U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Intellectual History for What?” Laschian Analysis for the Soul

It is time to reflect on the Third Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference, another successful meeting. One of the more memorable moments for me was the final plenary, which grappled with the question, “Intellectual History for What?” The six panelists contended with this question in a variety of ways.

George Cotkin answered by way of a moving, intimate look into his fine career as a writer of intellectual history that despite, or even because of, its setbacks, has nourished his soul. Rochelle Gurstein argued that intellectual historians need to write for “serious, engaged readers,” in order to recreate or reinvent a “public,” singular. The conference theme “Intellectuals and Their Publics,” plural, did not resonate with her.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, pulling no punches, advised that U.S. intellectual historians not stoop to the level of our colleagues in other fields, in terms of perpetual self-examination or self-flagellation. She also wished that we would be more cosmopolitan, read more continental theory, learn more languages. In general, she and the others lamented the technocratic, careerist, anti-intellectual culture that pervades academia and elsewhere.

Bill McClay, although pessimistic about our place as intellectual historians in the larger profession, pointed out that all historians do intellectual history when they do historiography. He pointed to the example of the great 1985 debate, in the pages of the American Historical Review, between Thomas Haskell and David Brion Davis about the problem of slavery and capitalism (the debate was later published as a book). This, for McClay, is intellectual history at its finest, even if nobody called it by its name.

David Steigerwald argued that intellectual history is inherently expansive and that we should be shameless trespassers. This spoke to me, as the type of intellectual history I write invades and occupies political, cultural, and educational history. In reflecting upon the wide variety of papers given, it seems to me that U.S. intellectual history, as practiced at our conference, has invaded American Studies, perhaps changing or altering it in productive ways, by putting expressive culture into conversation with more formal systems of ideas.

Casey Nelson Blake, who organized the plenary, concluded by arguing that one of the most important things we as intellectual historians can do is offer contextual maps to intellectuals, activists, and citizens engaged in daily work or struggle. He gave the example of artists who ask him, as an art historian, to help them put their work in a broader contextual framework.

The one theme that remained constant during this plenary session is the despair that humanistic values cannot live in a culture dominated by technocratic or vulgar utilitarian purposes. Humanistic study, including intellectual history, is not long for such a world. To this extent, Christopher Lasch was the not-so-subtle backdrop. Three of the panelists (Gurstein, Steigerwald, Blake) studied with Lasch at Rochester. And, of course, another is his daughter. Blake makes clear in a Commonweal review of a new biography of Lasch (requires subscription to access) how highly he thinks of his mentor. He concludes his essay, “What Emerson wrote of Thoreau holds true for Christopher Lasch: ‘wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.’”

The questions I pose to readers: Is the fate of intellectual history so closely tied to the fate of the humanities? Is there, then, reason for despair? More specifically, to those in attendance Friday night: What did you think of the plenary?

25 Thoughts on this Post

  1. To respond to Andrew’s question: It does seem to me as if the fate of intellectual history is closely tied to the fate of the humanities. I therefore found it cheering to learn last week that two reformers of higher education, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus, are tackling the current disrespect for humanistic values head on in their new book titled, Higher Education? Here’s the blog and website for it: http://highereducationquestionmark.com/?p=21
    I watched them give a talk about the book recently via the Demos website, and it definitely lifted my spirits. Haven’t read the book yet.

  2. I have to demur from the Spenglerian consensus, or at least offer an alternative view. I think intellectual history is doing fine. But, then, it may be easier for me to say that since I study (mainly) European intellectual history, and that is a subect that has never had much difficulty getting recognition and getting itself taken seriously. There’s the Renaissance, the Reformation, medieval history has plenty of intellectual stuff, there’s a formum on the Enlightenment in the December AHR, proving that hardy perennial is alive and well. And where intellectual history is really in rude health is in 20th-century stuff: existentialism, post-structuralism, and the other forms of continental theory that Rochelle Gurstein implored American intellectual historians to embrace.

    Outside the academy intellectual history seems to be in decent shape. Louis Menand’s “Metaphysical Club” won the Pulitzer, and it’s a work of intellectual history by any definition of the term; same with Jack Rakove’s “Original Meanings,” a book on that most popular of subjects, the Founding. Those are but two examples, but representative of works of intellectual history that can reach a public and attain recognition for their scholarly merit.

    If we turn back to the academy, I think it is awash in American intellectual history, but a lot of that isn’t to be found in history departments. Andrew mentioned American studies. I have in mind political science. A lot of work on the ideological sources of the American Revolution takes place in politics and government departments, as does work on contemporary political theory. Some of the most influential American intellectual figures of the twentieth century were scientists and philosophers, and there is much excellent work done on them in history of science and philosophy departments, respectively. The history of philosophy especially is a subject intellectual historians tend to ignore, at least in its twentieth-century anglophone guise. But an intellectual history of the 20th-century US that ignored Quine, Putnmam, Kripke, Rawls, Nozick, et al. would be flattered to be merely pulped. And, of course, I’ve waited until now to mention religion, something which has been rather important in American history. The intellectual history is out there. It’s up to us to find it.

    My question, then, and I ask this as an outsider, is this: Does the tenuous state of US intellectual history reflect in some way a deeper attitude? That is, do we regard American intellectual traditions as being subjects less worthy of serious inquiry because they are American? We all know the stereotypes about the American character as shallow, materialistic, uninterested in the life of the mind. Now that surely addresses what is happening to the humanities in higher education. What I mean, though, is whether our conceptions of intellectual history themselves aren’t tinged with such notions. No one thinks twice about a course in “Modern Intellectual History.” But “Intellectual History of the United States”? What’s that? That’s something for the English department, or maybe American Studies. But it does belong in the history department. So maybe the initial emphasis should be not on the intellectual history aspect, but the American history aspect. In which case my answer to the question “Intellectual history for what?” is the question I didn’t get to ask Friday night: “What is American in American intellectual history?”

  3. By the way, USIH totally has my permission to borrow “What is American in American intellectual history?” as the theme for a future conference. JK, JK.

  4. Lucy, thanks for the comments. I haven’t read Hacker and Dreyfus, but based on Jesse Lemisch’s scathing review of the book I’m surprised you reference them as defenders of the humanities. He writes: “To my dismay, the book turns out to be propaganda for a neoliberal program of cuts in higher education, part of the international retreat from earlier social gains in pensions, vacations, education, health care, and part of the attacks on social services and on public employees. Although I was never an Obama fan, I guess I feel a little like those who were, but who now see their illusions smashed by another blast of right-wing centrism — in Hacker and Dreifus’s case, dressed up as liberalism.” Since I haven’t read the book I won’t comment further. You can read the whole review here: http://newpolitics.mayfirst.org/node/358.

    Varad: Thanks as always for your long, erudite comments. US historians have in fact dealt with the lines of thought you think we’ve ignored, such as American philosophy. Check our Bruce Kuklick’s book on the subject as an example. Of course, such work is often ignored in the mainstream, and certainly in American Studies. I might agree with you that there is some insecurity among US historians regarding US intellectual traditions. I think this explains the American Studies focus on continental thinking, not as history but as theory. On the flip side, I think it also explains the energetic return to pragmatism. You mention Menard. Think also of Kloppenberg, Livingston, Westbrook, the list goes on. In fact, most of the “biggest names” among US intellectual historians cut their teeth on American pragmatism. Cheers.

  5. Andrew,

    Thanks for your response. I don’t mean to imply that only American intellectual historians have ignored philosophy; European intellectual historians ignore analytic philosophy, too. I never came across it once in any of my classes, and it’s absent from the syllabi I’ve found online as well. Mostly, though, I was speaking from my own ignorance, since I don’t really know what American intellectual historians are doing. My impression, though, is that American intellectual history doesn’t seem as “naturalized” in history departments the way that European intellectual history is. But that’s just my impression. Obviously, it is out there and persisting (witness the plenary Friday night), but I think we’re in agreement about work like Kuklick’s being ignored in the mainstream, unless some circumstance brings the current that way, e.g., Kloppenberg’s speech (and my bad on overlooking Kloppenberg, whose work on liberalism I used in my diss. Oops!)

    As for pragmatism, that is an authentically American intellectual tradition. But surely not the only one. There’s a lot of American history before and after pragmatism. My response would be that an intellectual history of the whole United States not only can be written, but should be written. Again, I think on that point we’d both agree.

    Getting back to my earlier point about American intellectual history not being “naturalized,” do history departments hire American intellectual historians the way they do European intellectual historians? I’ve never paid attention to such matters, for obvious reasons, so I have no idea what the answer is.

  6. The short answer is that aside from a few exceptions (Wisconsin-Madison, Johns Hopkins), no, very few history departments carry lines explicitly tied to US intellectual history.

  7. That’s what I figured, and to me that corroborates my impression that while no one thinks twice about a European intellectual historian, the notion of a US intellectual historian is still something of a head-scratcher. That’s the mindset that has to change.

  8. Thanks, Andrew, for a good write-up on this panel, and Varad and others for intriguing questions. However, I think there is another angle deserving more emphasis here, which is the degree to which the panelists were attempting to urge intellectual historians to transcend academic preoccupations, including both professional (are there jobs?) and disciplinary (is the subfield legitimate?) ones.

    Casey Blake and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn were strongest on this, I think. In their view, intellectual historians are uniquely positioned to be critics — whether you call them social critics, cultural critics, public moralists, public intellectuals, etc. They explicitly and implicitly tied this calling to the model of Christopher Lasch and the particular milieu of Rochester’s graduate program at a certain time. Blake talked about the ethos at Rochester as being “anti-professional” and imbued with a sense of urgency. A graduate student felt the imperative to figure out where he or she stood in an intellectual tradition of social thought. Rochelle Gurstein talked about the move to study with Lasch at Rochester as deriving from deeply personal impulses–in her case, using cultural and intellectual history to determine how we came to inhabit our own personal beliefs, tastes, and values.

    It is interesting that both Lasch-Quinn and Blake diagnosed the contemporary malady among academics and intellectual historians as a type of self-referentiality and self-obsession, by which they meant, I think, a predilection for “insider” analysis (inside academic, inside disciplinary conventions, inside university) that has little connection to one’s personal needs nor to broader public interests. Blake began his presentation with a reference to Daniel Bell, who posed the distinction between a scholar and an intellectual–the former less self-involved, the latter beginning from his or her experience. He joked that the panel should be about the “subjective” necessity of intellectual history: It serves personal, emotional, and spiritual needs. This idea has an affinity with George Cotkin’s analysis of how employment on the margins of the academic research complex (that is, at a non-research university with relatively low research expectations) freed him to write a more personal, more adventurous kind of work.

    In a sense, Wilfred McClay’s defense of the disciplinary health of the field despite the growing marginality of the official subdiscipline of “intellectual history” represented a tangent. As David Steigerwald pointed out by referencing Russell Jacoby’s dated polemic on the “The Last Intellectuals,” the question is whether there remains a public audience for the work of intellectual historians who happen to make their living in universities. The overwhelming concern of the panel was the loss of what was once a great mid-century audience, as Steigerwald pointed out.

    Why has this happened? In part, as indicated above, the panelists demand a return to an “anti-professional” attitude among intellectual historians. Ignore academic preferment (although many at the conference, very notably, lack permanent jobs) and assume a role as critic. But also, there was a broader, dire, and very Laschian prophetic tone in some remarks (again, in Blake and Lasch-Quinn particularly) suggesting that our age of corporatized intellectual production (Blake held that the research university is becoming a site antipathetic to humanities work and noted a “savage” war against learning in our current debates on education) and of internet and new-media driven disembodiment and fragmentation is making serious, public, intellectual work impossible. I might add, the intellectual assumptions common to academics in the last thirty years, which make it impossible to imagine a unitary “public” or “mind” characterizing a national entity such as the U.S., also work against a serious common social and cultural criticism.

  9. Thanks for your excellent insights, Paul. I agree with your take on the overarching message of the plenary. But a severe tension exists between those with academic affiliation wishing for a different public, and the majority of young scholars wishing for, simply, academic affiliation. Michael Kramer nicely deals with this tension at his blog, where he writes “that while established scholars might hunger to reach beyond academe, speaking from the podium to urge themselves and their fellow specialists to address broader public audiences, or to dive promiscuously, as George Cotkin put it, into what David Steigerwald called “the play of ideas across time,” many younger scholars were perhaps there for more narrow reasons of professional accreditation in an academic job market that is so oversupplied that it is almost nonexistent, particularly in intellectual history. Those with security within academia longed to escape it for something less institutionalized, while those outside the gates (or within them, but marginalized) longed for institutional (and economic!) validation.”


