U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marketing the Intellectual, Selling the Public

The following is a guest post from Brad Baranowski, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He is currently working on a dissertation on the revival of political philosophy in the post-war period.

If disciplinary boundaries had not been as rigid as they were for much of the twentieth century, American intellectual historians might have once been classified as naturalists.
After all, many of the early practitioners studied a species even they declared in danger of extinction: the public intellectual. Anti-intellectualism as well as more general forces that have alienated intellectuals from their publics seem to abound American history and culture—or at least in written accounts of these. Central to these narratives has been a focus on the relation between intellectual and economic life. Moving away from a focus on how intellectuals have been separated from the public or manipulated by market forces, newer literature has examined how thinkers have used these mechanisms to engage with broader audiences. This shift among historians has followed a general realignment of U.S. intellectuals to that most pernicious product of capitalism, popular or consumer culture, as well as the political gains made by thinkers whose feelings of alienation previously went unexplored: conservative intellectuals.

As is the case for much of the history written about general attitudes that have shaped American political and intellectual life, Richard Hofstadter’s ghost haunts the literature here. His Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962) is a tour de force examination of the sources of anti-intellectualism and its role in shaping U.S. intellectual history. Anti-intellectualism is largely felt, not thought, in Hofstadter’s account. Binding together these emotions and terms, writes Hofstadter, “is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”1 This bundle of prejudices was conditioned by three main factors in the development U.S. history. First, was the non-intellectual bent that Protestantism took on during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2 Coupled with this was the second and more secular trend of anti-elitism, a function of America’s democratic ethos. The politics behind the hardships of intellectuals, however, were not separate from their economics, the third factor in Hofstadter’s account.

Although American was from its founding “a work-bound society,” over the course of its history a chasm opened between America’s “men of letters” and merchants. While the latter had justified commerce by the former’s terms in the early year of the Republic, they became increasingly less prone to do so as the nineteenth century progressed.3 By the twentieth century businessmen largely sanctioned their activities in the language of commerce alone. Market forces pushed classes once prone to funding cultural activities towards a more narrow concern with the bottom line. Without steady support, asserts Hofstadter, “Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: they have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces.”4 By the years when Hofstadter lived, intellectuals in American life were no longer from a class of educated gentry, besides the occasional William F. Buckley, Jr. Instead, they had to navigate the market on their own.5 As a result, the critical intellect has risked becoming dulled as well as alienated from a public that values practicality over intellectuality.6

A student of Hofstadter’s, Christopher Lasch focused on a variation of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life’s concerns in his The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963 (1965). Unlike the master’s focus on the source of popular anti-intellectualism, Lasch charted the growing sense of alienation felt from within America’s class of intellectuals. Drawing from Max Weber’s examination of the links between class and status, Lasch argued that “modern radicalism or liberalism can best be understood as a phase of the social history of the intellectuals” characterized by the “emergence of the intellectual as a distinctive social type.”7 Increasingly wedded to their careers in professions such as politics and journalism, intellectuals abandoned an older radicalism based on being critical of power centers in order to defend their own advancement. In the process, their links to a larger public became more strained, their intellectual output less critical. By the 1960s, wrote Lasch, “Culture, like education, had become a commodity to be marketed like any other.”8

