Think Twice

My essay on the 20th anniversary of Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectual will run in the new issue of Bookforum. It is currently available at the website -- though at 4000 words, minus any of the section breaks used to structure the piece, it is hard to believe that anyone could actually read it online. Here's hoping the print incarnation is easier on the eyes.

As if to provide evidence that some folks actually have made it through the "screen version," however, I've received a couple of messages from people asking about the concluding paragraphs. Is the scenario sketched there likely?

One note came from Melvyn Dubofsky, the labor historian. Before going on to quote him --with his permission -- let me pause to ask whoever it was who borrowed my copy of Dubofsky's history of the Wobblies to please give it back. It's been a while, and I don't even remember who borrowed it, but such is the awesome power of blogging that I figure it can't hurt to ask.

Anyway, to continue...Dubofsky writes:

Way back in 1974 when EP Thompson was in the US for a conference at Rutgers, he and I were having coffee, and Thompson, having met numerous unemployed US academics during the conference, observed that the US might finally develop an independent left intelligentsia (the Russian word really works better than the Anglo-American variant). Marginalized by the increasingly tight academic labor market, young scholars, he noted, would have no choice other than to act as independent, institutionally-free intellectuals.

One more shattered dream, or the more things change....

So in short, I shouldn't get my hopes up. Todd Gitlin writes to make more or less the same point.

And yes, the odds are overwhelmingly against my concluding vision. Total pessimism is called for in this matter. It's true that I read an awful lot of stuff nowadays by members of the lumpenprofessoriat who are suspended, as it were, somewhere between the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself, as it were. But the chances of a leap are just too small. And the rewards for making it, after all, just about nonexistent.

Oh lord, are they ever. Stay in school, kids. Be diligent, color within the lines, and keep your eye fixed on that impressive device with the carrot and the stick. Otherwise you could end up like the guy from the 1940s mentioned in the essay -- the one who pulls out a book of matches and sets his hair on fire. The situation may make for a good story, but in real life it just stinks.

(crossposted from Cliopatria)

September 10, 2007 10:39 AM | | Comments (2)



"A group of writers and of thinkers--and even, who knows? of eloquent yellers--who enjoy no economic security and occupy low rungs on the status ladder, without much reason to think this will change. Such people, finding themselves excluded, might in time start wanting to "exclude the excluders."

I must be one of these. Having been excluded from the outset by parents who denied me the education I had earned academically, I have had no choice but to function as an outsider. The art/academic/cultural world is a bell jar. As an artist, I only want to make people's lives more satisfying, more meaningful. But how to do this if our society cuts the intellectually gifted off at the neck? Or should I say, mouth? We all gotta eat. And only a very, very few get to teach. What we have done to our nation, to ourselves and to our children is now plainly apparent. Stupid is, as stupid does.

So what's new? Have you forgotten DT Suzuki and other's had to miss out on an academic life until fortune found them because either there were no jobs or they were not politically favorites or some other nonsense. Education, scholarship, even credentials guarantee nothing. Practically, the ancient China had the best and the worst approach--a bureaucracy of scholars. Of course you see what it got them.

Oh give it up the bitterness. So you're smart. So are millions. Think of the genius that never was uncovered. What a lost for the world. So just queue up. If someone stole from you, move on. Just do what you can, that is all anyone can do.

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