Come Gather Round (the Computer) People

of digital public intellectuals, civic engagers & policy wonks.

X-posted (and revised somewhat) from HASTAC blog.

Michael Bérubé visited our Engaged Humanities Scholar as Public Intellectual research workshop at Northwestern U in mid-October. He was smart and funny, offering a model of the public intellectual as witty and welcoming to others.

He talked about his new project, The Left at War, which examines intra-progressive intellectual debates about the military responses to 9/11. Michael argues that cultural studies–particularly the legacy of Stuart Hall’s more explicit political examinations of the ideological background in which Thatcherism emerged in 1980s Britain–can help us gain a better sense of how to build a progressive multilateralism in the US and the world (imitating Hall’s famous phrase “Marxism without guarantees,” I’d call Michael’s vision “multilateralism without guarantees”). Michael’s point was to use Stuart Hall’s more political analysis rather than his more famous subcultural studies work in order to critique both the liberal hawk pro-war position, which was easily coopted by the right, and to criticize what Michael calls the “Manichean left,” which assumes that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (even in this case fundamentalist terrorists). Though I want to learn more from the book about how, exactly, cultural studies fits into this new model of progressive internationalism (Ellen Willis figures in the part of the book Michael did not discuss as much during his visit, which can’t be a bad thing!), Michael’s careful effort to think through how ideas and culture relate to the world of politics was captivating.

Michael Bérubé.

Michael’s visit, which took place the same weekend as the wonderful conference at U of Iowa called Platforms for Public Scholars, made me think more consciously about the whole concept of the “public intellectual” in our time. I was left thinking about three different models of public intellectual that both overlap and diverge:

  • (a) The classic public intellectual is the heroic (foolhardy?) book reviewer or essayist with a desk copy, a 1000 to 5000 word limit, and a deadline for publication. This is the typical version of the public intellectual in which the world might become the alcoves at CUNY in the 1930s and 40s and we might become all New York Intellectuals sparring in the generalist, non-specialist public sphere of debate and discussion. The digital comes into play here as book reviews and essays give way to blogs and multimedia formats: can a general, broad, inclusive public sphere of intellectual engagement function in this new space? Can it be more democratic and widely participatory than the exclusivity of intellectual life in the world of New York Intellectuals and other cafe intellectual traditions?
  • (b) The Platforms for Public Scholars offered a different model of the public intellectual, what we might call the civic intellectual, a figure who works in radically-democratic, service-based collaboration with members of other communities (youth groups, schools, unions, associations, towns, and the like) on products of knowledge exploration and acquisition. The civic intellectual is not necessarily a generalist, but rather knows how to bring specialized training in a scholarly field to bear on a particular project, and also is open to learning from other, non-academic communities. This model most directly challenges older versions of university-centric scholarship, which is so influenced by its monastic origins. And the digital seems to offer one way by which civic intellectualism might flourish, bringing the university and the world beyond the campus gates together in productive and new ways. *But* this is not quite the same thing as (a) the classic public intellectual. And therein lies a tension concerning the public intellectual and the digital. What is gained, what lost, in the differences between these two models? How might they overlap in useful and worthy ways?
  • (c) Finally, a third kind of public intellectual is the policy wonk. This figure is more closely aligned with government and political parties. He (and often it’s a he, though increasingly less so) tends to think little of culture, and live in a world even more insular than the academic. It’s the institutions of policy wonkery to which Michael Bérubé wants to introduce the tools of cultural studies (though in doing so, he also wants to reshape what culture studies is, moving it away from simplistic pop culture transgression-equals-resistance assumptions to Hall’s more supple explorations of the linkages between culture, ideology, and politics). Unlike the classic public intellectual, the policy wonk is less concerned with maintaining a distance from centers of power. Unlike the civic intellectual, the policy wonk tends to be less concerned with the processes of “democraticizing knowledge” (by and large), and more concerned with actual ends and results through access to power.

So, how might these three kinds of public intellectualism intersect and overlap and diverge? Where does the digital fit? Are there other kinds of public intellectual activity and what should be their relationships to the models above. I think there are great and perhaps even insurmountable differences between the three models above, and I am left thinking about the role of the digital in exacerbating these differences and, also, the potential of the digital to offer tools for reorganizing public intellectual life in new ways. I want to get away from the “digital is democratic, may a 1000 blogs bloom” euphoria. At the same time, I think the digital does offer enormous potential for a sense of quality intellectual engagement and civic belonging beyond both what the book, magazine, newspaper, and cafe could do in days of yore as well as what the campus could do with chalk and chalkboard.

I’m starting to think about how the abstractions above can be applied to particular projects of scholarly inquiry. So as I begin to organize my next research projects, I am pondering how I might move among the three models above while developing a history of folk music festivals, a biography of Paul Goodman, or a history of the 1976 US bicentennial. And I am thinking about how the digital might be applied in this research, and I’m particularly contemplating how one might represent these different sorts of projects in U.S. intellectual and cultural history through digital means.

For instance, how might the participatory and multicultural dimensions of folk music festivals appear digitally? How might not only the analog music of banjos and clogs and slide guitars and accordions, but also the feeling of community and exchange at these festivals, be investigated through digital means? How might Goodman’s multi-genre approaches to public life appear online? How might the reader/viewer/interactor with this material contribute to making meaning out of it? How might I represent the knowledge gleaned from my research so that it can “go viral,” mutate, be used and re-used in new ways?

Thanks again to Michael Bérubé for his enormous energy and generosity of time and spirit during his visit.

5 thoughts on “Come Gather Round (the Computer) People

  1. Because of #3 and #4 above, I’m going to link to this tomorrow at USIH. The notion of public intellectualism is looking like it will be a central theme of next year’s USIH conference.

    That biography of Goodman sounds mighty interesting! But I also like the Bicentennial idea as well. – TL

  2. Hi Tim –

    Happy thanksgiving! I give thanks for intellectual history!

    An additional category of public intellectualism that I was thinking about after this post was Gramsci’s famous “organic intellectual.” We might add that much-romanticized figure to the list as well.

    – MJK aka CR

  3. Your use of the phrase “civic intellectual” necessarily brings to mind Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect, which divides the city’s history into three phases—Civic Culture, Literary Culture, and Academic Culture. Perhaps a current understanding of the possibilities and perils of “civic intellectuals” might benefit from looking into the characteristics Bender outlines in the first part of his book.

    With best wishes,

  4. Citation Nation

    I forgot to cite the great George Scialabba above as the person from whom I borrowed the concept of the classic public intellectual as a generalist and humanist. See his moving opening essay on Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn in What Are Intellectuals Good For?

    MJK aka CR

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *