[Editor’s Note: This is the second of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal. — Ben Alpers]
You have no doubt by now encountered in some fashion Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Saturday, in which he complains that university professors have “marginalized themselves” from “today’s great debates.” Kristof blames the usual suspects—pedantry, bad prose, political uniformity, stuffiness, fear of Twitter—and ends with a cri de coeur that should shatter all our hearts: “I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”
The backlash was predictably swift—it turns out there are a lot of academics on Twitter—as well as articulate, compelling, and true. And also, I think, missing the point.
That is not surprising: Kristof missed it, too. But in a closer reading of his column and the response to it we can see the inadvertent shadow of a sharper point, one that does pierce our hearts, if I may be momentarily as melodramatic as Kristof.
Kristof asks, how can academics be “relevant” (meaning influential), and we answered him, we are! And Corey Robin, in an excellent rejoinder, added that more of us would be—if so many weren’t hustling constantly to keep body and soul together.
Robin rightly counters Kristof’s weightless analysis with an emphasis on the material constraints on academics—particularly on junior faculty, grad students, contingent faculty, and what one might term “discouraged academics” (in the sense of “discouraged workers”)—but he keeps what I think is the more damagingly voluntaristic emphasis of Kristof’s original argument: that the issue is whether academics want to be “public intellectuals” or not.[i]
But the question at issue is not really a sociological one—either about Kristof’s academic “culture of exclusivity” that deprives society of public intellectuals or about Robin’s material restructuring of the academy that makes it brutally difficult and possibly unwise for young academics to write for the public—but a historical one. Kristof works from the premise—and Robin and others tacitly accept it—that there is a strong barrier between “the academy” and “society” and that public intellectuals nebulously mediate the two, but that premise requires serious scrutiny. I hope to provide a little of that here.
In the second paragraph of Kristof’s column, he writes, “The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: ‘That’s academic.’ In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.” But this denotation of the term is more interesting than Kristof lets on. “Academic” developed as a term to describe debates “not leading to a decision”—i.e., set off from actual governance or administration. One might think here of Carl Schmitt’s famous definition of sovereignty: the sovereign is the one who decides on the exception, the state in which the rule of law or custom evaporates. The academy—if we take this denotation of “academic” seriously—then is deliberately unsovereign, a space in which to argue out the general case, not to suspend, abridge, or abolish it to create a state of exception.
This Schmittian turn on the term is not fanciful, but runs quite close to one of the examples of its usage from the OED: “This discussion partook of an academic character, for it was well understood that, whatever the result of the discussions might be, no practical step would be taken in the present Parliament” (taken from the Times, March 31, 1886). I looked up the article, and the fuller quote sheds a good deal more light:
Mr Hunter on rising to second the motion of his hon[orable] friend the member for Glasgow, said he must make one admission to the opponents of that motion [to disestablish the Church of Scotland]. He must admit that, to a certain extent, this discussion partook of an academic character, for it was well understood that, whatever the result of the discussions might be, no practical step would be taken in the present Parliament for the disestablishment or disendowment of the Church of Scotland. But for that very reason it seemed not impossible to hope that they might have a more thorough and exhaustive discussion on this subject, inasmuch as hon. members, relieved from the fear of any immediate consequences, might be disposed to take a calmer and more dispassionate view of the question. [emphasis added]
“Relieved from the fear of any immediate consequences”—this captures in a phrase both what Kristof obviously detests about academia and what the scholars who first fought for the institutionalization of tenure and other guarantees of academic freedom most desired.
These “immediate consequences” were and are various: political reprisals, administrative favoritism, commercial considerations. But also the demand for the kind of conspicuous display of intellectual “relevance” that Kristof is making. Academic pursuits do not have to be (though they may be) the grist for governance and administration in order to have merit.
The ideal of the public intellectual, I think, was an explicit refutation of this project, though it was dependent upon it: a public intellectual was one who, by a heroic effort, transcended these strictures of academic separation from the sovereign and from the machinery of decision. Either the public intellectual ostentatiously flouted them by intentionally and vocally remaining outside them, or he (generally a he) accepted them as a professional concern but honored them only in the breach, remaining visibly rooted in, identified with, at home in, but not bound by the academy. But either way those strictures had to remain in place for the category of “public intellectual” to have meaning.
In these times, the category of the “public intellectual” is under threat of extinction not so much because of some failure on the part of academics to be “relevant” but because the enabling condition of the putative division between the academy and society has crumbled from both sides. The willed effort to vault over the groves of academe can no longer seem heroic when its hedgerows have been clipped down to shrubbery.
One side of this crumbling and clipping is covered in Robin’s post: the coherence of a career in academia—steady, adequate employment and benefits—has melted into air for a stunning percentage of the people who pursue it. But the wall between society and the Ivory Tower has been dismantled from the other side as well. The academy is now thoroughly integrated into an interlocking rotation of governance, consulting, and investment: it is not just an integral part of the military-industrial complex, as Noam Chomsky and many others have been saying for some time, but also a well-used stop on the revolving door of lobbying, think tanks, management consulting, federal or state governance, and the media.
Russell Jacoby, whose lament The Last Intellectuals I have seen connected to Kristof’s column by a number of people, critiqued an early stage of this process: the engulfment of “unattached” intellectuals by academic employment. Mark McGurl’s more recent The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing made the case that almost no novelist of significance in the postwar era has not been touched, inspired, or infuriated by a deep connection to the academy. And this trend has extended further and further, but has also shifted gears: what Jacoby critiqued was the conversion of the unattached into the careerist. Today’s academic poaching is more short-term: an ex-president or prime minister teaches a high-profile course; new interdisciplinary centers display as fellows former generals or CEOs… or current national columnists. I must confess I was shocked to note that, according to Kristof’s bio, he himself does not hold some courtesy or token academic appointment.
It is this mutual enclosure of society and the academy that we should, I think, point to when countering Kristof’s shallow sociology. Our work’s relevance is not dependent on our will to make it so; it is relevant because we are in the belly of the beast.
[i] Robin disclaims the term as one he hates, but he relents on it later in the post. I agree with L. D., who in her post responding to Kristof, argues that, while dated, “public intellectual” can still be powerful, and that by using it to challenge conventional images of who can be and is a public intellectual, the phrase’s power can be directed productively.