Saturday, 2 June 2018

No.64 - Public intellectuals: Dreams and realities

I suppose that, on the cusp of my early retirement, my subconscious is telling me it might just be a good moment to assess my career as an academic and so-called intellectual. At any rate, I had a dream – a full-on, deep, proper dream – in which I discussed with various shimmery interlocutors the writing of An Intellectual History of South Africa. In the dream at least, nothing of this kind had been attempted before. The dream got fragmented with my usual phantasmagoria (which I am reliably informed not even the good Dr Jung could explain), and half-waking episodes in which my brain mulled over possibilities, like olive pips accidentally being blended into a smoothie.

All in all I had a very bad night – but in this manner, of course, all profound ideas are born.

Until the morning – of course – when a bit of Googling naturally revealed that about 700 people had already thought about this very area, and had even written at length about it. Still ... no one seems, on the face of it, to have done what my dream community was cooking up.

For example, high in the Google pile is a collection of articles edited by Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle Prinsloo, Intellectual Traditions in South Africa: Ideas, individuals, institutions. This is organised by themes rather than personages – the development and implications of intellectual ideas such as Marxism, feminism, Black Consciousness, some religious traditions, and so on. [See Henk van Rinsum’s review.]  This is well and good, but not quite my thing ...

Most cited by Google is a recent book by Michael Onyebuchi Eze, Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa. This is not a history of intellectuals so much as a tract in defence of the concept of Ubuntu; it seems to have been widely praised but what I could read of it online is so badly written I quickly abandoned it – and in any case it, too, isn’t anything like what my dream-merchants were proposing.

Through all this certain questions (olive pips) were revolving in my mind. What is an ‘intellectual’ anyway? Is there a difference between an ‘academic’ and an ‘intellectual’, or – in the common term – a ‘public intellectual’?  Is lecturing several hundred students every week not public enough? Does a public intellectual have to be within a university in some capacity, or even be university-educated? If I am an intellectual at all – which is debateable – does my blog make me ‘public’? How public is public?

Such questions arise because I don’t think that university – for all the intellectual pleasures it has brought me over three decades – is the be-all and end-all of intellect, let alone intelligence. I want to believe that intellectuals can and do occur outside of universities, in the manner of, say, Samuel Johnson or Mahatma Gandhi – not to mention Xhosa praise-poet SEK Mqhayi.  These were all men who published and performed widely, and had inestimable effects on broader society – precisely what one supposes a public intellectual is meant to do.

These questions also arise partly because I’ve become rather disillusioned with a certain disconnect between academic production and the broader public. We (at least those of us in the humanities) pump out articles for a select range of institutionally-approved academic journals; as universities have expanded the journals have become ever more specialised and ever more competitive. The editor of a prestigious American journal explained to us the other day their ferocious and multilayered processes of submission, vetting, reading, editing and re-editing. For every article accepted for ultimate publication, nine or more are rejected, and it can take two years or more for the thing to appear, by which time you have either forgotten what you wrote, or have changed your mind about it, or have developed so far in the meantime you now think it’s naive and embarrassing tosh.  Between six and twelve editors and readers might have gutted and commented on your piece before it finally appears – which, according to some surveys, is twice the average number of readers an academic article will get anyway. Not terribly public.

Meanwhile, back in your Department, you are likely becoming increasingly estranged from your colleagues as you dig yourself a specialised niche of expertise, writing stuff in which they are not particularly interested or which they even cannot comprehend.  And if you step beyond your expertise? Your dilettantism is likely to be spurned as just that – a shallow intrusive paddling in areas you clearly know nothing about. Furthermore, while publication of a specialised, peer-reviewed article or book earns your university a substantial government subsidy (of which the writer sees little to nothing directly), any effort to spread research into more popular or so-called ‘creative’ formats gets no subsidy or institutional support at all. The disjunct is reflected in the current pressure for academics to add to their research, so-called ‘community engagement’ – which frequently means running well-meaning but sporadic, necessarily non-academic activities for disadvantaged sectors of society, for which one may frankly be poorly equipped.

