The Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective has an interesting interview with Steve Fuller about what it means to be an ‘intellectual’ in contemporary circumstances. There’s a range of important points in this interview but these really caught my attention:
Yes, I see myself as an intellectual, although it is not what I get paid to do. Being an intellectual is not part of the job description of an academic (of course, some major intellectuals have been academics). Academics are typically — perhaps even increasingly — trained and encouraged to transmit ideas within a restricted range of media, such that the medium becomes the message. For example, academics tend to believe that ideas cannot be properly developed in a radio program or a newspaper column. This attitude at once establishes the academic’s expert authority (since publishing an academic article is not a trivial skill) and implicitly sets up the intellectual as an anti-academic figure who assumes that any complex conception worth conveying can be done effectively in the popular media. Sometimes the intellectual is cast as degrading academic knowledge. This underestimates the threat that intellectuals pose to academic knowledge, which is to de-skill it and ultimately render it redundant. Thus, if you can understand evolutionary theory after reading a 750-word column by Richard Dawkins, why read Darwin’s voluminous tomes, let alone the even more verbose academic commentaries that have followed in their wake?
If by ‘real intellectuals’, you mean people who speak their own minds and not function as ideological mouthpieces, then the minimum requirement is that their income is not dependent on the popularity or validity of what they say. Academic tenure historically supplied this requirement — what I have called ‘the right to be wrong’ — but it was mainly to encourage researchers to stake risky hypotheses and venture into terra incognita. Some academics, quite legitimately I think, have also used tenure to become public intellectuals because they know that even if they say very unpopular things, they still keep their jobs. In the other great breeding ground for intellectuals, journalism, the situation has been always more precarious. Typically journalists have had to turn their world-view, or style of approaching issues, into a ‘brand’ that attracts followers who then buy the newspapers and magazines where those journalists appear, simply because they want to learn what the journalists have to say. Just as serious challenges have been lodged against academic tenure in recent years, so too it is no longer clear that the market for readers in today’s cyber-inflected media environment allows for the effective branding of intellectuals. But I don’t think that these larger structural transformations have anything to do with the quality of the individuals capable of becoming intellectuals — if anything, their ranks have swelled. My advice to a young aspiring intellectual is to read very widely and critically but take a multi-media course in university so that you are equipped to transmit your ideas in variety of literary and audio-visual media.
What really interests me is how the tension between academic activity and intellectual activity is being reshaped by the changing politics of circulation within which it plays itself out. Academic expertise is consolidated by making contributions to an extremely specialised body of knowledge through a relatively limited range of media. So there’s an investment in these media as legitimising forms which often engenders a scepticism about satisfactorily communicating expert knowledge outside of them. However this academic habitus will, when left to its own devices, tend to engender public marginality. Hence the need for the ‘intellectual’ or, from my point of view, popularisers of social science.
This is a job which has tended to be carried out by self-branded journalists (Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks etc) who are clearly intellectuals in the sense expressed by Steve in the second paragraph. But why aren’t they coming from within the academy? I wonder if digital technology can begin to square the circle of academic activity vs intellectual activity by making the latter feasible, in a way which builds on research but extends beyond an individual’s specialisation, without it constituting a whole different career path. In the way that for instance Gladwell and Brooks continue to work as journalists while constituting themselves as public intellectuals through the talks that they give and the books that they write? I find it fascinatingly weird that books about social science are frequently in worldwide best seller lists and yet, with a few notable exceptions, it’s rarely social scientists who are writing them.