Quantifying Public Intellect, Qualifying Public Intellect

numb and numbered or text and textured?

Being a public intellectual is a way of cementing that public’s investment in the intellectual life. — Cathy Davidson

In her blog today, Cathy Davidson celebrates the size of the Scholars forums on HASTAC (pronounced haystack, and standing for the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, Technology Advanced Collaboratory) as an example of public intellectualism. She compares the number of readers for a typical academic book (400 she claims) to the 350,000 unique hits that the HASTAC forums has received over the last three years.

There is much to celebrate about the HASTAC Scholars forums, which have become a rich and vibrant online exchange network for ideas, responses, arguments, and debates of all sorts. But the framing of public intellectualism around size of audience made me wonder: what do we mean by the term public intellectual in the digital age? How should we qualify it as well as quantify it as we assess what we might do—or think, since thinking is a kind of doing—with all this technologically-enabled knowledge creation?

I want to be clear that I am asking these questions as a supporter of HASTAC, not as a neo-luddite or anti-digital humanities person. I am asking these questions because I am concerned about the scales and “metrics” we can easily and uncritically adopt to judge public intellectual life. Which is to ask: when it comes to knowledge and learning, what is the relationship, exactly, between quantity of participation and quality?

I do not have an answer to this question, though I do think there is ample evidence—indeed, overwhelming evidence—of the quality of intellectual interaction on the HASTAC forums. What I mean is how does the quality, not the quantity, of the public intellectual engagement on HASTAC connect to—or remain disconnected from—the public? How do we give context and texture to numerical measurements of intellectual life?

And what does Cathy mean exactly by arguing that “being a public intellectual is a way of cementing that public’s investment in the intellectual life”? Is she suggesting that the conversations on HASTAC confirm an initial public expenditure on intellectual endeavors, or is she proposing that HASTAC forums are themselves generative, inspiring public interest in the life of the mind? Or both? (I think “cementing” and “investment” are the words I am having trouble fully understanding here.)

As they always tend to in provocative and productive ways, Cathy Davidson’s blog posts addressed pressing contemporary issues. But in this case, her blog also sent me back in time, thinking about how the connection between intellectual endeavors and the shaping of public life has a long and vexed history.

One thinks of Walter Lippmann’s “phantom public,” in which experts were needed in modern, industrial society to step in and guide the common citizen  overwhelmed by access to information (and that was in the 1920s, what would Lippmann have made of the Internet!?). One thinks of John Dewey’s insistence, partially in response to Lippmann, that a kind of social democratic harmonization of the individual citizen and the mass public was possible, and that science, arts, and education (the intellect, for Dewey) were precisely the means to sing the euphonious song.

I also think of Jurgen Habermas’s work on legitimation between facts and norms, his theory of social organization potentially moving from loosely-affiliated public interactions in the vernacular lifeworld up through to governmental instrumentalizations of power in the system (one also thinks of the dangers Habermas foresaw in the growing colonization of the lifeworld by the system).

And I think of the Marxist Gramscian tradition, which pictures intellectuals as class warriors in civil society—which is to say ideological and affective fighters among both the institutions and the open spaces of public life in a democracy. Here, civil society becomes a terrain of struggle, a battle zone of positions in what Gramsci calls a war of position. In this understanding of the public, there is an ongoing competition between different social classes as they compete for hegemonic control over determining what seems like common sense to people. This is, of course, a much more conflictual model than the prior ones.

Most of all, I think of Michael Walzer’s notion of the “connected critic.” I think this might be the best model for scholarly engagement on the HASTAC Scholars forums. Of course Walzer was not thinking of being connected in the digital sense, but for lack of a better word the connection is there.

So one question, if HASTAC Scholars are indeed to think of themselves as public intellectuals, might be: how do they further articulate, elucidate, and critically engage the quality of exchange on HASTAC itself, as well as the quantity? Moreover, how can those who are participating, who have been bitten by the knowledge bug, who seek to join a lineage of specialized academic study (a monastic tradition, after all, that sought to get away from society, though always found itself wrapped up in issues of power, patronage, and hierarchy), how can they democratize their learning, share their findings, while also remaining necessarily wary, alienated, critical, and maybe even unquantifiable in their value to society? What kind of learning community would this be substantively? How do you transform 350,000 unique hits into a space of shared uniqueness?

Perhaps HASTAC Scholars might imagine themselves as gadflys among the gadgets rather than cement pourers filling in frames at the public’s feet. They are not seeking to secure an “investment” in the stock of intellectual life, but rather they might serve as in a role at once more tricky, yet also immeasurably important. They might seek to map out what it means to become not only public intellectuals, but also democratic intellectuals: active participants at the open borders of a republic of letters as well as numbers; thinkers on the edges conversing about ideas as well as crunching data; connected critics balancing individual voices and idiosyncratic views on the scales of collective digital interaction and communication.