(I don’t mean to be all negative about this: personally I’ve had a fabulous time of it. I’ve never had to teach or write about topics I’m not enthusiastic about; there is also great collegiality; the peer-review system, when well-conducted, is educative and clarifying for all concerned and helps advance best-thinking practice; and there are wonderful community projects emanating from my own and other universities.)

But the disjunct is there, and it affects the presence and impact of the so-called public intellectual. Such an animal is defined by Richard Posner, in his excellent book Public Intellectuals, as one who writes “for a broader than merely academic or specialist audience, on ‘public affairs’ – on political matters in the broadest sense of that word.”  This is potentially to exclude many disciplines, especially the hard sciences, and even economics, psychology and the like. But such definitions, as Posner notes, are ever murky and arguable. Posner subtitles his 2001 book A Study of Decline: in his view, the contemporary public intellectual is virtually toothless – and in large part he blames the universities, a) for having become a more or less monopolistic repository of intellect, while b) getting so specialised that few academics can become the authoritative generalists that an effective public intellectual needs to be. “Having slipped his moorings, the cautious academic specialist throws caution to the winds. He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday-goer.” He (or, less often, she) is thus exposed to derision and perceived irrelevance.

In our local context, some related points are made by Jonathan Jansen, former Vice Chancellor of Free State university and widely published in popular media – a prominent public intellectual in his own right. In various places – including William Gumede’s collection of essays entitled The Poverty of Ideas – Jansen has argued that increased university managerialism, egregious state interventions, manipulation of funding, and various forms of covert censorship have served to diminish the intellectual’s authority, autonomy and freedom to speak either within or outside university parameters. Jansen is not the only one to paint a grim picture: witness such gloomy article titles as “The slow death of the intellect” in the Mail & Guardian and “South African democracy and the retreat of intellectuals".

Chris Thurman (former student of ours, now professor at Wits and himself a public commentator of growing repute) fielded a sharp intervention in 2013.  He points out, among other things, that in the internet age the definition of ‘public’ has shifted, and perhaps the role of public intellectual, defined as an ‘active citizen’, has inevitably become less the haughty legislator of previous centuries than something more interpretative and communal.  He also notes that what is lacking is not so much intelligent public commentary, but a debilitating lack of political will in the circles of governance to hear, absorb and implement the ideas of those who have considered them most deeply – indeed, the refusal to read anything, even to be antipathetic to intellectualism of any kind. When key government ministers evidently regard universities as hotbeds of inconvenient dissent rather than as resources for intelligent responses to present and future problems, and therefore for years incrementally cut funding, who can be surprised that our education sector is such a disaster zone? Nevertheless, Thurman is more sanguine about the future of the public intellectual than either Richard Posner or Jonathan Jensen, perhaps hoping (as we all do) that he himself will, despite everything, be taken seriously.

But back to my dream... A number of names surfaced in that muddled mental night-walk, people ranging from Sol Plaatje and Jan Smuts to Achille Mbembe and Mamphele Ramphele... Perhaps what the dreamers had in mind (or my mind had in dream) was a study of intellectual affect via a series of individual portraits – something along the lines of Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals (1988). Not with his tone, though: Johnson sets out to demonstrate that public intellectuals are in decline not because they have been displaced from academic rigour but because they are frauds. In his portrayal they are posturers so governed by egotism, deceit and private moral turpitude that they deserve to be ignored – and Johnson has evidently gone out of his way to find a gallery of drunks, bigots, wife-beaters and liars who will prove his case.

No one’s perfect, but I think South Africa can offer better.  Through all the tragic thickets of racial, gender and economic imbalances of the last two centuries, public-minded writers and thinkers, from John Philip to Steve Biko, have sprung vociferously to life in defence of right living and clear informed argument. More than ever in our history, perhaps, is the public intellectual needed to deliberately brave controversy, puncture the pretensions of the idiots, and provide dispassionate balance to the distortions of the ambitious.  Meanwhile, a massive parallel task looms: to educate the broader public into taking such thinking more seriously than violence, cheap rhetoric, and politically-correct grandstanding.

I don’t feel equipped to write up my own dream, but somebody out there ...?

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