  10. Andrew, thanks for the shout out. I thought your summation of the last panel was spot on.

    Paul, were you the person who asked that last question at the “Intellectual History for What?” panel? It was a great question: first, it historicized the idea–no, better said, it historicized the ideal–of the cultural critic and public intellectual, and it raised the liberating notion that we might stop banging our (intellectual) heads against the wall of this ideal, since the structures in which it once existed (which were pretty fragile anyway) are gone, just phantoms now. This doesn’t mean, however, that cultural criticism, and public intellectualism, has disappeared too, yes? The issue that the question left me pondering was not intellectual history for what but rather intellectual history, now what?

    Finally, huge appreciation, awe, and thanks to you and the other conference organizers!


  11. Andrew and Michael: Excellent thoughts on the vexing issue of academic employment. Economic realities seem to be fouling up our best idealisms, as we shall see tomorrow if, as all predict, the voters of our country sweep the Republicans back into power because it is time for “change” (as a voter averred on the radio today) — and, it seems, drenching the anti-professional idealism of our senior colleagues on the “Intellectual History for What?” panel with a bath of cold disciplinary unemployment statistics.

    I read your intriguing post on the conference, Michael, and I do see your point on the end of the intellectual as a social type. I think this is the question lurking behind the plaints of the final plenary. I did ask the final question, but in my mind the issue more concerns the vexations of postmodernism. I think the intellectual historians who so expanded the field were part and parcel of a movement in American intellectual life — they blended with the American Studies movement on the one hand and the larger world of New Critical/New York Intellectual style cultural criticism on the other and, in fact, created intellectual and cultural history as a kind of cultural criticism (searching for the “usable past” and all that). The validity of such work depended on its authors and its audience sharing in assorted useful fictions, the chief among them being a posited national “mind” or unitary American culture. Absent that, as we have seen in the last 40 years or so, we get postmodern fragmentation and marginalization. In the plenary, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn and perhaps Casey Blake — the most forceful proponents of an older critical vision embodied in the work of Christopher Lasch — were doing turns on an older and well established critique of left identity politics and postmodern self-referentiality. In their view, self-imposed marginality deriving from choice of topics and self-willed theoretical sinkholes killed the field of intellectual history even before the institutional academic crises that both they and we have been discussing.

    I cannot believe that any of the panelists would not be sympathetic to the plight of unemployed or contingently employed Ph.D.’s. No doubt they face these pressures in the lives of their own students. Surely they understand the necessity of steady employment. And, they had no answers to Michael’s questions: From what point, institutionally, can social criticism begin, if academia collapses as a site for criticism? (For that matter, they had no answer to the question of how to do cultural criticism in the face of relentless and increasing fragmentation and anti-intellectualism.) Yet, it seems unfair to pigeon-hole them as a privileged and complacent set of elites, fecklessly yearning for a broader audience as their hungry students, seeking job security or academic preferment, look on. They would, if pressed, I am sure, declare a desire that good intellectual historians have jobs, and be as unable to accomplish this goal as anyone else. To paraphrase David Steigerwald, it is not academics fault that universities are corporatized and intellectual labor has become casual and contingent. Does this reality, however, preclude a tough-minded assessment of kind of academic careerism and related intellectual work that is largely irrelevant to deeply felt personal and public concerns? If there is a relevant connection between their rather doom-filled and prophetic tone and the plight of underemployed young intellectual historians, perhaps it lies here.

  12. It would seem that the way to save intellectual history from the plight of irrelevance (as outlined by the panel) is to renounce the professional credential as entry requirement—or at very least the credential of holding a place in higher education. And indeed, many who participated in NYC were “independent scholars” (I concede many not by first choice). If USIH can stay open to quality historical thought no matter its sustaining work place in our society, then we’ll be able to sustain USIH (as a conference and society) as a place where history and social criticism can come together. – TL

  13. Paul,

    Thanks for the illuminating clarifications above.

