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May 3, 2005
"The Last Intellectuals" (1987)
by Russell Jacoby
The thesis is that:
o American, My prime example of this
o public, breed is Jane Jacobs, and
o intellectuals it's one of Russell Jacoby's
are an endangered species. prime examples as well.
Jacoby claims that the main JANE_JACOBS
reason for this is that they
have become academics,
voluntarily imprisoned in the
Ivory Tower where they write Or at least, I *think* he
intentionally for an extremely claims this is the *main*
narrow audience, solely reason. He at least strongly
motivated by professional implies that it's a prominent
advancement. reason... I think a close
reading shows that he really
only claims that it's the
This gap in our culture-- reason that he wants to talk
according to Jacoby-- has about.
been filled thus far by the
aging intellectuals of a It's a problem with
previous generation, and to his style of argument:
some extent by foreign he qualifies things
imports (e.g. the European so carefully, it can be
postmodernists). a little hard to track
exactly what he's saying
Russell Jacoby argues that (though it always *seems*
we need wide-ranging clear).
intellectuals that write And he's one of those
for a general audience: guys with a knack for
"The transmission belt of counter-arguments without
culture-- the ineffable manner quite addressing them--
by which an older generation he just leaves you with
passes along not simply its the *feeling* that they've
knowledge but its dreams and been addressed.
hopes-- is threatened. The
larger culture rests on a INTO_THE_STRAW
decreasing number of aging
intellectuals with no
successors." -- p. 7-8
It's a difficult business,
discussing this sort of VOID
hole in our culture, an
absence of an intangible (And in fact,
presence... it's the very
first excuse (Excuse?
Jacoby shows Jacoby offers Qualification,
awareness of up...) Patch,
many-- though Hedge?)
not all-- of
His thesis depends a lot on
definitions and perceptions,
and there's much room for (And if you think
quibbling and caviling, and I'm going to skip But also, whatever
in fact, it practically the opportunity, you the merits of his
invites such attacks... haven't been paying thesis, whatever
attention.) his omissions,
But I don't think there's this book is a
too much doubt that he's very good
on to *something* here-- historical survey
of 20th century
"As intellectuals became academics, intellectuals
they had no need to write in a
public prose; they did not, and Reading it
finally they could not" -- p. 7 continually left
I think the real question,
though, is *why* is the "Podhoretz wrote
academic influence so a book called
pernicious? The idea here "Making It"?
is that an academic switches Didn't Paul
*entirely* to a specialist Goodman write a
audience, but this-- book called
(1) Was not always the case. Goodman must
(2) Is not universal to all riffing off of
Some fields are more GOODMAN
of experts dabbling in
The disease can not just be
that the market for independent
writing has dried up, there is
also a disease of the academy TEXTS_IN_DECLINE
that needs to be accounted for.
talk about this
a bit: things
matter much more,
But now let me get down to
the fun stuff-- quibbles
and cavils-- maybe there
are enough of them that they
add up to something...
The worst difficulty, and Not included are:
one that he barely popular science writers
addresses, if at all, is software geeks
that he has a pretty science fiction writers
rigid idea of what counts rock lyricists/critics
as an "intellectual", and talk radio people
if you're not a marxist documentary film-makers
working in the libertarians (and few conservatives)
sciences, it's hard to Some of these categories
make it into his club. he dismisses explicitly,
but rarely for convincing
(But not impossible: reasons.
e.g. Norman Podhoretz
is covered pretty
I spent much of
the 80s mulling
over the I was also a big fan of
libertarian the Whole Earth Review,
publications but I would have to check
"Reason" and to see if some of their
"Liberty", which stable of writers were
would certainly young enough for Jacoby's
seem to qualify as cut-off.
written for (if
not always Kostelanetz
reaching) a lists Stewart
general audience. Brand as a
guy in the
But at least Jacoby does target age
praise the neo-con range.
"Commentary" for being
written more accessibly But why would
than things like "Social you compare it
Text"... to "Social Text"
rather than "The (Jacoby himself
Nation" or publishes in
"Mother Jones"? "The Nation"
now, I don't
know about then.)
He mentions in passing that he's not
including rock lyricists and critics
but doesn't really explain why.
