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). (more…)