It is hard, even frustrating, to be a public intellectual these days. Corey Robin concludes his thoughtful and timely piece about the status, function, and worries of, and about, public intellectuals by stating that
We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear in the face of state repression or social intransigence but instead will dig in and charge forward. And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today. Not tenure, not the death of bohemia, not jargon, but the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.
In part, I share his worries: It indeed can be difficult to address publics who are only passing through on their way to something more interesting or spectacular, who are indifferent — or, indeed, who are outright hostile. Who are (mostly) not there.
But I also wonder if it was not always thus. The public to be addressed is not only small, but volatile, changing, often fleeting. I am not sure at which point there were either ready-made publics, or even those who could be readily created, and maintained — indeed, “summoned” — by the intellectual’s challenges, claims, and demands. In other words, I think that a part of being a public intellectual (and I am deliberately leaving the definition of this term as open and as loose as possible) is learning to speak to (nearly) empty rooms, to struggle with audiences who are unreliably engaged, to shout into the void with the full awareness of the Sisyphean nature of one’s labors.
I am not sure why I am not either surprised or worried by this — clearly, Robin is. Perhaps because my view of what it might mean to be a public intellectual does not at the same time contain a guarantee of being heard, understood, embraced — or even noticed. Perhaps because my worries about public intellectuals have more to do with the infotainment too many people associate with them — a kind of fun, tensionless, TED-ish combination of cleverness, gee-whiz-ness, and stand-up comedy (or else, the other side — the SERIOUS face of REAL ISSUES).
So, what am I saying? Maybe something like this: What should be a worry about the status, and the effectiveness, of public intellectuals is not merely that the audiences are evanescent — that a public cannot be brought into being — but that the ones that are brought into being are flattered, coaxed, and infotained into existence. But because these foundations resemble cotton candy, they melt with a simple touch. They do not interfere, nor disturb. By morning, they are not even a memory.
I do not have any constructive advice to offer regarding what we ought to do if we desire to retain some meaning and moral significance of public intellectualism. I am not sure that hoping for an audience that endures will help the cause. But I think that Robin and I can agree that disorienting, making less comfortable, alienating the publics that do exist is a way to proceed through the uncertain and the murky. Because, in the end, being an intellectual of any kind demands a kind of a familiarity with the unknown, with the chaotic, and with, yes, a sense of a public-less isolation. One can’t go on. One will go on.