Steady Work

by Scott McLemee on August 5, 2009

Since writing the foreword to What Are Intellectuals Good For? (incorporating a few paragraphs from a profile of George Scialabba published three years ago) I have returned to the book in a recent column about Isaac Rosenfeld. The intention in each case was not to provide a reasonably accurate précis of George Scialabba’s work, worthy exercise though that would be, but to engage with the author at the level of his project.

To put it another way, I have not been writing about George so much as to him. With hindsight that was probably also true of an essay called “After the Last Intellectuals” that appeared in Bookforum a couple of years ago.

Simply recycling what I’ve already written is never appealing. It seems like a better use of this opportunity is ask George about some things left implicit, or undeveloped, in my last de facto open letter. That was the piece on Isaac Rosenfeld, an exemplary modern case of the public intellectual as unhappy consciousness.

Putting it that way is already a problem, however. To be a public intellectual now tends to mean refusing “unhappiness” …. except, of course, as a gesture within the performance space of the media. The experience of a complicating and impassable distance between thought and actuality—between consciousness and the possible receptivity of the world to criticism or action—is not the same as acting indignant or confrontational. The differences between Randolph Bourne and Michael Eric Dyson go beyond the fact that one of them lives in an age when it is possible to publish a book of transcripts of his CNN appearances, though that has at least something to do with why only one of them is worth reading. (About ten years ago, in the pages of In These Times, I tried to launch the expression “publicity intellectual” to cover that sort of thing, but the expression never caught on, which is probably just as well.)

The ability to complain in a suave, topical, and/or contrarian manner is, of course, very delightful. But George has questioned it as a sufficient basis for critical engagement with culture and society, and rightly so. He worries that the public sphere is an echo chamber dominated by figures who are on the speed-dials (not to mention the payrolls) of the powerful. Rather than being intellectuals, they are the spokespeople and flak catchers for corporate or government interests. Surely he is right about that, too.

But I want to challenge George a bit on his alternative, which is to call for intellectuals to be really public-minded and critical, and to show more activist spirit. They should be speaking truth to power, and so forth.

Challenging him here is not the same as arguing that he is wrong. I agree that criticism and activism are part of what intellectuals are good for. Not that this necessarily involves making a big production number of it, striking poses and gesturing broadly; in fact, we’re probably better off without that sort of thing. (Nothing that Susan Sontag ever wrote or said or did about Bosnia ever seemed intended to persuade her fellow citizens of much except how very passionate Susan Sontag was about Bosnia. This was only just so much of a contribution.) Being an activist intellectual should involve a certain amount of boring activity, even rather a lot of it, often done in quiet settings, none of which merits a line on anyone’s C.V.

This expectation does lead into a bit of a conundrum, however. For it seems to presuppose the existence of some reserve of values, commitments, influences, inspirations, ideas, ideals, superego energies, etc. In other words, a supply of meaning that nourishes the critical intelligence and allow it to sustain itself—even without much extrinsic reward or obvious encouragement, and when necessary in the absence of any.

This cannot be understood purely as a question of individual character, temperament or commitment. But there are moments when the issue is posed, and resolved, at that level. (Such being one of the points Rosenfeld insisted on.) It is a matter of ethos. That inevitably brings in questions of community or tradition: Just where is this reserve? What does it look like? And what allows it to sustain itself? I often read George’s work with the hope he will drop some hint of his thoughts on this score, but maybe the best thing would be just to ask him outright.

Thinking about this can very quickly lead into paradoxes—with “the herd of independent minds” being an efficient way to express one of them. There is always an express lane of authorized heterodoxies. They are now often very conveniently codified in a syllabus. In some quarters, if you fail to assimilate them properly, you are not “professionalized” and ostracism then follows. (If Nietzsche came back from the dead long enough to see some of the petty careerism his work has made possible, he’d start talking to horses again, and storing his own feces in a drawer.) When I asked about what values and commitments enable critical intelligence to sustain itself, this is not exactly what I had in mind.

Now, it may be that George has come to his own sui generis resolution of this problem, by way of a distinctive biographical trajectory. He once belonged to Opus Dei and was able to read modernist writers and thinkers only by special permission. Talk about “transgression” now comes cheap, but chances are George experienced it in ways reminiscent of a Dostoevsky character, and it had real consequences for his life as well as his thought. I admire this quite a bit. The measured quality of his prose reflects a mind trying to take its bearings in full awareness of the abyss between how he once would have answered Kant’s three questions and how he would consider them now. This also gives his politics some edge.

On that score his work is often reminiscent of the spirit that prevailed in working-class literary and educational circles about one hundred years ago. To quote Jonathan Rée’s Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 1900-1940 (Oxford, 1984), the energetic quality of discussion in those groups was “not just the exhilaration of having filched something which their oppressors wanted to keep for themselves…”

There was also something disruptive about the theoretical content of what they learned. The world of knowledge into which they had forced their way was, to many of them, a world of radicalism, if not of socialism: it contained some substance which seemed to corrode the ideological compound which, they felt, their bosses used to keep them down. They read Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel, or studied botany and phrenology, and the unction of natural theology curdled. They read Buckle or studied history, and existing social arrangements began to seem contingent and provisional. They read the poetry of Shakespeare and Burns (but not Morris – his works were too expensive), and perhaps glimpsed the possibility of escaping the narrow, puritanical circle of a joyless, sexless deontology of work. And beyond that, their athletic enthusiasm for self-improvement through intellectual exercise provided them with a model of social progress: they had a sense that they themselves were shifting, by their own efforts, from a crabbed, superstitious, and fearful parochialism to a bold and oceanic inclusiveness of vision, in which the infinite universe could be grasped as a whole. Surely, this individual betterment could be repeated on a social scale, and then the divisions between classes, nations, or groups would be accorded their true (that is to say, their vanishingly small) significance.

