'Filosofía pirata, edición libre', discussion with Perro Tuerto y Pucho (El Rancho Electrónico) y Gabriela Méndez Cota (Universidad Iberoamericana) for the Mexico city radio station Ibero, September 12, 2019.

Open Humanities Press – The Inhumanist Manifesto

Pirate Philosophy, This Is Not A Pipe Podcast

HyperCritical Theory

Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It

Recent publications

Masked Media (limited edition paper-only publication for The House That Heals The Soul exhibition, Tetley, Leeds, 2018) 

 The Inhumanist Manifesto: Extended Play (Techne Lab, 2017)

Open Access

Most of Gary's work is freely available to read and download either here in Media Gifts or in Coventry University's online repositories PURE here, and CURVE here 

Radical Open Access

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The academic as public intellectual

Q1. 'I suppose the key question is how far do academics as public intellectuals remain central to serious discussion of the big challenges which face us?'

In the UK when we speak of the intellectual we tend to have in mind figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Edward Said, who in 1993 devoted his own Reith Lectures on the subject. However, the likes of Sartre and Said represent just one version or model of the intellectual: that of the political intellectual, someone who expands their role beyond their core area of expertise to both speak to a larger public and attempt to intervene somehow in the political life of society. There are other ways of acting as an intellectual besides this. For instance, the intellectual can also be understood as a socio-professional category: as applying to those whose professions involve them explicitly in engaging with knowledge, ideas, culture or learning. Academics, writers, journalists and artists such as Terry Eagleton, Zadie Smith, Gary Younge and Tracey Emin would all perhaps be intellectuals according to this definition. Or the intellectual can be understood more in cultural terms: as referring to those who engage in learned activities and practices but who have a certain standing in society or culture that provides them with opportunities for addressing a wider audience than is otherwise generally the case for members of their profession. The Nobel Prize winning scientist James Watson – celebrated for his part in the discovery of DNA - would be an example of someone who fits the socio-professional category of the intellectual, and who subsequently tried to move into the cultural arena with his ill-advised comments on race.

The topic is further complicated by the way in which these different definitions of the intellectual often coincide and overlap. For instance, as the cases of Said and Watson illustrate, most of the above conceptions have their starting point in ideas of the intellectual as a socio-professional category. People must have occupations that involve them explicitly in engaging with knowledge, ideas, culture or learning before they can then be thought of as being political or cultural intellectuals. This is why, when it comes to the issue of celebrity influence, although Jamie Oliver is able to use his expertise and celebrity as a TV chef to tackle wider social issues, including the standard of food served to children in schools, he’s not perceived as being an intellectual. Similarly, the musician Chris Martin of Coldplay, with his support for Fairtrade, or the Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher, with his use of Twitter to promote World Malaria Day, may have involved themselves with wider social and political issues. But they don’t have careers that involve them in engaging with knowledge and ‘learned ideas’. So they may be socially or politically engaged celebrities, but they’re not intellectuals.

Q2. 'Did the intellectual have more influence in the past?'

When people suggest that intellectuals are not as central to the big questions that face us as they were, that they perhaps don’t have as much influence as they did in the past, and have been replaced to a large extent by think-tanks, spin doctors, pundits, even celebrities, what they usually have in mind, as I say, is the kind of figure represented by Sartre and Said - or Bertrand Russell, with his campaigning for nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and 1960s. And because for various reasons those kind of intellectuals are not so visible in the UK mainstream media at the moment – although they’re still around, especially in other parts of the world (Noam Chomsky would be an obvious example) – it’s easy for people to announce, as from time to time they do, that the intellectual is dead, or at best something of an endangered species. But we do still have intellectuals, and influential ones, at that. Even in the UK. Even in academia. It’s just that they’re not necessarily political intellectuals in the Sartre/Said/Chomsky mould. The intellectuals we have in Britain tend to be of the more ‘sociological’ or ‘cultural’ kind.