This tendency to depict thinkers as either at the whims of market machinations or intellectually dulled by these forces is taken up by T.J. Jackson Lears in No Place of Grace (1981). Focused on the ways the Northern bourgeoisie reacted during the late nineteenth-century to crisis of cultural authority, Lears analyzes how genuine and often deeply personal antimodernist impulses unintentionally reinforced modernism’s unsettling of traditional republican values. Attempts to salvage a holistic subjectivity could be commodified as easily as other consumer goods, negating the very attribute that made it marketable—authenticity.9 In other words, the era’s “revolution in manners and morals” was an odd blend of radical (a la the commodification of even the most intimate aspects of life) and reactionary (i.e. the nostalgic wish to “salvage” a model self rooted in the past) that added up to be anything but revolutionary.10 Antimodernists did not know that they were strengthening modernism’s cultural grip, but they were doing it. Intellectuals who have written of, or engaged with, markets and commerce directly have often been portrayed in similar light. Land of Desire (1993), William Leach’s study of he rise of U.S. consumer culture in the early years of the twentieth century, follows this trend. Leach portrays the economist Simon Patten’s speculations that U.S. society was experiencing a transition into a post-scarcity economy, for instance, as the work of an intellectual-cum-ideologue. Patten and his followers, writes Leach, “supplied business with the perfect ethical rationale for the constant production of new goods or for what later came to be called a ‘full growth economic system.’”11 The invisible hand also looms behind Jeffrey Sklansky’s thinkers in The Soul’s Economy (2002). Sklansky’s analysis follows the transition from political economy to social psychology being the go-to discipline for explaining economic forces, a function of the restructuring of capitalism around the corporation in the late nineteenth century. Lost in the process to social psychology’s focus on identity were the critical tools afforded by political economy that placed questions of inequality and distribution at the forefront of public discussion.12

There is merit in these claims. An intellectual or movement’s central ideas are not immune from being abused by the profit motive. A clear picture of these perils is given by Wendy L. Wall’s Inventing the ‘American Way’ (2008). There she details how the political “consensus” of the 1940s and ‘50s was largely a product of advertising campaigns launched by businesses hoping to appropriate the New Deal’s rhetoric of tolerance and pluralism to curtail further reform efforts.13 For another example, long marches through cultural institutions, to alter a post ‘68 phrase, have not always created a closer connection between intellectuals and their publics. As Lawrence Levine explores in Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988), the institutionalization of intellectual life had the effect of alienating the public from what was once a rich, shared culture that included no less a figure than Shakespeare being quoted freely by all strata of society. Intellectuals who took part in this “sacralization” of culture—analogous to “privatization” today—did so to distinguish themselves from the masses. They drew sharper lines between what they deemed “highbrow” and “lowbrow” in an era where “everything solid was melting into air.14 That intellectuals can neither critique nor conform to power in these positions was a dilemma Hofstadter astutely noted when he wrote that “An acute and paradoxical problem of intellect as a force in modern society stems from the fact that it cannot lightly reconcile itself either to its association with power or its exclusion from an important political role.”15 Intellectuals can, and have been, co-opted by the very institutions that ought bring them closer to the public rather than alienate the two from one another.

Co-optation, however, cuts both ways. Involvement in the “culture industry” has also allowed intellectuals to influence its output as well as occasionally sharpened their own critical edges. Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front (1997) is a testament to this. The Popular Front of the 1930s witnessed a litany of intellectuals and artists transform mass consumer culture into a vehicle for the creation and transmission of a working class culture. “Rather than simply eroding earlier working-class cultures,” Denning asserts, “mass consumer culture became a common ground of a new working-class culture” in the hands of writers such as John Steinbeck and photographers such as Dorthea Lange.16 Although not unfettered by commercial considerations or popular taste, intellectuals’ involvement with the “culture industry” of the Popular Front provided them an opportunity to shape the emerging working-class culture. Once more, this engagement caused left-leaning intellectuals like Sidney Hook, Kenneth Burke, and Oliver Cox to think critically about the role of mass culture and socialist theory. Novel insights into how representations disseminated through film, magazines, and novels could recreate class identities, including the intellectual’s.17

The engagement of intellectuals with the culture industry of the 1930s highlights an important lesson. Publics are not found. They are made. Publics are plural and performative: they must be staged and created through representation.18 For their part, public intellectuals are not those figures blessed with both rare insights and a bright aura that attract a mass. Rarely are they just those who are lucky enough to find a gathered crowd ready to hear their proclamations. Rather, public intellectuals are intellectuals who make their publics. The life of a public intellectual, or an intellectual interested in the cultural life of a broader public, depends on work not just theory. By pointing to commercial forces as a major source for anti-intellectualism in American life, historians such as Hofstadter and Lasch foreclose investigation into a key mechanism that intellectuals have used to create their publics: the market.

More recent literature like Denning’s has widened the sphere of intellectual work to include items from popular culture. Older historians had thought of this realm as the antithesis of intellectual life. Under the influence of the Frankfurt School’s understanding of “mass culture” as the stultifying, even totalitarian output of late capitalism, historians such as Lasch and Hofstadter did not bother to investigate this area of American culture for signs of intellectual life. Younger historians, however, have tended not to have this attitude. They have explored with vigor the relations between intellectuals and the dissemination of their work through popular culture in a more positive light. In doing so, they have begun to reconstruct the various mechanism that intellectuals have used to create their publics.

One set of mechanisms that has aimed to reach an audience wedged between what Levine’s figures crafted as “highbrow” and “lowbrow.” “In the three decades following the First World War, Americans created an unprecedented range of activities aimed at making literature and other forms of ‘high’ culture available to a wide reading public,” writes Joan Shelley Rubin.19 Her The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992) reconstructs the ways that book of the month clubs, popular philosophy texts, and cultural radio programs created a “middlebrow” sensibility that shocked some contemporary commentators in its appetite for elements of “high culture.”20 “The widespread experience of success in the marketplace tended to overturn the presumption that their superior knowledge entitled critics to special treatment from unschooled readers,” writes Rubin of these surprised thinkers.21 Some of the figures that reached a broader audience through these cultural triumphs remain recognizable as part of the canon of “great thinkers” to this day. Take the case of Friedrich Nietzsche.

As Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen details in American Nietzsche (2011) the German philosopher’s American readers created their own intellectual worlds through the reception of his ideas, trafficking of his works, and cherishing of his image. A motley crew of preachers and philosophers, anarchists and conservatives, housewives and unknowns worried that their country was too anti-intellectual to produce any cultural work worthy of note, these Americans confronted the trials of modernity, of living in a foundationless-world, through turning to Nietzsche’s writings—and, ironically, turning them into foundations for their own lives, producing an “American Nietzsche” along the way. That Nietzsche’s admirers have achieved this in part through buying trinkets—such as coffee cups, energy bars, watches, and t-shirts—and reading popular, paperback translations shows how items primarily valued in monetary terms can transcend their commercial origins and tap into deeply felt intellectual needs.22 Understanding how these publics have taken shape as well as analyzing their content requires beginning from the belief that just because they have originated through the flux of market transactions does not mean they cannot transcend these forces and reach a realm of intellectual seriousness often reserved for the detached figures situated in universities or lonely thinkers brooding in a dimly lit room.

Along with understanding the impact of intellectual life outside of the academy’s walls, it is difficult to explain why thinkers have seen potential in markets and their cultural products without resorting to claims of “false consciousness” when historians assume an essential antagonism between intellectual and economic life. Why would intellectuals ever look at popular culture with appreciation if its logic was purely destructive rather than possibility productive for intellectual life? One reason, explored by Daniel Horowitz in Consuming Pleasures (2012), might be that in popular culture intellectuals saw the pluralism and play of values as well as potential for self-creation that they hoped to cultivate in their own work. Marketable culture could inspire intellectual creativity as well as brand it. In his cryptically-written, poorly-titled, but often brilliant Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (1997), James Livingston makes this point vis-à-vis pragmatism. By engaging with the intellectual problems posed by the rise of corporate capitalist to a work-based morality, pragmatists like William James and John Dewey created a new, mutable model of subjectivity.23 While these studies reveal trends not captured by historians that assume an essential antagonism between economic and intellectual life, these older presumptions become totally unworkable when trying to examine thinkers who outright embraced markets.

