The Intellectual Field

by Henry on February 28, 2011

Laura at 11D

There was a stage set for Remnick and Gladwell. … When they came out, Remnick immediately brought up the Gladwell’s social media article from a few weeks ago, where Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement. He took a lot of heat in the past few weeks, since social media may have played some role in the uprisings in Egypt. Gladwell was pretty hostile to his critics. He scoffed that his critic was some blogger from Huffington Post. Why should we listen to some pajama-wearing blogger, he asked? Some pajama-wearing blogger who lives in Brooklyn, he added for extra laughs.
Well, I’m not sure why we should listen to a journalist who doesn’t like to travel north of 14h Street. Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. That’s okay. Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field. But they have to acknowledge that they aren’t experts and they really have an obligation to talk to people who spend their lives studying those subjects. … Why should anyone care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about Egypt and Facebook, when there are people who have travelled to the Mid East, are fluent in Arabic, and spend most of their waking hours learning about this subject.

Arthur Goldhammer

It must have been more than 30 years ago now that Michel Foucault wrote an article entitled “La mort de l’intellectuel.” Apparently Le Monde didn’t get the message, because it invited four “intellectuals” to comment on the “Arab revolts.” The choice of participants in this forum tells you something about what the word “intellectuel” means today. We hear from Alain Touraine, Alain Badiou, Elisabeth Roudinesco, and André Glucksmann. None is a specialist on the region in turmoil, on the history of revolutions, on Islam, on Arab culture, on the political economy of the rebellious states, on social movements in the Arab world, on previous rebellions against military dictatorships, on relations between the military and civil society, or any of a hundred other topics that might confer authority to speak about one or another aspect of the unfolding wave of rebellion.
in France, to be a specialist is almost a disqualification to speak as an “intellectual.” An intellectual is one who has risen above his or her specialty, if any, to acquire a quasi-priestly authority to pronounce on n’importe quoi—and as often as not, to say n’importe quoi about it. But I wonder if this sort of rootless speculation has any purchase on the French audience today. Perhaps a piece like this in Le Monde is simply a throwback to the day when large numbers of people hungered to know what Sartre or Camus thought about the events of the day.

When I read these posts (nearly back to back – I’ve been away from the internets for a few days), the similarities were striking. The current crop of French intellectuals is rather like Malcolm Gladwell. And (such comparisons being commutative) Malcolm Gladwell is rather like the current crop of French intellectuals. I wonder which would take greater umbrage at the comparison.

{ 96 comments }

1

CF Oxtrot 02.28.11 at 5:14 pm

A person can spend his/her life studying something arboreal and still not see the forest, nor the trees. I’ve known many such “experts.” Usually they are more concerned with the lingo of the bosque, and not the forest ecosystem… its health… its threats. Talking the talk isn’t the same as walking the talk.

Gladwell is a master of the obvious, so him dismissing another pundit/observer for any reason is pretty high comedy. The NYC-insider “slam” of “especially one in Brooklyn” is not just parochial, but tiresome in its irrelevance.

2

Phil 02.28.11 at 5:18 pm

when large numbers of people hungered to know what Sartre or Camus thought about the events of the day

Plus ça change; the Situationists were onto Sartre as early as 1966. For instance:

[Sartre] quotes a statement by a Malian which he greatly admires: “Our socialism is conditioned by the fact that we are a country without any outlet to the sea.” (Is it not also somewhat conditioned by the absence of an industrial proletariat in Mali? But this is just a trifling detail in the geopolitics of such a profound thinker!)

3

Dave 02.28.11 at 5:42 pm

“As much as 70% of public intellectual labor is performed by adjuncts…”

4

Chris Bertram 02.28.11 at 5:43 pm

Simon Kuper on Joris Luyendijk:

http://tinyurl.com/6x3qzxv

I keep expecting to see lots from Luyendijk in the media on the current developments, but he’s seemingly absent. A pity.

Ingrid blogged about him at

http://crookedtimber.org/2006/08/23/a-correspondent-in-the-middle-east/

and I repeated at

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/01/24/essential-reading/

5

William Timberman 02.28.11 at 5:53 pm

Well, one will have opinions, whether experts judge them to have an adequate basis in fact or not. For every pundit or pontificator given to fatuous pronouncements on anything considered relevant at a given moment, there’s usually a beady-eyed specialist sitting atop his hoard of professional expertise like Fafnir atop his mountain of gold. One of the reasons I gave up reading the New York Review of Books years ago was the ever-increasing amount of space given to academic specialists attempting to gut one another with the intellectual equivalent of butter-knives. (It’s much better now, of course, and I’ve come back to the fold.)

Sartre was often provocative even when he wasn’t right. And in philosophy, that counts for more than is usually conceded, even if in politics it sometimes makes one the object of a just derision.

6

Ginger Yellow 02.28.11 at 6:18 pm

Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field.

Um, what? Maybe not novice journalists, but if you haven’t become something of an expert in your field after many years of covering it, you’re doing journalism wrong.