One explanation for this that has been put forward concerns the way in which, in England at least, intellectuals, historically, have been more closely associated with the ruling elite - gentlemen’s clubs and Oxbridge colleges, as opposed to the cafes and factory shop-floors of the continent – and with the tradition of the gentleman as amateur scholar. Suspicious of abstract ideas – as characterised by the emphasis in France on the universal values of freedom, justice and liberty – intellectuals here have tended to focus instead quite nostalgically on the people, places, architecture and landscape of England. Think Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy.

All of which perhaps explains why so many sociological and cultural intellectuals in England today are quite liberal, humanist, middle-brow and, for want of a better word, ‘journalistic’.

Q3. 'Have academics as intellectuals been marginalized by trends such as an increasing distrust of authority and expertise (which means that we hear as much about global warming and the crisis in the Middle East from celebrities as from specialists in international relations or climate science)?'

Actually, it goes further than that: I’m not sure how many such sociological or cultural intellectuals would explicitly claim to be intellectuals at all. This is both because of the myth that England, historically, doesn’t really have intellectuals (that’s primarily a political, abstract, European if not indeed French phenomenon); and because of the pejorative connotations of the term. In England, the intellectual is often viewed quite negatively and in a hostile fashion: as someone who is arrogant, pretentious and full of self-importance; someone who tries to give off an air of superiority by using difficult and overly complex language and ideas. Witness the manner in which the writing of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida – who would not have identified himself as an intellectual in any simple sense - is frequently condemned as being ‘headache-inducingly difficult’. Paradoxically, to be viewed approvingly as being intellectual in England today, it’s better not to be too intellectual at all. So Alain de Botton is generally accepted in England as a more or less intellectual figure, as he can write clearly on ideas and culture and communicate with a wider public, even attain the Holy Grail of a ‘popular readership’; while Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler are often not so well thought of, as their philosophy is regarded as being far too complicated and abstract. (After all, ‘who has ever truly got to the bottom of ... Jacques Derrida’s work?’) This idea that English culture is somehow not very intellectual, even non-intellectual, and that this is by and large a good thing, may also be one reason why we’d apparently rather hear from celebrities on climate change than intellectuals or academic experts. (As articles in the Times Higher Education have made clear, government is not particularly keen on taking advice directly from academic specialists either. This is because what the latter have to say is frequently multivalenced and inconclusive, ‘better at identifying problems... than at offering solutions’. Policymakers much prefer to be advised by think-tanks who can provide ‘hard-evidence... in three bullet points’.)

The above mention of Alain de Botton brings to mind yet another concept of the intellectual, one I haven’t referred to explicitly yet, and which has actually only become prevalent in Britain and the US in the last 15 years or so (I think this time-frame is significant). This is the 'public intellectual' you began with, the very name of which seems to me to be indicative of a certain anxiety over the ability of other, supposedly 'non-public intellectuals' to communicate with the 'outside world'. After all, what would a non-public intellectual be, given that in most definitions of the term the intellectual has to communicate with the public in some way in order to be an intellectual? Anyway, the public intellectual is supposed to do things like write accessible pieces for newspapers and magazines and appear on radio and the TV. By becoming a symbolic entrepreneur in this way, she or he is lauded for having escaped the narrow and limiting confines of their particular institution: be it the university, laboratory, art gallery, NGO or policy institute. Examples would include not just de Botton, but Shami Chakrabarti, Simon Schama and David Starkey.

Q4. 'Are there pressures within the academy which discourage 'reaching out' or wide-ranging generalists who are willing to speak well beyond their core areas of expertise?'

There are certainly such pressures within the academy, yes. For many people those pressures associated with the RAE would no doubt be the first that come to mind in this respect. But there is also a certain amount of pressure being placed on academics these days to act as public intellectuals and to communicate their research and ideas to a wider public outside the institutional context in which they work. The argument here is that, because tax payers fund their research, academics have an obligation to make their work accessible to the public: in the form of communicating with journalists, or by appearing in the media, or even by writing blogs. However, despite having said that it could apply to what I’m doing here, I’m not entirely comfortable with this role of the academic as public intellectual. For one thing, it seems to me to risk going along too closely - and somewhat uncritically (especially in view of the present financial meltdown and general loss of faith in the idea of unbalanced economic growth) - with the current government and research council emphasis on valuing academic research in terms of its potential ‘economic and social impact’ and ability to be useful to business, industry and the public at large.

