Machine Ghost

From Daniel Drezner’s “Public Intellectual 2.0”

with 3 comments

This week’s Chronicle has an interesting piece about the changing face of the public intellectual, some of which is reproduced here:

What made the New York Intellectuals stand out, however, was that they started in literary criticism and migrated to social analyses. When social scientists like Tyler Cowen or Richard Posner return the favor, they are viewed as either arrivistes or methodological imperialists. The problem here might not be in our public intellectuals but in ourselves — even a modest level of innumeracy can make the public writings of economists look arcane and mysterious.

The only thing worse than a social scientist, apparently, is a social scientist who blogs. As Brooks, Frum, and Wolfe have argued, blogs are an outlet for vitriol and pettiness. Jacoby is simultaneously concerned with the content and volume of this outlet: “Blogs may be more like private journals with megaphones than reasoned contributions to public life. … Ortega y Gasset’s fear almost a century ago of the ‘revolt of the masses’ needs an update. We face a revolt of the writers. Today everyone is a blogger, but where are the readers?”

That is not a terribly persuasive critique — indeed, it manifests some of the same flaws of the larger decline meme. The concern about vitriolic blogs confuses form with content. All media forms generate distasteful, disposable, or demented material — indeed, as a general rule, whenever a new media is invented, pornography soon follows. Bad content, however, does not impeach the form through which the content is produced. This would be like arguing that Hustler discredits Harper’s as an appropriate venue for publication.

Similarly, Jacoby’s concern about the mix of erudition and trivia within blogs also seems off base. If celebrity profiles do not compromise Christopher Hitchens’s essays in Vanity Fair, there is no reason to believe that snarky blog posts undercut more serious posts. Jacoby recognized this fact back in 2000 when he wrote, “It should be possible for thinkers and writers to be both serious and accessible — not always at the same time, but over time.”

Jacoby’s original concern was that independent public intellectuals were disappearing from view, and academic intellectuals were increasingly professionalized and hidebound. The proliferation of blogs reverses those trends in several ways. Blogs have facilitated the rise of a new class of nonacademic intellectuals. Writing a successful blog has provided a launching pad for aspiring writers to obtain jobs from general-interest magazines. The premier general-interest magazines and journals in the country either sponsor individual bloggers or have developed their own in-house blogs.

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

There are, of course, limits to the ways in which blogs aid public intellectuals. It is not clear how many academics will choose to embrace the technology. The academic politics of blogging can also be problematic, particularly for younger scholars focused on tenure. Another emerging problem is that professionalization is creeping into the blogosphere. Popular bloggers are also increasingly paid bloggers — and the emergence of what Irving Howe called a “phalanx of solidarity” among prominent bloggers might retard public debate.


Written by kimlacey

November 12, 2008 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Viva la Vitriol!

    I think I take exception to the idea that academics can be counted among the most popular bloggers, mostly because it’s not true. Magazine writers, yes. Academics who write for magazines, yes. Academics, no. Perez Hilton is the most popular blogger, and he’s neither an academic nor a worthwhile human being.

    I did a lot of work with bloggers as a marketer/publicist, and there’s really only two ways to become a popular blogger: one, be associated with a major, well-respected publication or, two, be full of vitriol and banality, like good ol’ Perez. Academic bloggers rarely make the crossover, and most who are being read outside the academic community are those that also work for popular publications–and non-academic people rarely want to read what they write. On the list of the top 100 blogs, there are no academic ones. (We did only buy the listing of the top 100, so maybe 101 is academic.)

    The problem, I think, comes in the language of academia and making the crossover into the mass sphere. You have to trick smart people into reading an academic’s work. I mentioned Adorno in my office at Wayne, everyone knew what I was talking about. I mention him in an office full of marketing professionals–people who should really have read Adorno because everything they do can be traced back to the Dialectic of Enlightenment–and everyone stares blankly at me.

    Everyone wants to think they’re smart. Academics, with or without trying, by default make intelligent people feel like they have something to prove and they automatically reject academics for being pretentious. When the “average” person encounters an academic on a blog, they tend not to read that is clearly academic writing unless they are somehow invested in academia. Personal experiences may differ, but that crossover between the academic and the everyday is a statistical anomaly according to the media industry.


    November 13, 2008 at 1:36 am

  2. I think about this a lot. I often find academic writing to be bland, obtuse and generally inaccessible, and I often wonder why we persist in that style. That said, I can and do write some pretty bland, obtuse, inaccessible stuff because it’s kinda my job and I don’t want to be a grad student forever. Blogging is a good way to break out of that, but I doubt that one can make a living from being a “public intellectual” blogger. I strive for a mixture of the two. Do the academic thing, blog in a more accessible way, and see if you can create something out of the synnergy. I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out.


    November 17, 2008 at 3:04 pm

  3. I think what I’m always distracted by is the assumption that academic bloggers assume a public-ness about their appearance online. Being public does not mean being accessible–and that’s a crucial distinction in this debate. Accessibility to a larger audience (be it other intellectuals – which Ellen points out is mainly our audience – or the general populous). I do agree with Drenzer that blogging has launched careers of those who aren’t necessarily trained in those areas (think of the commentators on any news channels who are now using “average” bloggers as credible sources). I don’t think academics can make this crossover as easily. The language barrier will always be an issue, particularly since we’re trained that way. Blogging won’t erase that (and, in fact, it might emphasize because we’re held accountable to a supposedly ‘larger’ audience).


    November 18, 2008 at 1:05 pm

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