    Once again, you pose a sharp question, which I take to be: have certain kinds of research and scholarship that are more shaped by academic careerism than what you aptly call “deeply felt personal and public concerns” been damaging to both public intellectual life *and* (ironically) academic careerism itself, at least for the potential careers of junior and aspiring intellectual historians and social critics?

    There is much else to contemplate in what you write. For instance, I hope my post isn’t taken as a kind of generational condemnation. Perhaps, there is a bit of generational politics, and even resentment, in my comments, but as you point out, there is much more in common between what concerns and motivates younger scholars and what older scholars on the panel bemoaned in various prophetic and lyrical tones (sometimes both). To be sure, if those particular panelists were in charge of the university, it would look a lot different these days (or so I hope!). And certainly, the writing of every panelist at that last session speaks to your call for “deeply felt personal and public concerns.” Certainly to my mind at least.

    Part II below

  14. But what I most want to comment upon is your point about the postmodern turn in intellectual history. I am struck by how, in the aftermath of this exciting interdisciplinary work, we still feel a longing to inhabit a world of “The Intellectual and the Public,” even a fictionally-unitary one, instead of “Intellectuals and Their Publics.” Why do we cling to this idea, even though there has been so much work done to expose how unhealthily it marginalized and banished people and ideas to the fringes? I think of panelist Rochelle Gurstein’s insistence that she aspires to reach a “public” out there, and not “publics” (she is a working editor and journalist more than an academic scholar—I wonder if that is an important difference, or maybe not).

    I suppose there is a hunger for singularity and coherence instead of multiplicity and confusion. Perhaps there is an assumption lurking that singularity and coherence are superior, especially politically. There is a kind of political point that has been made on the left about the ways that the rhetoric of the universal American mind, with all its power, has been ceded from progressives to reactionaries (Twilight of Common Dreams kind of argument). But to me, these critiques always seem more assertion and wishful thinking than recognition and grappling. We can’t wish for there to be a unitary public, one American mind, when there simply no longer is one, in fact never was one. Or if there is one unified whole, we need to demonstrate how and what it is, exactly, how it works, and how its parts fit together.

    Perhaps the pressing issue now is how intellectual-historians-as-cultural-critics might conceptualize ways of understanding and engaging precisely this: the world as a fragmented place that still retains commonalities. Maybe part of this might be thinking through a transition from an older model of occupying the identity of the public intellectual (itself a kind of identity politics, we might say, and one that easily leads to a kind of cult-of-personality celebrity mode, see Zizek, and the film Zizek!) to some kind of new model in which scholars are not public intellectuals but practice public intellectualism. I wonder if we think of our work as activity instead of identity, where that might get us. Ideas as actions. And to borrow again from David Steigerwald, insisting upon the dignity of this work.

    PART III below

  15. I wonder too, if there is more work to be done mapping out the connections, and the tensions, between intellectual history scholarship and the kind of “civic engagement” that places such as the Imagining America group are up to (http://www.imaginingamerica.org/). Where do they diverge? Where do they connect? We live in a world of fragmentation and specialization, but maybe we can continue to do more work identifying avenues of conjuncture, uncomfortable overlap, and shared resonances. More lumping, less splitting?

    Much more to think through here. Eager to learn more from you and others as the conversation continues.


  16. Great discussion. The plenary asked, “intellectual history for what?” Michael Kramer asks, “intellectual history, now what?” Shouldn’t we add “intellectual history, what?” And intellectual history, “who?” It seems we’re conflating the prospects for intellectual history as a field of study or set of activities, academic or non-academic, with the future of intellectuals as “social type[s].”

    If intellectual history is the study of formal, complex thought, or ideas, or some such, then the history of the thought of “intellectuals,” to say nothing of “public intellectuals,” is only a small part of it. Or do we want to say that intellectual history is the history of intellectuals and what they’ve thought? Are we then studying earlier incarnations of ourselves?