3 thoughts on “Quantifying Public Intellect, Qualifying Public Intellect

  1. Hi, Michael, Thanks for this. And for all the kind words about HASTAC and moi. And, of course, I agree about quantifying. Indeed, until we were asked to for this particular NSF grant we are applying to with our friends at Mozilla and P2PU, we had never done so. When we did, it made us jump for joy. In a world where the humanities are consistently devalued NO ONE, not even us, would have believed that a rich,subtle, sophisticated and brilliant conversation on Critical Code Studies or Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces would add up to over 350,000 unique visitors. No one.

    For me, such numbers are Althusserian hailings; they make us pay attention. And that’s when we can then get to work. We can use them as a tool, a reference point, a baseline to then make the conversation happen.

    Here’s another example that isn’t about HASTAC, a number that came out today: “The richest 400 in US have $1.57 trillion. More than 50% of population combined or 155 million people.” Okay, like the 350,000 HASTAC readers, that number doesn’t create new knowledge. The knowledge and the circumstance it summarizes existed. The number, however, is a very convenient and urgent hailing. In the case of the 350,000 HASTAC readers, it says, “you are cutting funding for the humanities? when they are so important to the world?” And in the wealth distribution numbers, the hailing is: “what is wrong with this picture–and why has the picture changed so radically in thirty years?”

    Hailings. That’s what we do as bloggers, too. And you are one of the best. Thank you for all you contribute and all you do, Michael.

  2. Hi Cathy,

    Thanks for this response. What a privilege to hear more about your thoughts on the topic. As usual for me, in my comments, I have donned my “worried, furrowed brow” Groucho mask to think about the humanities.

    I see your point: the numbers are a kind of hailing, a baseline, a tool, or reference point. I do still worry about how they can also overwhelm other factors. For instance, what if HASTAC Scholars forums only attracted a smaller audience? This does not make them any less worthy, I believe, nor does it necessarily make them less of a contribution to public intellectual life.

    In other words, I would argue that part of the problem is a kind of methodological one: an obsession in our public life right now with a certain kind of quantitative measurement of qualitative life. As in No Child Left Behind, or the arguments about public workers causing governmental debt (an argument that lacks quantitative evidence, but in fact is a struggle over qualitative assessments of the worth of workers and of the state), or the ways that universities and colleges obsess over the US News and World Report rankings (as in recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/02/14/110214fa_fact_gladwell).

    I’m not against the use of quantitative data at all, so long as these data remain hailings (but wait, aren’t hailings what the Althusserian police do to us?). What I’m concerned about is that these hailings, baseline starting points, pivots for larger conversations about the quality of our public life (and private lives), are starting to feel increasingly to me like a hailstorm. Do they threaten to beat other measurements of public life, of knowledge creation, of happiness into the ground?

    So I would say: so long as we are including qualitative measurements (which should still be evidence-based and well-reasoned of course) along with quantitative data in our calculations of what matters, then, well, count me in!

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this. And may the humanities flourish both quantitatively and qualitatively!

    All best,

  3. Michael,

    I’m with you the sense that quality must always stand higher than quantity in terms of intellectual assessments for public consumption. I mean, being a public intellectual means offering something more complex and thoughtful to any given conversation. So much for production. The consumption side must also not be measured in terms of quantity—hits, views, twitter followers, etc. Indeed, Twitter might be the worst thing to happen to the intellectual life in terms of social interactions and public intellectualism.

    I think that the myriad of platforms is creating something more like a “performance intellectual,” or a public performance intellectual. The intellectual, because of her/his accessible audience and desire to keep them interested, offers forth assessments in order to maintain a profile rather than be thoughtful. It’s celebrity culture meets the academy.

    Stretching beyond HASTAC and its producers and consumers, I think that electronic platforms have turned all of us into public intellectuals of some sort. The question now is one of quality, as you noted. But related subthemes include connectedness of one’s mind to particular topics (a la Walzer), meaning making or discernment (a la Habermas), advocacy and postioning (a la Gramsci), and the rest of the ways of being a public intellectual you document. What role does the intellectual with a keyboard and DSL connection want to play?

    I’m not sure how my experience with the U.S. Intellectual History blog and the USIH community (virtual) correlate. So far, it’s a reasonably sound means to converse asynchronously about new developments (books, articles, ideas, events with meaning related to the mind). The recent discussions of Dan Rodgers new book put this on full display. I also relay aggregated news in my “Light Reading” posts. We act as useful public intellectuals when we aid in constructing an archaeology of present-day ideology (e.g. digging for the roots of the Tea Party). I’ll keep thinking about these things.



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