U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Ivory Tower is Moving (Guest Post by Holly Genovese)

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]

This past week The Chronicle of Higher Education published Evan Goldstein’s article on public intellectualism and new vibrancy in left leaning intellectual magazines. Older magazine’s like Dissent have been given new life by young Ph.D’s and newer publications like Jacobin and n+1 are being run by this same demographic. Goldstein argues that the crisis in education – particularly in humanities and social science doctoral programs – is leading to a rise in public intellectualism. People who would have previously headed towards academia are now writing for liberal magazines and publications, harkening back to an earlier and often idolized era of intellectualism in the 1930s and 1940s.

I love these publications – in fact I aspire to write for many of them. But is this actually the rise of public intellectualism or is it something else? Jacobin’s circulation is at 20,000 and Dissent’s is at about 5,000, according to Goldstein. But the audience of these magazines are other academics, journalists, and the “educated reading public,” the same people who have read The New Yorker for years. The growth in these magazines isn’t a sign of the growth of public engagement, but instead an indication that as universities are strangled by conservative policies the ivory tower has moved to magazines and other popular publications.

Who is the demographic of these magazines? Who are the subscribers? And can a circulation of 5,000 really stand up as “public?” The barrier to entry for magazines and even blogs is now lower than ever, allowing more and more people to write and be read. But the idea that academics are now reaching some mythological public by swapping peer review for liberal magazines is flawed. The “public” isn’t reading these magazines or any magazines. They are watching cable news and consuming clickbait headlines-to engage with these audiences academics need to do more than move the location of their intellectual silos.

To be fair, these magazines are more equitable than journals and academic conferences. Subscriptions are often low-cost and most of them do not operate a paywall. Jacobin, Dissent, and other magazines accept pitches from unknown writers (although I am still waiting in vain). But even so, who is their audience? Who knows about these publications or is willing to submit? People with educational privilege, if not other kinds of privilege.

The construct of the public intellectual has allowed academics to claim an engagement and commitment to the needs of the public, when in actuality they are moving academic debates to a different location, a new ivory tower.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Holly,

    I echo your sentiment. The idea of the public intellectual, sociologically speaking, has always been a flawed concept. Interestingly enough, there still seems to be a kind of oblique populism among intellectual historians in the sense that writing about such intellectuals over, say, institutional academics, garners more political cache (or at least that is my impression).

    In the sense that there may be a renaissance of avant-garde intellectual and political culture a-la 1930s and 40s New York, Goldstein may be right. But if that is indeed the case, then we’ve not revived any sort of thriving public or civil discourse, but a very small swath of the educated, reading public who happened to “read left”.

  2. Holly, this is just a fantastic post. Thanks so much for writing it — I’m especially in awe of the last paragraph. Wow, that packs a wallop!

    Insularity works so differently now — the moats around the towers are virtual, but no less viable for all that. It was sheer luck that I *ever* came across a copy of The New Yorker in my teenage years, because of where and when I grew up. I mean, my town didn’t even have a bookstore until I was in my teens. Today, that brick-and-mortar bookstore may be (or seem) less essential, since the public square of intellectual discourse is very much accessible online. Yet insularity persists, communities of discourse are self-selecting and siloed off from one another. I guess maybe there are more opportunities than there were before to stumble across different ideas, different worlds. But it’s also possible to customize a path that holds no surprises.

    Anyway, thanks for this marvelous intervention.

  3. This comment is quite on point about the fantasy–and I use that term in its psychoanalytic sense–of the public intellectual. The whiff of nostalgia for an intellectual avant-garde similar to what they have (had?) in France or decades ago in the US can be smelled from yards away.

    Now, it is true that the impact of Jacobin and company is limited, mostly due to the evermore fragmentary character of the public sphere. But that does not mean they are necessarily reproducing a new ivory tower. It’s a provocative assertion, but I am not sure if it holds once we analyze the form and objectives of these journals, which is, if one can generalize, to engage social issues beyond the university–not to do so is synonymous with inhabiting the ivory tower, at least in my dictionary.

    First, to valorize the impact of these journals only by their print circulation misses the very important fact that the great majority of folks read and circulate them online. Many of my friends in Facebook post and discuss these articles (and by the way, many of them are not in academia, though they might have a certain privilege, mostly economic). According to the Jacobin website, they have a web audience of more than 700,000 a month.

    Moreover, I think it’s important to differentiate these journals, particularly in terms of what they set themselves out to do. Jacobin, for example (which by no means should be categorized as “liberal”), has a clear activist orientation and part of its reading public come from this sector–it’s not a coincidence that its editors and many of the authors of Jacobin articles are active in political organizations and participate in national leftist conferences such as the Left Forum and the International Socialist Organization annual event. Also, the writing one finds in Jacobin is not necessarily scholarly, on the contrary. The question of style and form is an important way to analyze these journals (for example, n+1 has more of a literary orientation than the others, and the format of a Jacobin text is quite different from what would one find in a peer review journal dedicated to politics).

  4. I don’t *think* this is off-topic, but I leave that to the judgment of the author and our community. Still, can I just put in a quick plug for the absolute best essay I’ve read challenging the pundit-class’s ill-advised embrace of J.D. Vance as some sort of “hillbilly whisperer”:

    For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class

    This is an essay by Elizabeth Catte, a public historian who is doing great writing that folks would do well to read. Really good stuff.

  5. I’m a little skeptical of the notion that this particular trend is necessarily a rebuilding of the ivory tower. I also have seen significant evidence of these journals, and others, serving as a source of public discussion through social media. Public intellectuals have always been a source of limited interaction, even when their “publics” have fully come into existence. Jacoby’s notion of public intellectuals writing for an educated, interested, non-specialist audience is an example. Each of these categories ratchets down the possible audience from the total collection of the public. Another issue with today though is the noise generated by outright falsity and the echo chamber effect where people can filter out anything that disagrees with their worldview. While certainly this applies to educated individuals, one of the key markers of the ivory tower was that it was exclusive in terms of economics and demographics. While it continues to play a roll, access is less of an issue and more a question of saturation within the marketplace of ideas. Public intellectuals have always spoken to a separate group of individuals, rather than speaking wholly to the masses, though today we have the analytic data to see those trends more clearly.

  6. from the post:
    Jacobin, Dissent, and other magazines accept pitches from unknown writers (although I am still waiting in vain)

    Take all advice with a grain of salt, but I wouldn’t bother with pitches, queries etc. for the two magazines you’ve named here. Just send the piece — if they like it they’ll publish it and if they don’t, they won’t.

    Shouldn’t be all that hard for an unknown writer to get into Dissent or Jacobin, assuming the piece roughly fits what they do. In the old days, a totally unknown writer could get into Dissent if the editor(s) liked what the person submitted. Some things have changed there, but I rather doubt that that has.

    No one has yet mentioned New Politics (which is ideologically more like Jacobin, though with a longer history). With NP also, just send them something.

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