    Are we nostalgically idealizing some past [moment] when ideas, and/or intellectuals — or left/liberal ideas and intellectuals — held some sway as articulators of the “national mind?” What then of Lasch’s starting point in The New Radicalism, that “the intellectual class… is a distinctively modern phenomenon, the product of the cultural fragmentation that seems to characterize industrial and postindustrial societies.” [my emphasis] Or Ayn Rand’s call For the New Intellectual, published two years after C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination and just prior to Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life? Or E.J. Dionne’s Gitlinesque point in the Dissent symposium earlier this year, that while the left talked a lot about Gramsci, it was the right that “learned…the power of ideas in shaping the outcome of political contests and economic struggles….” The bromide that “ideas matter” might give us comfort as intellectual historian in ensuring stuff to study till the end of time, but drive us to drink, or worse, as leftists.

    I agree with Michael that the conditions that have on occasion provided institutional supports for intellectuals have much changed, but as he points out, new, nurturing forms may be emerging, even as the traditional professional bases of intellectual history are being transformed. Along the way, perhaps there are ways to mitigate the tensions between those inside academia who yearn for connection to the outside, and those on the outside who want nothing more than to get in. I like his observation that the starting point might be “the world as a fragmented place that still retains commonalities” — which also describes our differences.

    Bill Fine

  17. Michael and Bill make challenging points, no surprise. I write in the wake of the GOP sweep yesterday, in which the American public seems to have decided that the response to the economic near-catastrophe of 2008 is to ensure that those responsible for the Great Recession (and who benefited from it) not lose their tax breaks. “Intellectual History for What?” Well, clear explanations of current developments in economic theory might be job one. Noting Andrew’s other posts recently, it may well be that, as James Livingston apparently believes, the election results are the latest in another string of triumphs for the Left, evidently because despite everything we still enjoy the transgressive pleasures of Freddie Kreuger and Saw VII. Yet, I remain unsatisfied. The “public sphere” seems hopelessly divided among points of view and even historical languages that are incommensurable and at odds. There is a real lack of communication among contending parties.

    Enough flippant commentary, and to some summary: One question both Michael and Bill present concerns the so-called golden age of criticism: Did these intellectuals (many non-academic) actually influence public culture in significant ways? Related, from Michael: As they marginalized various voices (women and minorities) in retrograde ways, is it not better to have undercut their hegemony in any case? And, both Michael and Bill wonder if it might be better to get shut of the egocentrism and even celebrity-worship entailed in the concept of the “public intellectual,” as modeled from Zola (I presume?) forward. Michael suggests a new self-definition of intellectual historians formed around “activity,” by which I think he wants to move beyond anything at all that smacks of identity politics: We are not “intellectuals”; rather, we make ideas. Bill points out that the very idea of a social identity as intellectual, from Lasch, ratified trends towards fragmentation evident in the early twentieth century.

    Part II follows.

  18. The issue seems to me to be fragmentation: Michael sees “the world as a fragmented place that still retains commonalities.” But, I do not. What commonalities? We have talked about the disjuncture between academia, where much contemporary intellectual life is centered, and the broader public sphere; the way in which communities of taste, identity, and ideology have created self-enclosed and self-referential communities of discourse (including the academic Left—of which, oddly, most of the USIH conference goers are assumed to be members, at least if the remarks by James Kloppenberg and from his audience are indicative), and the fragmentation created by modern media technology (the internet, the TV systems of 500 channels, the migration to satellite transmission of radio and television). We can do ideas, but they reach fewer and fewer eyes and ears at any given time.

    We have commonalities, but do we have a common culture? Is Jonathan Franzen our modern Hemingway or even Updike, or does he occupy a fading niche for the Great American Novel as a social revelation. There is no universal pop culture – no common music, no (or few?) common films, no common books or poetry, no common television, even. Niche tastes prevail.

