Edmund Wilson’s printed note, a response to a student group asking him to do a reading, breathes of another world. He added in a handwritten scrawl that he doesn’t do “live readings either when I’m offered a very large fee.” And the printed card itself lists a bevy of activities that he declines. Unlike participants here and now – myself and the others – he doesn’t “contribute to or take part in symposiums or ‘panels’ of any kind,” “give interviews” or speeches. He is an ornery writer, devoted to his craft.
The note, probably fifty years old, could be the occasion for tearful nostalgia–or for the charge of nostalgia. Where are the Edmund Wilsons today? Or even, since Scialabba discusses him, who are the successors to Noam Chomsky? The question is an old one; it both predates and postdates my own “The Last Intellectuals.” Just look at Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), where he takes stock of his fellow novelists–and finds them wanting. Where are the successors to Wolfe, Hemingway and Faulkner, he asks? To inquire as to what–and who–constitutes an intellectual generation remains valid. Yet many take it as a personal insult. They respond, “Look at me! The water is great! Come on in!” Daniel W. Drezner, who has written a robust defense of new and younger intellectuals, cites a media studies professor, “There has never been a better time to be a public intellectual, and the Web is the big reason why.”
George Scialabba does not blog, although he has a web site. Like Wilson, he is a non-academic intellectual. That road or that life has become tougher, if not impossible. The world of little magazines and newspapers that print essays contracts each year. The Web pays zilch. Wilson could live from his writings (although he skipped paying income taxes), but how many can do this nowadays? The essays from Scialabba’s collection originally appeared in places such as “Agni,” “Boston Phoenix,” “Boston Review,” and “Dissent.” The earnings from these pieces would pay for a month of Starbuck lattes, not a month of rent or mortgage. The anthology that Robert Boynton published some years ago, “The New New Journalism” subtitled “Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft” tip-toed around a issue that still remains too hot: money. How do intellectuals earn enough money to write and think?
The possibilities are worse than ever. Yes, a few souls manage to hustle and do quite nicely, for instance, Christopher Hitchens. Yes, a few magazines like the “New Yorker” pay a living wage, but for most to survive, if not flourish, requires a working (and willing) spouse, family money or an academic position (or its equivalent such as a slot in a think tank or policy outfit). Yes, Scialabba has a chair at Harvard, but his sits behind a desk on the ground floor of the building which he superintends. Only the most resolute can juggle for years a day job and night time of writing. For almost everyone else, the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.
In the wake of government harassment of professors in the 1950s, Albert Einstein was asked about the situation of scientists and famously replied, “If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.” Even for the 1950s the reference to a peddler is dated, yet the point remains salient. What are the costs of the institutionalization of intelligence?
In a discussion that drew on Wilson, the forgotten–or perhaps never noticed—Josef Weber cited these sentences of Einstein. Weber, to whom Murray Bookchin dedicated his “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” had little use for intellectuals. He answered the question that Scialabba poses, ‘what are intellectuals good for?’ with “very little” or a “less than little.” Some fifty years ago, Weber formulated the “law” of the “dwindling force of cognition in bourgeois society.” (Weber’s “The Problem of Social Consciousness in Our Time” is available on a Situationist web site. I reformulated the idea in the “Falling Rate of Intelligence” in “Telos” many years ago). Society progresses in information and facts, but regresses in understanding. Intellectuals weave the veil. George, as do others on the anarchist-inflected left such as Chomsky, agree; they judge intellectuals servants of power. End of story. The old IWW graphic that Scialabba uses for his book cover leaves no room for doubt. “We Fool You” runs the tag line for the intellectuals–priests, professors, and pundits.
In an age of self-importance and self-promotion the flat-out denunciation of intellectuals is refreshing—and too simple, as Scialabba himself knows. In fact he calls for “public political intellectuals of a new sort,” but he is not exactly convincing on this score. The names he offers are either long gone (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), recently gone (Richard Rorty) or do not represent a new generation (Chomsky). Perhaps it is too soon to identify a new generation, and perhaps it will not take shape as did previous generations. Let us hope. What is worrisome, however, is how it is going to eat. The Internet allows new voices , but it also undercuts the traditional magazines and newspapers that at least pretended to pay. The Web forces more people to join in the rat-race to earn a living or find an academic or neo-academic position – or vanish. With some small changes Wilson’s note could be redone today: “Edmund Wilson is delighted to: Read Manuscripts,” etc. As the institutions get fatter, intellectuals get weaker, more proof of the dwindling force of cognition in bourgeois society.