For another, it often results in a demand being placed upon academics to be inclusive, and to avoid difficult philosophical or theoretical ‘jargon’, in order to communicate better with non-experts and so-called ‘ordinary people’. But don’t academics sometimes need to be difficult, challenging, inaccessible, boring, unproductive, inefficient, uneconomic, non-user friendly? Isn’t that a crucial part of our role, too – both as academics and as intellectuals, public or otherwise? When so much of the rest of contemporary culture places such a high premium on being popular, inclusive, accessible and instrumentally useful, isn’t it important that there are at least some places and spaces for exploring ideas that are difficult, challenging and time-consuming to understand, and which are not always justifiable in strictly economic terms?

Q5. 'Or is that just that, as one door to influence closes, another opens somewhere else, using different media and communications tools?'

I think that in this case there may be something in that, at this particular historical moment at least. For instance, where I work, at Coventry School of Art and Design, we’ve been exploring the idea of using some of the different means of media and communication that are now available to academics at relatively low cost – open access online publishing, peer-to-peer file sharing networks and so on – to disseminate what, for shorthand, might be referred to as ‘intellectual’ ideas. Let me provide you with just one brief example, using material cut and pasted from an article I published recently. This concerns experiments Pete Woodbridge and myself, together with a colleague from the University of Kent, Clare Birchall, have been making with IPTV. IPTV stands for Internet Protocol TeleVision. In its broadest sense, IPTV is the term for all those techniques which use computer networks to deliver audio-visual programming. So YouTube can be thought of as an emerging grass-roots IPTV system, especially as its audience increasingly uses it to distribute audio-visual content that they have created, rather than sharing their favourite video clips from films and TV programmes that have been produced by others.

Many people see IPTV as having the potential to do for the moving image what the web is currently doing for print.  However, the reason we’re experimenting with IPTV is because it seems to us that the UK at the moment contains surprisingly few spaces, other than the university, that are open to intellectual academic work. As I’ve said, the mainstream media are predominantly liberal, humanist, middle-brow and journalistic in approach, their discussions of art, science, literature and philosophy being primarily opinion-based and focused on biographical details. (I’m still waiting for an edition of Newsnight Review to feature a text by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, let alone Giorgio Agamben, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi or Roberto Esposito.) Meanwhile, many publishers are barely producing books for third year undergraduate students, let alone research monographs aimed at other scholars. There thus seems to be a need to invent new ways of communicating intellectual academic ideas and research both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the university. We want to explore IPTV’s potential for this, and for doing so relatively easily and cheaply: not so much because we believe academics should try to find means of connecting with audiences outside the institution, audiences that scholarly books and journals cannot, or can no longer, reach. We’re not interested in being public intellectuals or some kind of new media personalities. (It’d be hard to find more camera-shy people than us. Which is why we are now experimenting with a less individualistic, presenter-focused way of making these programmes.) Rather, the reason we want to experiment with IPTV is because, as J. Macgregor Wise put it in his contribution to New Cultural Studies, a book Clare and I published a couple of years ago now, different forms of communication ‘do different things’ and ‘have the potential for different effectivities’ - even for leading us to conceive what we do as academics differently.

(This is a revised version of a text originally written in response to questions from  Matthew Reisz of the Times Higher Education on the topic of the (changing) role of the academic as public intellectual. Reisz’s subsequent article was published as Matthew Reisz, ‘Listen and Learn’, Times Higher Education,  28 May-3 June, 2009.)

Reader Comments (2)

Pretty cool..

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertorrent download


October 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertorrent download

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