    I am not sure whether we are idealizing mid-century American critics or whether their cultural authority was significant (although the intellectuals who overthrew them in favor of dissident positions felt it was). This seems to me to deserve study. I can see how the panelists would respond: The root of their complaint is communitarian. Rochelle Gurstein did insist on a “public” and not publics. She and at least one other panelist (if memory serves), referenced Alasdair MacIntyre, presumably his After Virtue. Like Obama (in Kloppenberg’s analysis), they are defined by their late twentieth-century studies, including the academic cottage industry that developed around civic republicanism. Lasch also placed great hope in an evanescent and poorly cohering communitarian tradition (now quite marginalized, it seems to me). My memory of MacIntyre is faded, but Wilfred McClay, the overt conservative among the bunch, linked the issue to “tradition.” (By the way, David Hoeveler, in his very interesting remarks as commentator for Panel 19 on “Do-It-Yourself Criticism,” also argued that the concept of tradition provides the most useful way to conceive of intellectuals and their publics; that is, intellectuals occupy and embody distinct traditions of cultural practice.) Someone like Casey Blake sees himself and his subjects as participants in a civic republican tradition that is ever more marginalized. The entire project is premised on a sense of solidarity and “commonalities” as well as equality. The heady play of postmodern fluidity and the proliferation of innumerable cultural options yields great individual satisfaction, but the panelists’ call to return to intellectual history as a tradition of cultural criticism is premised on community as a normative value and a single, common public as a precondition for meaningful intellectual activity.

  19. Paul & Others,

    I’m liking the irritated, “flippant commentary” of Paul Murphy the social critic. Maybe you (quietly) operate in the Laschian tradition even more than you realize!

    On Gurstein, I took her dislike of the term “publics” as a lament more than any serious criticism of our acknowledgment of fragmentation. I mean, she made no serious argument that cultural and intellectual fragmentation (i.e. the preponderance of traditional perspectives) has ~not~ occurred.

    Perhaps our conference topic was more relevant than we realized. We touched a nerve (fragmentation) that redounds on the practice of intellectual history, particularly its Laschian tradition. The fragmentation that we know (and despise?), which has been quickened in the age of electronic, privatized media communications, has emasculated the intellectual historian as social critic. She/he laments, observes, and deplores, but has no audience in an age of quick, reactionary communications and the privileging of emotion over carefully reasoned arguments.

    Yes, my narrative above assumes an age of common culture that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, but has devolved from the 1970s to today. In an effort to criticize that assumption, perhaps it’s simply the case the objects of common culture (and hence its discussions) have changed? We’ve moved from books, newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV that presented a limited range of objects for discussion, to DIY multimedia age that has both increased objects for discussion and quickened politics-as-theater movement. Indeed, my survey textbook (*Out of Many*) rightly notes that politics were downplayed or kept out of certain media during the age of conformity and anxiety (late 1940s to early 1960s). It has been since the late 1960s that we have increasingly discussed politics (particularly its “sausage-making” aspects) in the popular media, thereby creating room for more and more diverse perspectives on how our government is run.

    …My $0.02 for the day. – TL

  20. Also, on the golden age line of thought, even my survey text acknowledges the fact that most of the mid and heavy-weight social critics of the 1950s and 1960s—Macdonald, Mills, Riesman, Galbraith, Packard, Whyte, Goodman—were either not read immediately or had mixed success in terms of popularity. So, they may have spoken to a common culture that had the ability to understand and empathize, but…

    I’m sorry to be speaking in terms of basic survey texts, but this week the 1950s have dominated my intro U.S. classes. – TL

  21. I agree with Bill Fine that we are conflating a few roles here. Yes, the intellectual historian need not be a progressive public intellectual/cultural critic (or a conservative one for that matter) necessarily. Similarly, we might say that public culture (or since we’re fragmented, I probably should write public cultures) are not one and the same as public politics.

    That all said, one of the fascinating legacies of the Laschian mode is the position that intellectual history is essential for public intellectualism and cultural criticism. And surely we can agree that culture and politics are crucially connected, and that they demand careful study as intersecting modalities—as two scales in a polyphonic arrangement that resonates in both everyday life and systems of thought. Culture and politics are not, to my mind, a binary. Or if they are, they must be understood as a profoundly dialectical one.

    To split a bit more, and think through various conflations, I am also reminded of Vared Mehta’s comments above, which challenge us to think transnationally and not imagine the plight of the American public intellectual (or intellectual historian for that matter) as a universal plight. The possibilities and dilemmas for intellectuals in different settings around the world, for intellectual historians, and for engaged cultural critics, depend on the different contexts.

