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.

Monday 30 December 2013

An archaeology book to change your life

Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination, by Richard Morris (Phoenix, 2013)

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.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Duchamp, the Joker

The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns part of Dancing Around Duchamp season at the Barbican, London

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.

Monday 28 January 2013

Encountering modernity

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against The West and the Remaking of Asia, by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane 2012)

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.

Pieties eviscerated

Museums Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades (Unbound, 2012)

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.

Monday 15 October 2012

Connoisseurship and condescension

Bronze, Royal Academy of Arts, London / Raphael, Teylers Museum, Haarlem

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.

Friday 12 October 2012

Here comes the science

The Geek Manifesto, by Mark Henderson (Bantam Press 2012)

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.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

The academy in an era of crisis and intellectual uncertainty

Reflections on the state of academia in advance of a Battle of Ideas Satellite event in Athens on Friday 5 October 2012

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.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Hamlet as literature

Shakespeare: the invention of the human, by Harold Bloom (Riverhead Books, 1998)

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.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

‘Dialogue is the objective of dialogue.’

Chinese writers and controversy at the London Book Fair

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.

Monday 9 April 2012

‘They’ll expect everyone to work as hard as they do.’

China: Triumph and Turmoil, Channel 4 television, March 2012

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.

Libraries: the case for books

The Library Book, edited by Rebecca Gray (Profile Books 2012)

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.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

The dangerous book for women and men

The Bible Now, by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky (Oxford University Press, 2011)

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

Friday 16 December 2011

‘I am the simulacrum of myself’

Baudrillard, A Graphic Guide, by Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic (Icon Books, 2011)

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.

Is technology making us smarter or dumber?

A talk given to the Brighton Salon, 2 November 2011

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.

Friday 28 October 2011

For unfussy intelligence

Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, BBC Four, August 2011

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.

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A collection of essays republished from a special issue of the academic journal Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (CRISPP).

Ideas, Intellectuals and the Public [PDF]
Dolan Cummings’ introduction from the above.

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