Infernal Machine   /   April 16, 2014

#failedacademic: the New Public Intellectual?

Brianne Alcala

Anne Helen Petersen recently left Whitman College, where she taught on film and media studies, for Buzzfeed. One of the positive, if unintended, consequences of the dismal academic job market, she explains, is the emergence of a new generation of public intellectuals:

"The collapse of the PhD market, combined with the rise of digital publishing, has ironically yielded an exquisite, flourishing community of public intellectuals—people who write for places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, sure, but also those who write for places like Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, Avidly, and, of course, The Awl and The Hairpin. As more and more people with PhD behind their names find themselves in situations similar to mine, we’ve been forced to radically reconsider what we thought “teaching” and “dialogue” looks like."

Petersen's move to Buzzfeed comes just as @Neinquarterly, also known as Eric Jarosinski, prepares to leave his tenure-track position at the University of Pennsylvania to tweet full time and @pankisseskafka, Rebecca Schuman, settles in to her writing gig at Slate after telling academia to kiss off. To judge by their Twitter followers, over 60,000 and 4,000 respectively, Jaronsinski and Schuman seem to have found more readers than their academic prose ever would have. And they both write about culture, the academy, and all things intellectual. So, is Petersen right? Has the confluence of a horrible academic job market for humanities PhDs and the proliferation of new media outlets helped create a new class of public intellectuals?

A number of folks who don't have to tweet for a living sure hope so. As The Infernal Machine noted a few weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times lambasted scholars for what he saw as their failure to engage the broader public. Where, he wondered, had all the public intellectuals gone? But where were they to begin with?

The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest example of "public intellectual" is from a 1967 New York Times article. A quick look at Google Ngram shows that the term didn't take off until the 1960s, and its sharpest increase wasn't until the 1990s. This is all back-of-the-envelope thinking, but it seems safe to say that "public intellectual" is a rather recent concept. Public intellectuals are celebrity thinkers, people paid to opine out loud and in public. Whether it is an Adorno avatar or a truth-telling former academic, they craft a public persona that will make them visible.

But why would anyone listen to a public intellectual? As writers, academics, and intellectuals of all sorts clamor for visibility and attention, how is this new class of public intellectuals to be heard above the roar of a digital deluge of tweets, blogs, and status updates? The answer, in part, is authority. Schuman's giddy revelations of the academy's hypocrisy and ineptitude and Jarosinski's sardonic denunciations of university life have weight because of the three letters behind their names. However unmoored from the university they currently are, Schuman and Jarosinski rely on their past professorial lives not just for content but for legitimacy. They might excitedly predict the collapse of the university, but they depend on its shadow of authority to make a living. They peddle in the vestiges of academic authority and the glow of its prestige. They don't write as #failedwriters but as #failedacademics. Their celebrity wobbles atop the uncertain future of the university.

We are living through an upheaval in epistemic authority, a moment of uncertainty and change concerning the technologies and institutions that have traditionally generated, transmitted, and evaluated knowledge. What legitimates one form of knowledge over another? Which sources of knowledge are to be trusted? Which not? What practices, habits, techniques, technologies, and institutions render knowledge authoritative or worthy?

For the past 150 years, the modern research university has stood in for epistemic authority as the embodiment of scientific knowledge and the culture of science. Since its inception in Germany in the early 19th century, and its reinvention in America later that same century, the research university has been the central institution of knowledge in the West. Today the university finds itself confronted by the challenge of technological change. The saturation of digital technologies, from Wikipedia to Google PageRank, is changing the ways by which humans create, store, distribute, and value knowledge in the twenty-first century. What constitutes authoritative or legitimate knowledge today?

The university has survived and sustained its practices, virtues, and values because it has been a community embedded in institutional structures. And this is precisely what the new class of public intellectuals that Petersen anticipates seems to lack thus far. It may be, as Corey Robin puts it, that the economics and new technologies that make blogs, niche magazines, and twitter celebrities possible "also make them unsustainable."

Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me. The former live cheaply and pay their rent with a precarious passel of odd jobs, fellowships and university teaching; the latter have tenure.

The university may well be antiquated, hypocritical, and in some ways outdated, but at its best it is a bulwark against the pressures, market and otherwise, that celebrity tweeters, #failedintellectuals, and smart writers will certainly face.