Will social media lead to the return of the general intellectual?

In his detailed study of Sartre’s rise to prominence as an authoritative public intellectual, Patrick Baert argues that the general intellectualism embodied by Sartre depended upon social conditions which no longer obtain. Such intellectuals “address a wide range of subjects without being experts as such” and speak “at, rather than with, their audience” (pg. 185). In doing so, they depend upon a broad support for intellectual life within society alongside a concentration of cultural and intellectual capital within a small elite. Without the hierarchy this gives rise to, one in which enough of the subordinate are invested, it cannot be tenable to pronounce with such perceived authority across such a broad range of subjects. This hierarchy is manifested both in educational institutions but also in the disciplines from which such general intellectuals emerge. However general intellectuals are not dependent upon these institutions, instead being able to leverage their authority into income from the media (non-fiction, print journalism, broadcast media) and often being able to rely on family wealth. The authority invested in their discipline, alongside “the confidence of the right habitus and an elite education” mean “they can speak to a wide range of social and political issues without being criticised for dilettantism” (pg. 185).

What led to their decline? Baert identifies numerous intellectual factors, including the emergence of theoretical movements which “questioned, if not undermined, the erstwhile superiority of philosophy over other vocabularies” (g. 185). The professionalisation of the social sciences facilitated the challenge of claims by philosophers about the social world which were effectively just bad sociology. Their expansion meant that there were now subject experts in areas upon which philosophers used to make pronouncements, implicitly or explicitly casting such outpourings of opinion as inadequate. Much as the authority of philosophy was undermined from within, so too was educational authority eroded from without as mass higher education contributed to a softening of the disjuncture between educational elite and the population at large. As Baert puts it, “with higher education also comes a growing scepticism towards epistemic and moral authority, an increasing recognition of the fallibility of knowledge and of the existence of alternative perspectives” (pg. 186). The declining acceptability of speaking at such public audiences was compounded by the erosion of the deferential attitudes which had previously characterised the media. Indeed, over time the media came to include subject experts who felt competent challenging the lauded experts.

Baert suggests that social media further intensifies this trend. He recognises that gatekeepers still exist online and that most bloggers have little audience. But nonetheless he argues that “the technology has made a difference, once which surely has further lessened the likelihood of authoritative public intellectuals” (pg. 186-187). In the place of such generalists, we see expert public intellectuals who resemble what Foucault described as the specific intellectual. Such figures “draw on their professional knowledge, whether derived from their research in the social and natural sciences, to engage with wider societal or political issues that go beyond their narrow expertise” (pg. 187). Their capacity to exert an influence rests on “intellect and acquired knowledge, and mastery of the inductive technology (observational skill, statistical methods, lab machinery etc.) to acquire or verify that knowledge” (pg 187-188). Dialogical public intellectuals often draw on the affordances of new technology to “get their message across” and position themselves against those who rely on traditional media, “emphasising how the new technologies permit frequent and intense interaction” (pg. 189). In doing so, they embody a prior trend towards more iterative and dialogical forms of engagement, constructing themselves as learning from their public while the public learn from them.

It’s striking how much less detailed Baert’s description of the latter category is compared to the preceding two. Indeed the only figure named is Michael Burawoy, in relation to his plea for public sociology rather than his performance of it. This intellectual self-presentation is something which investigation might reveal to be a self-marketing strategy for intellectuals seeking to stake out ground within an increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas, within which social media has removed barriers to entry while also generating a whole new arena of interaction through which to cultivate a relationship with one’s hoped for audience. To be fair to him, Baert perhaps recognises this, stressing that “the situation is often more complex than the bloggers themselves tend to acknowledge” and point out they will often continue to write for newspapers and magazines etc (pg. 189). But how seriously this claim to dialogical interaction should be taken is an empirical question. How much does this interaction shape their views? How much of this interaction do they respond substantively to? How long do they spend each week engaging in such interaction? Without substantive interaction, this dialogical relation is in part imagined, a constructed audience reproduced in the mind and reality through limited interaction with a small subset of it.

My suggestion is that social media is far more hospitable to the conditions of the general intellectual than Baert suggests. The intellectual self-presentation of the dialogical scholar, orientated towards extending their network and cultivating their online audience, represents a strategy conducive to success in the attention economy if they can balance this time-demanding pursuit with the exigencies of their day job. The increasing reliance of journalists, particularly freelancers, on social media for networking and research mean such figures will inevitably be invited to contribute to features and discussions beyond their area of expertise. Even if the dialogic public intellectual has a self-understanding grounded in circumscribed expertise, their digital footprint will inevitably push beyond this and lead others to tempt them still further.

In a way, this post is the latest part of an extended conversation with myself about whether to say ‘yes’ when I get asked to contribute to features on subjects I have opinions about but no expertise. To name some recent examples: selfie culture, conspiracy theories, algorithmic culture, hipsters, the meaning of tolerance. With one exception, I’ve always said ‘no’, largely out of caution. It’s possible there has been a misunderstanding, such that someone infers the existence of a trajectory of research from one blog post on a topic whereas actually that single blog post represents the sum total of my engagement. It’s also possible they’re made in relation to a university affiliation, something which I’m certain is the case with those last minute e-mails explaining the journalist has an imminent deadline and needs an expert quote taking an agreed stance to complete a nearly finished article.

But I suspect something more is going on, in which the price of admission to public platforms has changed from expertise to a capacity for cogency, a quickness in response and the willingness to comment. The invitations are there for generalists emerging from the academy, liable only to grow if they pursue even the most basic strategies of visibility and connection through social media. The rewards are there, in so far as such activity can be plausibly glossed as public engagement potentially generative of impact. The costs potentially faced by generalists are weak from within the academy, liable to be restricted to those who have an extremely high profile and thus counteract the anonymity of abundance or those who inadvertently provoke a controversy with ill-thought out statements on controversial topics that lead them to be held to account. Under such conditions, the reflexivity of the individual intellectual becomes key, something unlikely to change when the academy remains as fragmented as is currently the case.

What it means to be an intellectual is changing in an age of social media and we’ve yet to really get to grips with what this means.


Categories: Digital Sociology, Higher Education

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