U.S. Intellectual History Blog

X-post: Michael Kramer Reflects On The Third Annual USIH Conference

[First posted at Michael Kramer’s weblog, Culture Rover, on Oct. 28, 2010, this essay reflects on the overall meaning of the Third Annual USIH Conference. Michael attended and presented a paper, and has subsequently contributed to the thread below on the event’s final plenary. Michael works at Northwestern University.]

Instituting Intellectual History: the ins and outs of academic intellectual history.

[Christopher Lasch]

No ideas but in things. — William Carlos Williams


At the closing panel of the third annual U.S. Intellectual History conference, whose theme was “Intellectuals and Their Publics,” the ghost of Christopher Lasch very much haunted the halls. A number of former graduate students, and even Lasch’s own daughter, delivered eloquent, forceful talks in response to the question “Intellectual History for What?” They urged colleagues and students to work not only as specialized scholars, but also as cultural and social critics.

But a question from a younger colleague in the audience revealed an underlying tension at the conference. The question was along the lines of (I paraphrase): is the historical moment for intellectual historians to serve as cultural critics and public intellectuals a la Lasch over? Or, is the “intellectual as a social type” no more?

There was a sense in which the question was almost a rhetorical one, an answer to it less crucial than its underlying point. Which was 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.

Of course, the lines between these two longings—to reach broader publics, on the one hand, and to secure positions in the historical profession, on the other—were blurry. Both established and younger scholars at the conference danced between the two. James Kloppenberg’s keynote speech, for instance, focused on the intellectual biography of Barack Obama to explain the deeper history behind the strange paradox of how the President is reviled on the right while, at the same time, met with such intense disappointment on the left.

Like many of the presentations at the conference, Kloppenberg’s talk drew upon his intellectual history “chops” to speak to contemporary political matters. For Kloppenberg, Obama’s own intellectual history provided insight into this enigmatic man. The President’s commitments to a pragmatist’s liberal vision of the United States’s democratic traditions—which turn up in Obama’s books and own education—temper his rhetoric and keep him focused on long-term social improvement while also allowing him to resist the polarizations of degraded contemporary political theater.

But despite the evidence in this marvelous keynote of the possibility that historians might move between specialized academic labor and a broader public culture, the tensions between getting out there into the world and getting in there into the academy lingered. Perhaps when it comes to the study of ideas, it’s still about the economy, stupid? Maybe. There was a sense that the tensions raised by the sharp question in the closing minutes of the conference were less about intellectual issues than institutional and economic ones. If, as the question suggested, the cultural critic of the twentieth-century is no more, if the intellectual as social type is dead, then what next for intellectual history as a public as well as a narrowly-professional concern?

George Cotkin proposed that he felt liberated to write adventurous intellectual history because of his position at a non-research university, but even those kind of academic jobs are few and far between these days, and the oversupply of able candidates for them is startling. So it is true, as Wilfred McClay pointed out, that the study of ideas remains vital both inside and outside academia even if the role of intellectual historians continues to be imperiled. But as Casey Blake essentially declared in his closing remarks, the research university may be dead for pursuing a true and only intellectual history. If civic education, teaching, and writing are still to be part of intellectual life, and intellectual historians are to participate fully in them, what institutional forms, then, should intellectual history work take? How should ideas play across time if there is no safety net below them?

Of course, there never has been a safety net, really. Both within the professional field of history and in the broad public beyond it, ideas still grow, blossom, go to seed, and bear fruit again with abundance. Blake mentioned the website The New Inquiry as an example of a new and hopeful concentration of intellectual energy, and rightly so. But is The New Inquiry an institution in the economic sense? Can it provide the sustenance necessary to sustain the intellect? What will provide the livelihood for lively intellectual engagement?

These institutional and economic questions for the life of the mind have always been fretful ones. There was no golden age for intellectuals in America, even when we look back nostalgically on the burgeoning fields of the Cold War research university or peer through the mists into the unkempt gardens of Greenwich Village or Harlem Renaissance bohemians. Nor, for that matter is today as bleak as it sometimes seems. And even though the current pressures are for the work of public intellectuals to be “relevant” and “do something,” one can be heartened by David Steigerwald’s assertion at the final session that the main reason to pursue intellectual history is not that studying ideas somehow exerts “resistance” or “oppositionality,” but rather that it is, simply put, dignified.

Dignity is something to ponder, and perhaps even something into which we can dig our roots. Dignity constitutes a kind of public act. And it can be a fertile emotion. But this dignity needs support. One task that the U.S. Intellectual History conference, once a blog, now growing into an organization, might address is the intellectual groundwork needed to foster a more expansive institutional space for the life of the mind.

Publics are atmospheric and amorphous. Intellectuals have and will continue to be resourceful in their cultivation. And those ideas, wherever they sprout, will remain hearty. The issue isn’t extinction, it’s robustness. The more we can eat, sleep, and breathe, the more we can eat, sleep, and breathe intellectual history.

So the question posed at the end of the conference really leads to two questions. First, in a world in which history still matters (see the recent uses of the past by Glenn Beck and others), what kind of new structures can make for a less shrill and more intellectual study of ideas? Second, if not the research university as it has existed for academic intellectual history, then what? Websites and social networks? Markets or state-run institutions or non-profit think-tanks or what?

Put another way, the question might be: how do we better institute intellectual history without institutionalizing it?