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Intellectuals in democracy

In a brief book excerpt, the late and much lamented NYROB writer Tony Judt describes the role of the intellectual in times of concrete turmoil like our own:

All this is hard for intellectuals, most of whom imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions. But I think the way to defend and advance large abstractions in the generations to come will be to defend and protect institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions. And intellectuals who care about these will be the people who matter most. (March 22, 2012 — NYROB subscription required to view full article)

I have greatly admired Tony Judt’s writing for several years, but I wonder if this formulation overlooks any hope that we might find in the movements that use social media to inform and inquire and affiliate and widen the range of voices that come to matter in society? Elsewhere in the excerpt he speaks of the role of intellectuals being “to fill the space between … the governed and the governors,” not a very exact formulation but one that doesn’t imply any particular role for the governed. The university, as well as any one of its professors, would not seem to have to work out a relationship with “the governed” or be challenged by their knowledge and experience or collaborate with them. Is the public intellectual here someone who speaks well and knows better? I can’t quite tell, but that’s my hunch.

If the university considers its role primarily to be “the production of sanctioned professionals,” as Dave Hickey has written, then its faculty need not learn the new inquiry and affiliation skills of, say, the Arab Spring. Sadly, if the university has no need to adapt, neither must the professor working there, I presume. If so, then the fuzziness of the intellectual’s relationship to “the governed” in this NYROB excerpt looks backward to established norms rather than forward to mysterious new circumstances unfolding now around us.

Tony Judt’s book was written under excruciating difficulties in the final months of his life that did not leave room for him to explore those unfolding circumstances, but like his other writing it has many other virtues. Dave Hickey’s playful “Romancing the Looky-Loos” essay shows at least one intellectual who has had a chance to think more about social practices that foster “a mode of social discourse, a participatory republic, an accumulation of small, fragile, social occasions that provide the binding agent of fugitive communities”–something more specific that “the governed” and more interesting, too. See also “If you build it they will come,” Tim Dunlop’s foundational essay claiming that our new media allow us to concentrate on public intellectual practice rather than the credentials often associated with the work in the past.

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