The conservative intellectual movement did not originate in a vacuum, a point made clear by two recent studies on the topic: Kim Phillps-Fein’s Invisible Hands (2009) and Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion (2012).24 Both show how ideas that later became central to right-wing groups gelled over time in the context of networks linking together conservative economists, journalists, philosophers, and other thinkers. As Burgin shows persuasively, for instance, the Mont Pelerin Society became a nexus linking conservative from around the world.25 But conservative ideas were not only a function of conservative networks; the operation worked in reverse as well. William F. Buckley and Friedrich Hayek, for example, attracted the attention of businessmen willing to send checks to fund further publications after reading God and Man at Yale or The Road to Serfdom. Monetary support for these thinkers was exchanged for intellectual support to a business community eager to discover ideas and rhetoric that would help dissuade the American public of the New Deal’s (and later Great Society’s) value. Liberal intellectuals were caught off guard by the scope and scale of the organizations that conservative thinkers were able to create through marketing their ideas. “At a time when leading liberal intellectuals like Daniel Bell and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. argued that the rise of fascism and Soviet communism had shattered the capacity for faith in ideology in the West,” writes Phillips-Fein, “insisting that most conservatives and liberals alike agreed on the welfare state and the limits of government power, these free-market activists understood, in a way that the liberal thinkers did not, the importance of ideas and the need to shape the terms of debate.'”26 Rather than an obstacle, the market factored as an important critical tool—rhetorically and financially—in this realignment.

Of course the market of modern capitalism is the not the agora of ancient Greece. No longer visualized as a specific place, the market over the past two hundred years has become more of an abstract process that determines values rather than a location where people negotiate these.27 From a political standpoint, the market is not a panacea for every (if even many a) social problem—a salutary ideological investment that Lasch and Hofstadter had when writing their accounts. But neither has its relation to intellectual life been unambiguously bad historically speaking. Rather, the market has been a persistent reality that American thinkers have had to deal with, explicitly or implicitly, when contemplating how to bring their message to the public. Once more, for all its mutations from physical place to discrete processes, representation remains central to the market’s functioning. Just as actors and merchants experiment with modes of representations to draw a crowd, so too have twentieth century American intellectuals done the same: marketing their wares—i.e. ideas—through popular works that could draw a public as well as speculating on the effects of consumer culture on intellectual life.

Overlooking these developments results in two major analytical drawbacks. Historically, intellectuals have worked out their thoughts both with a mind on ideas as well as on publics. Without taking into account the ways in which this latter focus affected their projects, our understanding of these figures as well as U.S. intellectual life suffers. We simply miss an entire arena and set of concerns that have occupied thinkers. Overlooking the productive interactions between intellectuals, markets and publics also comes at political price. At a time when politicians and pundits attack the university, an institution that stands at a nexus between intellectual and public life, a fear that intellectuals have been co-opted by the market in the past only obscures critical resources we could draw from them in the present. On this note, it is worth recalling the words Hofstadter left us at the end of Anti-Intellectualism: “Dogmatic, apocalyptic predictions about the collapse of liberal culture or the disappearance of high culture may be right or wrong; but one thing about them seems certain: they are more likely to instill self-pity and despair than the will to resist or the confidence to make the most of one’s creative energies.”28 With this in mind, contemporary historians might endeavor to undertake the modest—but important—task of recovering the ways intellectuals have made the publics they sought to engage. In the process, we might even become those illusive creatures that many have thought endangered.

1 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1963), 7.

2 For Hofstadter’s discussion of the impact of religious trends on U.S. intellectual life, see his “Part Two: The Religion of the Heart,” ibid., 55-141. For a work that draws tighter links between capitalism, religion, and an alleged decline in intellectual vigor and outreach to the public, see Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977).

3 Hofstadter, 244.

4 Ibid., 407.

5 Excepting, of course, the large support for universities provided from the federal government and states during this time. For accounts that link public disengagement on the part of intellectuals with their positions in universities, see Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: The Noonday Press, 1987); Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

6 Hofstadter defines the intellect as that “creative, and contemplative side of the mind” which “evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.” Hofstadter, 25.

7 Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), ix.