Just to pick one:
And what about:
Brian Eno: leading intellect
of my generation (T/F)? Lou Reed
I would say so, though Eno's David Bowie
medium was LPs, linear notes Richard Hell
and interviews with very few David Byrne
published essays/articles (he
didn't publish a book until Lester Bangs
(And... is "Maximum
There's no mention at all of Rock n' Roll" not
the Pacifica radio people I Marxist enough for
grew up listening to-- Jacoby?)
Science Fiction writers
evidently don't qualify:
Gregory Benford, BENFORD
Samuel R. Delany, DELANY
Bruce Sterling STERLING_DISTRACTED
The 80s produced some classic works
of popular technical writing:
And the 70s were good for
Stephen Gould, space exploration books:
"The Panda's Thumb" (1980)
"The Mis-measure of Man" (1981) Henry S. F. Cooper,
"A House in Space" (1976)
Stephen Levy, "Hackers" (1984)
Tracey Kidder, "Carrying the Fire" (1974)
"The Soul of a (Tracey Kidder
New Machine" gets a mention, Tom Wolfe,
(1981) at least.) "The Right Stuff" (1979)
"Chaos: Making a New Science"
Oh, but the was the same year
as "Last Intellectuals".
Eric Drexler's "The Engines of Creation" (1982)
Eric Drexler's work in
particular was very wide-
discussions of the problem Even in the unlikely event
of public decision making that Drexler's discussion
on technical subjects, and of "nanotechnology" were
various ways we might increase proven useless, there
our collective intelligence would still be some very
valuable material in this
Consider that Richard Stallman
was just getting started on some
of his best work during the mid
80s... some of it technical, some Hakim Bey's
of it essays and manifestos. "Temporary Autonomous Zone"
was out in 1985.
In particular he invented the
tremendously creative and ground
breaking legal hack, "the gnu
public license" aka "copyleft".
Are these not intellectuals?
Jacoby says something
dismissive about "software
whizzes" at one point--
In general, the possiblity
that the kind of intellectual Hey! Real intellectuals
that he's interested in might are supposed to write
now be besides the point seems about subjects that I
too horrible for him to understand!
(in "Whose Last
collected in _Crimes
of Culture_) brings
up still more names, APOCRYPHA
e.g. James Fallows.
Kostelanetz also notes
that Jacoby skips
Buckminster Fuller in But then, Buckminster
his history. A telling Fuller was a pretty
point? terrible writer. Maybe
Jacoby doesn't think he
precisely qualifies as
There's no someone writing for a
mention of Ayn "general" audience.
Maybe she wasn't
writing for a
specific enough Kostelanetz alludes to
general a work of his own, (Yes, he does
audience. _The End of Intelligent that a lot.)
Or something. Writing_ from 1974,
which he says identifies
a problem Jacoby doesn't
But, the above is not the only
that could be brought against Jacoby.
In addition to the "Hey you missed
a bunch" argument there is:
o Should we care if a writer is
American? What if thinkers outside
the US were doing a better job of
addressing key issues? Should we
o What if specialization is a
necessary evil? Maybe the real
issues are too hard for the
general audience to follow.
Physicists are not required to
drop quantum mechanics because
most people find it confusing,
why should, say, economists, be
subjected to different rules?
o The academic jobs are drying up.
If the academy is a seductive faustian
bargain, at least it's a bargain that (Kostelanetz
fewer intellectuals have available. makes this
o And one last counter-argument of sorts:
Well, maybe that was true back
in 1987, but *now* we've got...
Which brings us to Cosma
Shalizi, who's notebooks
are one of my own picks
for Best of the Web.
I first read "The
mentioned it at the
end of one of his That essay had a slightly
essays. different focus: Shalizi It seems
asked not where did the to have
intellectuals go, but who disappeared
are our leading from
His question was: why is of on-line
it so hard to think of writings...
someone currently alive
of the caliber of Ah, a version
Betrand Russell? of that
This raises another point, though:
Question: do we need stars?
There are people out there
writing op ed pieces, working
on web pages, writing small If the "transmission belt"
press books, and they are is busted, isn't it more
largely unsung heroes... because few people are
reading the output of these
Can't they act as an an effective writers?
"transmission belt of culture"
even if they're not establishing Imprision 90% of the
big names for us to drop? intellecutals, and the
remaining 10% would still
Would it be okay to overflow the pages.
have an intellectual
movement without the
names of leaders to A transmission
attribute it to? belt may slip
on either end.
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