    Part II below

  22. Still, all that said, I find myself drawn to the overlap between historical work and cultural criticism in the U.S. context, and I am struck by how it continues to matter even in an age of niche markets and fragmentation. Our vexations in this discussion thread speak to this.

    My question, in response to Paul’s thoughtful post, is whether aspects of the communitarian ideal are still applicable in the age of fragmentation. If the economic underpinnings for public culture are now segmented—after all, we live in an economy fundamentally driven by ever-more distinctive niche markets rather than one mass market—this does not mean that communitarianism is dead. To me, it means that the democratic ends of communitarian thinking and action need to be reimagined for a world of fragmentation. I’m getting all pluralistically Horace Kallen and John Dewey here, but I do think we’re kind of banging our heads against a wall (or better said head-banging our heads against nothing but post-fordist moving air) if we do not confront the intellectual challenges of connecting across difference. Have those profound differences always been there, particularly in the American context, and do they not continue to confound us and demand our attention as U.S. Intellectual historians and, for those who want the role, as cultural critics?

    One other thought here, which somewhat goes against the grain of what I just wrote: I would argue that the ideal of a unitary American public life actually continues to matter, especially politically. One way in which the Tea Party gained traction was by asserting that they were “the people” during the summertime “town hall” meetings about health care. Of course these “town halls” were themselves already manufactured events intended to evoke rather than embody unified democracy in action. But there was a political power in the Tea Party activists’ abilities to project themselves as the public.

    One might even argue in response to this (from a left perspective here) that what we need is precisely *more* emphasis on the fragmented nature of the American public these days (a public full of people dying due to current health care policies not full of individuals under threat from “death panels”; a people full of same-sex couples as well as “traditional” families; a people full of a vast range of intersecting identities and attitudes; and so on). Rather than an insistence on recovering some kind of unitary public (which itself I would argue was always a representational fiction) and with it the hope for a communitarian public culture, we might keep the ideals of communitarianism alive but attempt to imagine how the beloved community might function intellectually and emotionally and politically in a world of fragmentation. And it seems to me that intellectual history is crucial here: both to deepen our contemporary debates (precisely as Paul is doing) about how people in the past, around the world, have grappled with sameness and difference; and to emphasize that ideas have mattered, and continue to do so.

    Thinking this over further, it strikes me that one paradoxical thing that keeps American common culture alive is, paradoxically, our continual fretting over its demise, on both the right and the left! How odd that the defining commonality might be our sense of its lack.

  23. As Andrew has posted another thought-provoking analysis of postmodernism, I’ll contribute a couple of minor, valedictory thoughts on Michael’s challenges. I could not agree more that connecting across difference is possible and vital, and I appreciate Michael’s hopeful thoughts on this. (Hope also being a favorite motif of the Lasch, in his late prophetic mode). We must also recognize, too, the manifold ways in which our society still does connect despite fragmentation: After all, our “nationalized” election suggests a way in which the public insists on engaging the “whole” in their politics, as Michael states, even if much political debate seems disturbingly stunted and one-sided.

    The final plenary on intellectual history primarily intended to focus on a hopeful message — that there was and is more to intellectual history than navel-gazing about our fate as a subfield in the larger field of U.S. history. That is to say, intellectual history can be a larger calling than a merely academic one; the rewards for work well done should be broader than academic preferment; and it can be done on the margins of, and even outside, academia. In making this case, the panelists hearkened back to a time when American intellectual life featured a generation or two of broad-ranging, humanistic, and “interdisciplinary” critics, among whom intellectual historians were at home. It is important to remember that even then, I am sure, the “fragmentation” of intellectual life was assumed (as Bill pointed out, fragmentation in part created the “intellectual”) and the disjunction between the intellectual and the “masses” was, in fact, a defining element of their work. These were generations of critics obsessed with their role in manufacturing a common culture, even while self-conscious of their marginality and even irrelevance to much of human life. This realization did not lead them to cashing in their chips, in a postmodern way, which is worth noting. Modernism and Postmodernism are not two distinct historical periods, one necessarily following the other. They are simply two distinct ways of responding to the complexities — and paradoxes — of modern life, one hopeful (if shaped by anxiety and irony) and the other….not?

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