Mark Greif has written a long, lovely meditation on the heyday of public intellectuals and their audience in mid 20th century America. That period, in his view, was best epitomised by the Partisan Review.
My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.
It was born of unique influences: a world emerging from unutterable darkness and eager for the light; a prodigious influx of the finest European intellects before and during the war; and, a widespread sense that bettering oneself was not only desirable, but possible. We can hardly wish for such a confluence to reoccur; no period of intellectual excellence could justify the cost. Nevertheless, Greif sees every reason for public intellectuals today to do their best.
But insofar as a debate about priorities—and ideals—will continue anyway in our little corner of the world, we ought to try to set it the right way round. The idea of the public intellectual in the 21st century should be less about the intellectuals and how, or where, they ought to come from vocationally, than about restoring the highest estimation of the public. Public intellect is most valuable if you don’t accept the construction of the public handed to us by current media. Intellectuals: You—we—are the public. It’s us now, us when we were children, before the orgy of learning, or us when we will be retired; you can choose the exemplary moment you like. But the public must not be anyone less smart and striving than you are, right now. It’s probably best that the imagined public even resemble the person you would like to be rather than who you are.
Greif isn’t an idle observer like me. As one of the founders of n+1, a “magazine of literature, culture, and politics”, he’s been pulling strongly on his oar for over 10 years. Here’s his last paragraph, a sort of call to arms.
If there is a task, it might be to participate in making “the public” more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability; when it comes to education, dangerous to the idea that universities should be for the rich, rather than the public, and hostile to the creeping sense that American universities should be for the global rich rather than the local or nationally bounded polity. It is not up to the public intellectual alone to remake “the public” as a citizenry of equals, superior and dominant—that will take efforts from all sides. But it is perhaps up to the intellectual, if anyone, to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down “big ideas,” and call that world what it is: stupid.