8 Ibid., 318.

9 Examples of the commodification of these efforts to achieve an “authentic” subjectivity range from do-it-yourself projects to attempts to life the “simple life.”

10 T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of Modern Culture, 1880-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 160.

11 William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 244.

12 Jeffrey Sklansky, The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

13 Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the ‘American Way’: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

14 Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

15 Hofstadter, 229.

16 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997), 48. For another account of how consumer culture could produce a working-class culture, see Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Jefferson Cowie provides a sequel to these accounts, detailing the unraveling of the working-class culture depicted by Cohen and Denning in his Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: New Press, 2010).

17 Denning, “American Culture and Socialist Theory,” 423-62.

18 This draws on the work of Michael Warner. Although Warner’s theories of “the public” are worked out in his Publics and Counterpublics, his earlier work on colonial American print culture already contains some of his insights concerning performativity. See Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002); Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). For another study that investigations the construction of a public, see Sarah Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

19 Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), xi.

20 Rubin points to Dwight Macdonald’s influential essay “Masscult and Midcult” for keeping scholars from investigating the phenomenon of “middlebrow culture.” In that essay, Macdonald argued that “midcult”—or middlebrow—culture only harmed “high culture” by blurring the lines between it and “low culture.” Ibid., xiv-xv.

21 Ibid., 31. Although open to its content, Rubin’s view of middlebrow culture retains shadings of older attitudes that come out in lines such as this: “Like the more truculent castigators of ‘midcult,’ I see the rise of American consumer society not simply as a spur to the commendable democratization of ‘high’ culture: to my mind, as middlebrow popularizers accommodated consumer priorities, worthwhile aesthetic commitments were also lost in the bargain.” Ibid., xix.

22 Examining the letters that Nietzsche’s American admirers sent his sister, Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a similar point, writing how the “letters testify to the ways in which the embodied forms of ideas take on a psychic value much greater than their monetary one.” Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 200. See also Ratner-Rosenhagen, “Conventional Iconoclasm: The Cultural Work of the Nietzsche Image in Twentieth-Century America,” The Journal of American History (December 2006): 728-54.

23 James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

24 Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009); Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

25 For intellectual trends among intellectuals who were more sympathetic to regulated, socially-minded markets, see Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); Kathleen G. Donohue, Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005).

26 Phillips-Fein, 57-58.

27 For a discussion of this shift see, Jean-Chistophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

28 Hofstadter, 432.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There’s nothing like starting the day with a smart, sharp and smoothly-written dose of first-rate historiography. Thank you, Brad!

    An excellent work of recent scholarship that views the relationship between intellectuals and the market as something more complex than one of a dualistic mutual antipathy or alienation is Robert Vanderlan’s Intellectuals, Incorporated (Penn, 2010). I have found his idea of the “interstitial intellectual” especially helpful, and I think the recent laments (and pushback) about the presumed disappearance of “the public intellectual” would probably be better framed as a discussion of the disappearance (or at least shrinkage) of some of those “interstices” in the market economy in and from which intellectuals might be able to carve out a space and call forth a public. “The internet” — blogging, say — may allow for the exploration/expansion of a new kind of interstitial space. But the pay ain’t so great. A great cultural flowering may be in the offing, but maybe only thanks to a simultaneous mowing-down of aspirations for a meaningful job that pays the bills.

    In any case, what a great essay — thanks for sharing it.

  2. Mr. Baranowski, you have written an essay here for this post and a very good one. I especially like the way you closed with a quote of Hofstadter. A great reading pleasure.

  3. Love the write-up, Brad. It is most definitely worthwhile for USIH folks to think about the pluses, not just the minuses, or the market. But I also agree with LD’s interjection related to Vanderlan’s “interstitial” intellectuals—and that the nature of those interstices has changed (perhaps for the worse). The “market” gives and it taketh away.

    PS: I agree 100 percent on fn21 related to J.S. Rubin.

  4. This was an excellent read. Thanks so much for this. Much to consider, certainly, when it comes to intellectuals and the market.

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