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.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Brought to book

What are libraries for?

Libraries are not only a public service but a fought-for part of our heritage. But is the provision of Catherine Cookson novels to pensioners something the state should fund? If people are not using libraries why should funding continue?

Friday 3 September 2010

Life and letters in Manila

Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco (Picador, 2010)

The great problem with Syjuco’s novel is Salvador himself, who fails to become the equal of Miguel’s labours. An introductory essay promises a rumbustious figure, possessed of sufficient moral vigour to expose police brutality, but enough impish humour to pen an essay titled ‘It’s Hard to Love a Feminist’.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Facebook, freeware and working for fun

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky (Allen Lane, 2010)

The dirty secret of free software and services is that they imply free – read unpaid – labour. While this may be difficult for certain business models to accommodate, such as the print media and the music industry, which now have to compete with free alternatives, it is far from clear that it is difficult per se for capitalism as a social system.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Look who’s watching now

Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera, Tate Modern, London

What is truly your own private space?  Is this the space of a lodger in a communal bunk house, at home or in a park making love, or can it be on a bus pondering the day ahead? What about those social but private liaisons?  How do you regard the strip joint, couple’s kissing in the cinema or a Wall Street brothel. And what about what’s public - anarchists in city square, assassinated individuals, dead soldiers on the battlefield?

Thursday 27 May 2010

‘Necessary compromise’

The New Old World, by Perry Anderson (Verso, 2009)

Anderson’s account of the EU is at its strongest when he shows how it excludes the possibility of any of kind of politics at all. He remarks that though the EU appears in many respects to function as a forum for managing the relations between independent sovereign states, even here we are witnessing something different from traditional diplomacy.

Thursday 25 March 2010

The Pull of Reality

Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating, by Frank Furedi (Continuum 2009)

Humanity has accumulated its knowledge, through millennia of struggles and discoveries, with no regard whatsoever for the nature of the child. On the contrary, education is the process whereby the child acquires a culture that is by definition heterogeneous to his nature. There is nothing natural in learning the multiplication tables, the alphabet, musical notation or the correct movements of tennis. Even if the way in which these are learnt can be more or less humane to children, the acquisition of knowledge is a cultural, as opposed to natural process.

Thursday 11 March 2010

With some scraps, please

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart (Penguin, 2009)

Can we construct a radical politics which takes into account the complexities and contradictions in contemporary culture and does not end up anti-humanist or with a thinly-veiled contempt for ‘the masses’?

To and of humanity

The Education of a British-Protected Child, by Chinua Achebe (Allen Lane)

A 1988 essay entitled ‘The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics’ perhaps surprisingly offers a message directly applicable to the current moment in British politics. ‘Leadership is a sacred trust, like the priesthood in civilised, humane religions’, Achebe writes. His writings should be on a list of required reading for all those thinking of taking up office; perhaps then we might end up with a political class ready to treat the electorate with the respect it is due.

Thursday 25 February 2010

‘Democracy’ without politics

When The People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation, James S Fishkin (Oxford University Press)

Fishkin seems more interested in extracting approval from the public in order to legitimise the power of the elites, than in giving the public a role in political change. Democracy should mean that power is challenged and limited in response to political decisions, not confirmed in advance of them.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Transparency works both ways

How public scrutiny of power is becoming the power to scrutinise the public..

If the public is treated as if mere information is required before the correct view of its significance can be arrived at, then attempts to engage the public with big ideas or really change their attitudes will fail

Thursday 11 February 2010

The blind leading the blind?

'For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there', ICA, London

This exhibition left me with the depressing feeling that the vacuity of postmodern intellectual poses in academia has been uncritically reproduced by some in the cultural world and, as a consequence of being divorced from their philosophically underpinnings, actually rendered more vacuous.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Organising chaos: a natural imperative

The secret life of chaos, BBC 4, presented by Professor Jim Al Khalili

It seemed the end of the Newtonian dream. We could never know the starting point accurately. Scientific certainty dissolved. Chaos was seen everywhere, hard-wired into every aspect of the world in which we live.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Secularism and Multiculturalism: an encounter with Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor, University of Westminster, 15 January 2010

As compelling a speaker and thinker as Taylor is, there seemed to be something rather muted and unsatisfying about his account. One was left with the impression that his experience holding public hearings on cultural integration in Quebec had left him slightly fazed by what the anthropologist Robin Fox called ‘ethnographic dazzle’ and, with it, a movement towards an understanding of social integration which over-estimates the need for social unity and under-estimates the real tensions which stand as obstacles to it.

Don’t look on the bright side – it’s positively fatal

Barbara Ehrenreich at Conway Hall, London, Sunday 10 January 2010

‘Crayons?!!!’ she asked incredulously, ‘what are they for?’ ‘So you can express your feelings’ she was told. As an established writer and author of fourteen books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch she was incensed. This infantilisation of adults in the face of what was for her a frighteningly traumatic experience made her want to throw up.

Thursday 21 January 2010

You can’t buy freedom

A reflection on Benjamin Franklin's counterposition of freedom and security

Franklin employs a commercial metaphor: liberty as something to be traded for safety, or, by implication, any other desirable abstract noun. It captures well the naivety with which liberty is often discussed, the failure to understand what freedom really means.

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Resources


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.

Fora TV - the world is thinking

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