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.
A picture emerged of a composer who clearly cares far more about the brilliant sonic effect of his music than about tiffs within the avant-garde or abstruse questions of technique. Every work we heard unfolded a strange, imagined shape in the air, leaving a trace which sat in some unknown relationship to logic.
Seeking to find our uniqueness within the claustrum or anterior cingulate cortex is like trying to unpick the internet by taking apart a single computer. Tallis’ conception of the human subject is one that is ‘embodied’ in a body in the material world as well as the social one, rather than caged only within the confines of the brain.
If science fiction writers have been right about the future before, what are more contemporary authors saying and could they really come true as well. Some may argue they already are! George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ or indeed Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Both predict dystopias dominated by mind control and surveillance? Chime any chords?
The big story we have accepted has a very strange aspect. In one way it completes a triptych of betrayals of the people: the greedy bankers destroying the economy; the MPs’ expenses scandal; and now the press, in cahoots with politicians, big business and the police misleading the courts and carelessly pursuing a morally reprehensible course of invasion of privacy and bribery. We are all supposed to be joining in the circle of condemnation and moral outrage, waving our pitchforks at a newly discovered monster in our midst.
The conclusion to this debate was delivered by a man who wondered onto the stage wearing 1960s clothes, a beard and a bad temper. An uninvited hippy came onto stage and, with the audience’s encouragement, went on a rant (not dissimilar to that made by Gordon Brown regarding Murdoch’s ‘criminal media-nexus’ at the House of Commons) about the increasing apathy and lack of transparency in the press.
Advocates of the smoking ban don’t trust ordinary people to resolve any conflict between smokers and non-smokers, or not to chain smoke in front of their babies. In the same way, Simon Davies seems to think that readers need exaggeration and sensationalism in order to be convinced that the smoking ban is wrong.
Instead of technology, neurology and nature, the following, brief episodes – flashes from the history of news – are intended to show that journalism has been socially determined; and so too is our capacity to change its centre of gravity. Revealing the real elements of compulsion can only make the case for concerted change more compelling.
It seems uncontroversial to write that the NCH is not the answer to this country’s higher education problems. As Dennis Hayes very convincingly argued, it is barely even the question. And we must, of course, wait until it’s actually been open for a while before we can properly judge its merits. In the meantime, the corroding effect of educational bureaucracy may well constitute a more substantive target for debate.
What Ever Happened to Modernism? indeed proposes its own definition of Modernism to reveal that it is more to do with a synchronic ‘structure of feeling’, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, than with a continuum in time. Modernism here refers to idiosyncratic approaches to art linked together by the wish to come to terms with the meaning of life and the value of language.
A sharp-eyed and consistent defender of Western intellectual culture at heart, Naipaul has always thrived on picking apart the self-loathing tendencies of the liberal intelligentsia: the erudite colonial always ready to upstage his masters.
Lynne Truss’ war against everyone from Americans to teenagers to green grocers is a short sighted belligerent war on those-too-stupid to use the apostrophe or spell correctly. When, in fact, language changes so rapidly, to try and pin it to a set of rules is lunacy, and if these rules exist, who decided Truss was the one to make them?
The situation has, to paraphrase Hegel, the makings of a tragedy: it is a clash not of right against wrong, but of right against right. The solution to the dilemma must therefore attend to both the conflicting values and somehow reconcile them, although not necessarily on equal terms.
Hind effectively conflates Kant’s notion of public reason as a scholarly ideal with the whole idea of public participation in politics. The effect is to restrict severely what counts as properly ‘public’ participation, and even public opinion.
It is not just the negative associations with a neo-colonialism to which we react but a dominant cultural mood which is nervous of asserting any strong values at all, or that one work of art, or thought or activity has intrinsically more value than any other. Values we are always told are relative – although it is seldom explained relative to what. It is this cultural climate that is really inimical to the full-blooded and positive account of civilisation Armstrong seeks to articulate.
Canon learning and ‘obscure’ research are necessary to mark out the boundaries of a subject, and subjects must have autonomy if they are to maintain a critical distance from political fads.