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Stop signs of the times

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2013

Gordy GRD Eric Gordy discusses how writing his new book on remembrance and responsibility in Serbia led him to reflect on the role of the  researcher and intellectual.

The primary goal of most of the people I did graduate study with was to become a ‘public intellectual,’ who would engage, explain, and bring the apparatus of organised knowledge to public controversies. Certainly in developing this goal we all had some models and references – maybe the most prominent for me were the legendary ‘New York Intellectuals’ of the mid-20th century who sought a central role for intellectual discourse in public culture. But the idea of the ‘public intellectual’ can be traced back a bit farther – one touchstone might be Ralph Waldo Emerson, who railed against isolation and obscurantism, arguing that ‘The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men [sic] by showing them facts amidst appearances.’ And he set out this contrast in 1837:

Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

Maybe a bit more widely used is the reductive functional definition of the public intellectual, entirely consistent with our bureaucratic overseers’ concept of what constitutes ‘impact.’ For the astrophysicist, novelist and essayist Alan Lightman, the public intellectual is an academic ‘decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues,’ sometimes outside of their field of expertise.

These minimal definitions still compete with some more contemporary ones that (bombastically?) elevate the importance of our research and writing. In a (1993) articulation by Edward Said, he celebrated ‘the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power’; in this view the intellectual is ‘someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

In that vein Said cites C Wright Mills, to the effect that ‘If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience.’ Taken together these are high demands on the production of publicly engaged knowledge that imply a (self-serving) superiority over the debate and demand a level of consciousness and conscience that few if any people can claim. In a similar spirit David Palumbo-Liu argues that ‘today’s public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently.’

The romantic notion of public intellectual as heroic tribune is naturally a bit more appealing than the functionalist one of public intellectual as person who talks to media. But it is difficult to accomplish not only because few of us have the qualities of courage and sacrifice that seem to be demanded (I for one do not), but also for some prosaic practical reasons. Emerson warns that ‘Such an attempt, of course, must have difficulty, which no genius could surmount.’ What sorts of difficulties might be involved? Here are a few that I encountered in trying to come up with an account of public memory in Serbia (Warning: they are less exciting than the prospects that Emerson and Said have to offer).

Avoiding the morbid

I was writing about how public memory in Serbia processed and altered when confronted with horrifying legacies emerging from the wars of Yugoslav succession of the 1990s. One of the things this meant was engaging with facts (and trying to establish their veracity, which demands a considerable degree of detail) of events like forced expulsions, large-scale murders, organised rape and similar atrocities. Another thing it meant was engaging with discourses where people sought either to deny these facts or to justify them, or both.

As I am not generally of a necrophiliac cast of mind the work was often unbearably depressing. There was no difficulty in thinking of reasons to step away from the work or to take extended breaks from the material, to enjoy some of the less appalling parts of life. While someone as deeply committed and self-abnegating as the ones described in the ideal presentations of the public intellectual would be consumed by purpose and not shy away from the task, I was not consumed and did shy. Eventually the impulse to explain the often frustrating and sometimes shocking material won out, but the manuscript took a far longer time to write than I anticipated. Was the result to fulfil David Palumbo-Liu’s vision of the ‘provocateur’? If I have done so it was probably mostly by mistake.

Situations change

In my book the reader will find a number of statements that are no longer true. It presents a world in which indictees  at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia like generals Ante Gotovina and Momčilo Perišić have convictions against them (these were overturned, respectively, in November 2012 and February 2013); in which Boris Tadić is still president of Serbia (he was defeated by Tomislav Nikolić in May 2012), and much more.

This is partly because the manuscript was completed in 2011 and the book released in 2013, but it would hardly be sufficient to blame everything on the speed of academic publishing. The problem arises any time a writer tries to make a sustained intervention into ongoing events. It arose several times while the manuscript was being written (the last version had to be revised to account for the arrest of the final two fugitives in May and July 2011), and each time the writing had to be interrupted while I asked myself whether the newest turn in events fundamentally altered the situation. This is the sort of problem that anybody writing about ongoing current situations can anticipate, and it rarely affects our colleagues working in literature, the history of periods well past, or ‘pure’ theory.

A reasonable, if not completely satisfying way of addressing the problem to postulate an imaginary point at which, for the purpose of writing a narrative, history stops. This requires asking another question, which is whether anything in the new events affects the general direction of the narrative or the conclusions to be drawn from it. In this respect I was helped (but the public continued to be hurt) by the fact that most of the events that jumped into my way turned out to be setbacks – perfectly consistent with an argument that the processes being discussed were fraught, incomplete, and carried forward without an adequate level of public participation. To be entirely honest, though, I could have found myself at a loss if anything good had happened.

Engagement on substance

When doing intellectual work it is possible that most of us share a fairly naïve sense of our goals and purposes: we want to bring together evidence to tell people something that they did not know, and want to make a contribution to knowledge and understanding. In this sense we are never far from those quaint old Enlightenment goals of a world enriched by the benefits of science and being made ever more consistent with the principles of reason. It is only when our analyses become public that we are likely to become acutely aware that the discussion is populated with folk who do not share our goals.

This is especially the case where the disputes we are writing about are ongoing (but not only then – there are people in Serbia still actively engaged in the ‘Gavrilo Princip good or bad’ debate!. In that case there are bound to be interested parties, not all of whom offer ideal partners for dialogue because their goal is to promote a set of conclusions that have been conceived in advance.

On the one hand, there are public intellectuals who regard the purpose of their public engagement as advocacy for one or another party to the conflict. On the other there are non-academics and semi-academics whose principal employment is to present the argument for a party to a conflict that has, rather than ended, moved from its violent to its legal and political stage. What both parties have in common is a lack of interest in engagement on the substance. They may also have in common a lack of propensity to respond to new evidence or arguments by changing their minds, although shifts from one extreme to another are not unknown.

In this area I have to confess a high level of discomfort and inconsistency. While one of the purposes in writing about an ongoing controversy is to enter the fray (hoping at the same time to have made it a slightly higher-quality fray), at the same time engagement with interested parties very often seems to be both uninteresting and futile. Either they have to become more like researchers or I have to become more like a politician, and neither outcome is probable. This an area where, in the event a largish audience does materialise, it is helpful to have a strategy in mind. I haven’t got one.

So where does this leave the contribution of this work? I am pretty sure that I have neither achieved the great ideals of my youth nor the ‘impact’-centred expectations of the REF-fians. But I think that I have left the debate in a slightly better shape than I found it. Whether this is reason to be satisfied will probably depend on how the discussion develops without me.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES. His new book  Guilt, responsibility and denial: The past at stake in post-Milosevic Serbia is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

He will be discussing the book in conversation with Jasna Dragović-Soso (Goldsmiths), Lara Nettelfield (Royal Holloway), Jelena Obradović-Wochnik (Aston) at a public event at UCL-SSEES on Tuesday 19 November. 

The cover image is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL