Last weekend, I had the privilege of participating in a sort of USIH cousin, the Conference on Public Intellectuals, which met for the fourth year at Harvard University. It provided a glimpse into a different approach to American intellectual history — a set of procedures and questions that complement the ones foregrounded at the New York meetings, but which imply different anxieties about the discipline. I left the conference pleased that this alternative model exists, pondering how it might inform the practices of S-USIH.
The first conference, four years ago, was a one-time event held in honor of Lawrence J. Friedman. Since then, the Conference on Public Intellectuals has become an annual affair. (Damon Freeman and Larry Friedman did the organizing this year.) Despite its name, the conference is really more of a two-day workshop. The twenty-one presenters were encouraged to speak informally, even speculatively, and all the presentations took place in the same conference room in the Harvard Science Center. In his opening remarks, Friedman urged the attendees to be “nice” to each other and take part in every discussion. Fifteen to twenty minutes of Q&A followed each paper rather than each panel. And most importantly, the conference had a question instead of a theme: What is a “public intellectual,” and is that term useful to scholars in the first place? At various points during the conference, discussions of particular presentations evolved into general discussions of that question.
For example, the first session, on Friday, covered “Cold War Liberalism and Public Intellectuals” in the United States. USIH’s own Lisa Szefel led off with a presentation on Peter Viereck, arguing that conservative thought shared crucial cultural concerns with liberal thought and deserves a place in the history of the mid-20th-century “vital center.” Alan Petigny followed with a critique of Reinhold Niebuhr and the “decline of the absolute” in Fifties liberal thought, arguing that the public rhetoric of American liberal intellectuals lost the moral firmness it required to take on militarism and racial oppression in the postwar age. Ellen Rafshoon then outlined the biography of Hans Morgenthau, suggesting that the same moral concerns that led him, as a Jewish German exile, to embrace realism in international relations also eventually led him (pace his defenders) to implicitly reject it when he became a critic of American policy in Vietnam. Finally, Ronald Doel displayed a series of images taken by documentary photographers working for the federal government under Roy Stryker during the New Deal and World War II. After the war, as Doel showed, Stryker went to work making similar images for Standard Oil, depicting positively the impressive machinery and (we might say) devastating environmental effects of oil extraction. Doel argued that these photographers may deserve to be considered as public intellectuals, articulating ideas about nature and society in a public medium allowing for subtle expression. If all four of these presentations shared an argument, it may have been that the mid-20th-century American public intellectual inhabited a vexed media environment that makes it difficult to characterize the intellectual simply as an outsider or critic of the modern state.
The discussion of the intellectual’s relationship with mass culture continued in the following session on “European Legacies and Public Intellectuals.” Nicolaas Barr Clingan, discussing the late Dutch philosopher Lolle Nauta, Benjamin Wurgaft, discussing Levinas and Sartre, Pilar Damião de Medeiros, discussing contemporary social movements, and Odile Heynders, proposing that contemporary European public intellectuals be seen as “bidimensional beings” who navigate the border between literary truth and political action, all addressed the problem of political engagement or withdrawal for modern European intellectuals.
The next session on Friday, which took up “Public Intellectuals and the Problem of Race and Nationalism,” narrowed the question of political engagement, turning it into a question of publicity. James Clark discussed psychiatrist Robert Coles’s work with children as a way of interpreting racism, and Shane Gunderson discussed the work of outside intellectuals (most notably Noam Chomsky) in publicizing the East Timor independence movement in the 1990s, proposing this as a case study in the work of the public intellectual as a protestor. Helen Fordham also highlighted the work of the intellectual as publicist by discussing the case of Australian prisoner David Hicks, in which various kinds of Australian “knowledge workers” interpreted Hicks’s cause for the public as a matter of human rights. Finally, my paper on David Walker’s Appeal and the Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper, also depicted various writers adopting new media to turn the ordinary lives of oppressed people into national issues.
These discussions on Friday led into a general debate over the term “public intellectual” itself, loosely moderated by Larry Friedman in the spare time available. Daniel Geary argued that Russell Jacoby’s term may be essentially redundant, since the intellectual is necessarily a figure engaged in public rather than esoteric concerns. Alan Petigny disagreed, arguing that the adjective public serves a useful purpose in distinguishing the politically or socially active thinker from other kinds of scholars. Ben Wurgaft, on the other hand, suggested that it might be helpful not to think of the public intellectual as a figure so much as an event — a certain kind of emergent public transformation.
The final event on Friday, held at night, was for me the highlight of the conference. Three members of the early-60s Committee of Correspondence — Norman Birnbaum, Michael Maccoby, and Everett Mendelsohn — met to recall their work as nuclear disarmament activists. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on familiar questions about the New Left and Neoconservatism, with Maccoby in particular holding up David Riesman as a leader with particularly nuanced political views. In the frightening era of the early Cold War, Maccoby said, Riesman’s firmest conviction was that human civilization is a “thin veneer,” a fragile restraint on violent impulses. Thus it was that Riesman worried about mass political movements of all kinds and was at times highly unsympathetic to the student movement and even the civil rights movement. Maccoby defended (or at least empathized with) Riesman’s as a consistent and principled intellectual position.
Saturday’s panels continued to discuss these themes. In the morning, Bertram Wyatt-Brown argued that George Orwell’s own experiences of humiliation animated his writing about surveillance and torture in 1984, Claudia Franziska Brühwiler discussed Ayn Rand’s self-creation as an intellectual “icon” (drawing on Dominik Bartmanski’s “How to Become an Iconic Social Thinker”), and Mark West explained that Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor was intimately involved in shaping public perceptions of the postwar tribunals through his involvement with the scripts for Judgment at Nuremberg. In the next session, classicist John Lenz began by discussing Socrates’ suspicion of politics as a way of understanding Bertrand Russell’s anarchist tendencies (or vice versa). Then Anna Dubenko argued in a fascinating paper that the idea of a public intellectual helps explain some of the tensions in James Baldwin’s work as a writer addressing distinct publics, and John Morra detailed the public rivalry of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose conflicting scientific views and personal pride shaped American public health policy.
In the last session, on Saturday afternoon, three presenters tackled questions of pressing importance in the 21st century. Elisabeth Chaves considered the question of whether print journals represent a retreat from public significance or are the intellectual’s natural habitat. Alhelí Alvarado-Díaz discussed Herbert Marcuse as a “prophet of economic apocalypse,” focusing on the critique in One-Dimensional Man. Jason Roberts, finally, traced the course of the “Decent Left” debates during the early-to-mid-2000s, focusing on Todd Gitlin’s attempt to reclaim patriotism for the Left in The Intellectuals and the Flag. These presentations led into a second informal discussion of the public intellectual as a contemporary figure.
The conference did not, of course, come to any particular conclusion about the term “public intellectual.” But by posing a question — even a seemingly simple and familiar one — toward which everyone present could contribute, the Conference on Public Intellectuals stirred up all sorts of unusually interesting side questions. I, for one, was unsettled by the fact that only two presenters discussed topics earlier than the 20th century. This seems revealing, though I can’t say for sure what it reveals. On the other hand, I was also impressed by the ease with which conversation flowed between Europeanists and Americanists, and between historians and scholars from other disciplines. By setting up a complex conversation but keeping it all within one room, the Conference on Public Intellectuals created a fertile environment for reflection on both the practice and the subject matter of intellectual history.