosophers, the religious sages, and the psychologists from Montaigne through Nietzsche to Freud’ (p.2). I offer the suggestion that Bloom may be over-stating his case here. Worse, in the process of assigning Shakespeare divinity, Bloom decouples him from his rightful place in the history of literature and art.
If the exclusion of authors disliked by the Chinese government was a necessary condition for the British Council’s programme to go ahead, so be it. Whether it in fact was necessary is a separate discussion to have; what matters is that some established writers visited from China to exchange ideas about new literary genres, globalisation and e-publishing, and to search for commercial opportunities.
Ferguson’s familiar political agenda of ‘free market, strong state’ dovetails nicely with his rather static view of political culture as the determinant of Chinese society-state relations. And yet a moment’s reflection on the arguments he presents over the course of this series reveals just how unnecessarily confined are the horizons of this historian’s gaze when he looks to the future.
23 writers tell us why public libraries matter. They do so against a background of library cuts (and dumbed-down education - more of this later). And they not only make out a good case for libraries but also for reading itself — a wise move, given the dislike expressed in some quarters about ‘privileging’ the book over other sources of information.
The efforts of two critical Bible scholars to bring their expertise to bear on contemporary debates in which the authority of the Bible is regularly invoked or assumed are undermined by their haughty dismissal of anyone else who ‘feels qualified to interpret the scriptures’ without sharing the authors’ learning, and in particular their knowledge of Hebrew
His ‘endist’ proclamations gave him the aura of a prophet. His mysterious pronouncements and penchant for irony, eclecticism and intellectual games had a Quixotic appeal. In many ways, Jean Baudrillard was a modern day Nietzsche: a difficult nihilist and sometimes obscure aphorist - a quintessential Romantic who declared the end of days.
We can argue with the current shape of technology and propose how it might be better. But there is seldom much engagement in this direction. More common is dour warnings about our impotence in the face of new technology; that it is the agent and we the passive recipient.
In fact, the overall atmosphere in footage shown throughout the series is noticeably unburdened compared with today. The unfussy intelligence and well-meaning conviction is compelling.