Now that’s a metanarrative.

It was not unique to the British working class. If you read accounts of the early socialist movement in France, Russia, the United States, and elsewhere, the same tendency stands out. The precise local references vary, though not all that much. In one place they read Whitman, and in another, Pushkin, but that’s about it.

Isaac Rosenfeld was a product of this tradition, even if he did also satirize it. In a short story called “The Party,” he portrays the melancholy routines of a radical sect that gathers to argue in a dingy meeting hall. (This story gives me flashes of déjà vu. Either that or post-traumatic stress disorder. The difference is one of nuance.) The centripetal tendencies of such a milieu are not very pleasant, sometimes, but they are certainly no worse than what you find at a big academic conference. People don’t wear nametags, because they get to know each other all too well.

It is, as the communitarians say, community. Love it or leave it. I find it impossible to do either. It matters to me to know that there is a tradition of cosmopolitan-intellectuality-from-below. There is a certain tendency now to assume that, no, on the contrary, this is all a matter of nostalgia, a dream of halcyon yesteryears. That oh, so sophisticated certainty tells us something about how completely the prevailing institutions have made themselves seem indistinguishable from intellectual life as such. (An inability to imagine existing outside certain familiar patterns is how those familiar patterns come to look like life itself.) But anyone who has actually been exposed to it knows otherwise, and also knows that it was no Golden Age picnic. To quote my Bookforum piece mentioned earlier: “Bohemia can be fun if you have money; otherwise, it is hard on the nerves.”

The tradition Rée described is now a long way from being robust. But does it make any sense to call for an activist mode of public-intellectual activity if you assume that every trace of it is dead?

Part of what I have taken from reading George’s writings over the years is a sense that some spark of that tradition is still being transmitted, who knows how, and that it may yet revive. The effort involved is not particularly rewarding on any terms but its own. That is beside the point. Or conversely perhaps it is the point. I would like to hear more from George about this. He has been at it a while. I want to understand how he keeps going.



bianca steele 08.05.09 at 2:27 pm

This is off-topic, but your mention of the Rosenfeld story made me wonder whether Hilary Mantel would ever describe what a 70s-era student meeting at UCL had been like, and I see she already has, at least a little: Carmel McBain, on her way to a meeting of the Student Labour Club.


Russell Arben Fox 08.05.09 at 2:58 pm

But does it make any sense to call for an activist mode of public-intellectual activity if you assume that every trace of it is dead?

Scott, without realizing (or perhaps you did realize it), you’ve touched on one of the central (if usually implicit) controversies present in practically all forms of and justifications for modern communitarian thought and critique. Has modern liberalism/capitalism/individualism/meritocratism killed off community, or not? If it has, then the communitarian critique of liberalism is essentially correct…except that, if such is true, then the goal of attempting to preserve or construct communal arrangements on such ashes is foolish, and probably dangerous. Then again, if it has not, then hurray for humankind’s enduring communitarian foundations!…though, if community in some form can survive modernity’s atomizing changes, then the fierce emphasis on the faults of liberalism seems rather out of place. Neither response to this controversy puts an end to the critique entirely, of course, but either way, it haunts it nonetheless. (I first became aware of this formulation through Michael Walzer, but others have made the same point as well.)

I’m the sort of communitarian that thinks bottom-line communal foundations never really go away, either in social life or the life of the mind. If George cares to relate himself to this spin on your question for him, I wonder which kind he would call himself.


lemuel pitkin 08.05.09 at 4:33 pm

What a beautiful essay. Add to the list of Scialabba’s merits, the quality of the responses he provokes from other writers.


lemuel pitkin 08.05.09 at 4:53 pm

Has modern liberalism/capitalism/individualism/meritocratism killed off community, or not? If it has, then the communitarian critique of liberalism is essentially correct…except that, if such is true, then the goal of attempting to preserve or construct communal arrangements on such ashes is foolish

Right, exactly. And the same goes for oppositional/alternative cultures and traditions more generally.

In recent times, a lot of people on the left (e.g. this from James Petras) have resolved this dilemma by abandoning the idea that the working class, or any other social group in industrialized countries, can provide the social base for radical politics — insofar as they’ve done so, it’s only thanks to inheritances from pre-capitalist forms of solidairy that have now dissipated. Instead, they look to communities in the third world that are not yet fully incorporated into capitalism (e.g. the Zapatistas). There’s a certain logic to this move, for sure, but it’s hard to ebleive that peasant-based revolutionary movements are the right political vehicle today — and if they are that obviously writes off the US completely (which folks like Petras explicitly do.)

Obviously Scialabba didn’t turn in that direction. So I have the same question as Scott McL.: what are the social or cultural reserves that radical politics can draw from in the US today?

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