The Public Intellectual as Provocateur

October 02, 2013

It used to be that public intellectuals were a rare breed. The academy, for instance, had no shortage of intellectuals, but how many were inclined toward reaching a larger audience?

Two forces arrayed against the intellectual who might seek the public’s attention. First, it was considered poor form to popularize the lofty and rarified knowledge that circulated in ivory towers. To do so was inevitably to dumb down, to leech out the high-grade material and leave only the more obvious and therefore less valuable “information.” Second, there was the difficulty of finding a venue that would bring the ideas of intellectuals to a mass audience. Sure, there have always been pundits and talking heads, but how much of what these people talked about could be considered “intellectual”?

But in the last decade the nature of what a public intellectual might be has come up for review. The relationship between intellectuals and the public is changing. Thanks to advances in social media and communications technology, the extent of the public has grown. And this public is able not only to receive information, but also to furnish it. This expanded public can offer its own opinions and insights to everyone. It seems that we are now faced with an entirely different public landscape when it comes to information, knowledge, etc. And this has had profound effects on the concept of the public intellectual.

• • •

The Internet links people and their ideas in unprecedented ways. The question, as the critic Howard Rheingold put it, is not only how can we use this capacity smartly, but also why we should:

If we combine our individual efforts wisely, enough of the right know-how could add up to a more thoughtful society as well as enhance those individuals who master digital network skills. Web 2.0 impressario Tim O’Reilly claims that the secret sauce behind Google, Wikipedia, and the Web itself is the ‘architecture of participation,’ enabling countless small acts of self-interest like publishing a web page or sharing a link to add up to a public good that enriches everybody.

However, as Cass Sunstein wrote in these pages a decade ago, the architecture of the Web seems to take away as much as it gives us in terms of a diversity of information and opinion. In his article “The Daily We,” Sunstein points out the need for the unaccustomed and the unexpected:

People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself.

What he found ten years ago on the Web was a plethora of curated news feeds, filtered searches, and individual customization that reinforced existing tastes rather than nurturing new ones:

What is different is a dramatic increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries, including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. For all their problems, and their unmistakable limitations and biases, these intermediaries have performed some important democratic functions.

For Sunstein, to make good on the democratic promise of the Web, one must undo those filters and open oneself to a diversity of sources and opinions. But that is no guarantee: we could just be opening ourselves to more of what Rheingold succinctly terms “crap.” Not only bad information but also untrue information. Furthermore, simply bringing more traditional news organizations into the fray does not ensure a better result.

What is called for are public intellectuals who exert critical intelligence in synthesizing multiple sources of information and knowledge and presenting their opinions for debate, not simply for consumption. A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today’s public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently. This distinction is critical.

Let me give three examples of the types of public intellectual work that have opened up with the advent of the Web. They come from two sources. One is The Stone, a New York Times blog that features “the writing of contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” Despite this bland descriptor, the Stone has published several provocative pieces, including the series “Women in Philosophy.” The series covers the difficulty of pre-professional life for women pursuing philosophy degrees, the disparaging of feminist and minority epistemologies, “academia’s fog of male anxiety,” and the prevalence of sexual harassment in the discipline. The indictments and critiques by renowned women philosophers reached a huge public.

My second and third examples come from Truthout. In April 2012 Truthout published a story of mine, “Poetry, Plasticity, Philosophical Activism.” I was new to blogging, but I had just done a public event with the longtime activist Grace Lee Boggs, who was then 97 years old. As Boggs spoke of her 70-plus years of activism, a lot of what she said reminded me of the work of someone quite different, the relatively young French Marxist feminist Catherine Malabou. Now many of Truthout’s readers may have been familiar with Boggs, or at least have heard about her, but few if any knew about Malabou, or would have had a taste for her abstract theorizing. My blog was my attempt to bring the two into conversation and find a language common to them and the readership of Truthout. The provocation, generated by all three of us synergistically, was in reconsidering work today, how to value human activity and adaptivity. Because the story was online, Malabou found it easily and was able to enter directly that I had hoped to enable.

Whereas The Stone’s contributors and I, a tenured member of the Stanford faculty, find it relatively easy to gain an audience, Joshua Stephens, a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, probably has more difficulty. But he found a venue with Truthout. In his article “Syrian Anarchist Challenges the Rebel/Regime Binary View of Resistance,” Stephens gives a detailed analysis of the Syrian case and explains how the binary logic of the American press obscures alternatives to intervention. He interviews Nader Atassi, a Syrian political researcher and blogger. Peppered throughout Stephens’ article are links to other news sources and blogs. Through his article an entirely new picture of the Syrian crisis emerges.

The New York Times is the flagship of the venerable old print media, updating itself with an online edition that takes advantage of online publishing to furnish space to academic intellectuals. Their provocative work will reach a vast audience and therefore have a powerful effect on the academy. Truthout is a feisty leftist Web site with a shoestring budget and mostly volunteer staff. Yet precisely because of that it can publish essays that would likely not have seen the light of day otherwise. In both cases there is opportunity and demand for new ways of public intellectualism.

Photograph: flickr/Public Citizen


very nice

I agree with Howard Rheingold, an intellectual I admire, his idea of the virtual communities is interesting and challenging. The problem is we lack general forum for exchange in an unbiased way, open to arguments and willing to pay the prize for dissention. The dissidents (Snowden, Bradley, Assange, many other) are punished and the system buy your silence and complicity.

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