The rise, the fall and the absorption of the intellectual

Tremendous essay over at Bookforum by Scott McLemee. Ostensibly a 20-year look back at Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, it really offers a mini-history and analysis of its own of the "unattached American intellectual" -- from post-war to post-Reagan, from the loss of Greenwich Village bohemia, which wasn't all that great to begin with, to the integration of these thinkers into academic/media/government jobs, to the rise of prepackaged, specialized popular culture (and the exclusion of a wider academic discourse, transforming intellectuals into easy-access media pundits), to the lumpenprofessoriat's re-marginalization after the Cold War ended and the academic-economic bubble had burst.

As Scott puts it, back in bohemia, "The possibility of being an independent ... intellectual had been deeply conditioned by the necessity, for many such people, of working in marginal circumstances." But once that necessity was removed, and degreed people could get steady work, it became clear, as Irving Howe pointed out, that the "institutional world needs intellectuals because they are intellectuals, but it does not want them as intellectuals." In short, we all started writing book-length studies no one wanted to write, studies no one wanted to read, "books that have little to do with literature, criticism or even scholarship" -- but they got you tenure, they paid the rent.

Throw in the New Left's complete disregard of Howe (and their supposed escape into "tenured radicalism"), Jacoby's heartening defense of the vernacular -- that is, a public intellectual has to engage a public world, not the private domain of academia -- and Richard Posner's economic determinism concerning pundit-intellectuals. What you've got is a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, thought-provoking book review.

Check it out.

September 11, 2007 11:12 AM |



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