7

qb 02.28.11 at 6:44 pm

…if you haven’t become something of an expert in your field after many years of covering it, you’re doing journalism wrong.

In the same way that if you haven’t become “something of an expert” on television after years of watching it, you’re watching it wrong. But I take your point. On the other hand, it’s clearly possible to become a journalist while doing it wrong. In some venues, it’s a prerequisite.

8

P O'Neill 02.28.11 at 6:47 pm

I found it more dispiriting that for the weekend TV gabfests in the US, they all seemed to think that the guy who’s been on US teevee for 30 years — John McCain — was most qualified to talk about the Arab people getting rid of the people who’ve been on their teevee for 30 years. And McCain seems to have renewed his qualifications by visiting a couple of the countries recently with Graham and Lieberman yet apparently all of them managing not to have changed their opinions on the Middle East at all.

And there is a usual suspect element to the actual Arab experts who do make to the news analysis, notably Fouad Ajami, who hitched his wagon so heavily to George Bush that he had no idea that the revolutions were coming, since how could they with Bush of Arabia (his words) gone?

9

MPAVictoria 02.28.11 at 7:02 pm

qb:
Exhibit A – David Brooks

10

salazar 02.28.11 at 7:07 pm

@: McCain, Lieberman and the like are on the tube not because they are experts on the Middle East, but precisely because they hold political office and will try, with more or less success, to influence the US Administration’s future policies in the region. I don’t think any of them even exhibits the pretense of being an “intellectuel” in the Bernard Henry-Levy mold.

11

LFC 02.28.11 at 7:22 pm

While accepting Goldhammer’s basic point, I’d note that Alain Touraine is a sociologist who studies social movements; although not an expert on such movements in the Arab world, it’s not ridiculous to suppose that Touraine might have some interesting things to say (though I haven’t had a chance to read the Le Monde piece yet).

12

LFC 02.28.11 at 7:25 pm

Syntax @11 a bit tangled, sorry. One of those days.

13

MarkC 02.28.11 at 7:40 pm

Gladwell’s schtick is exactly that dismissiveness. His con is that he recycles other people’s ideas, and actually cites out-of-context quotations by those people to criticize them for not getting it exactly right. I suppose he can argue that he’s not contributing to the credit crisis, because he doesn’t give credit, but still I think it is sad that he passes for an intellectual at all.

14

bartkid 02.28.11 at 7:47 pm

>Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement.

According to my hometown newspaper, ’twasn’t social media, it was Saskatchewan’s soggy spring weather , “Rain in Saskatchewan, revolution in Egypt:”

15

R.Mutt 02.28.11 at 8:42 pm

None is a specialist on (…) on the history of revolutions

Whatever you may think of Badiou’s philosophy, it’s basically all about revolutions and he’s been writing about the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, October, the Cultural Revolution for decades (since May 68 I suppose).

16

gmoke 02.28.11 at 8:48 pm

After years of attending small group talks with major journos at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, I’ve realized that not only can’t they see the forest for the trees but they can’t see the trees for the leaves. Hyper-specificity is more of a journalistic trait than an academic one, in my observation.

Gladwell is a glib writer and an even more glib thinker. Unfortunately for him, events are destroying the foundations of his anti-social networking argument. He and Clay Shirky are going at it over at Foreign Affairs: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67325/malcolm-gladwell-and-clay-shirky/from-innovation-to-revolution

Shirky is not someone I would characterize as glib. Overly optimistic, maybe, but not glib.

17

Nine 02.28.11 at 9:14 pm

But did the specialists get it any righter than the non-specialists in this instance (academic and non-academic specialists – for example it’s been said that French military intelligence on North Africa/Mahgreb is formidable) ? There’s been plenty of ridicule directed at the economics and FIRE professions for their faliures. So what about ME/North Africa specialists or any of the “hundred” expertises that Goldhammer thinks qualifies the vestee as an authority, how did they fare ?
That’s not a rhetorical question … it’s impossible to stay atop a million specialities.

18

moron 02.28.11 at 9:17 pm

I wonder which would take greater umbrage at the comparison.

American and French “intellectuals” are each discredited by their similarities to the other. Together they constitute a descending Escher’s-impossible-staircase of fatuity and fecklessness.

19

bianca steele 02.28.11 at 9:19 pm

I know of a corporate VP whose first acts on the job were to mandate a reading list for his direct reports that included both Good to Great and Blink, and to mandate the invisibility of all papers, files, file caddies, briefcases, and snow boots in offices and cubicles. So I guess Gladwell is doing good.

But doesn’t he claim some specific expertise?

20

tomslee 02.28.11 at 9:44 pm

I confess to a fondness for Gladwell mainly because, at least in his earlier books, he does acknowledge that he is a popularizer of other people’s (experts, academics) ideas, and because he does acknowledge the sources of the ideas he is writing about. If he has stopped doing so, that’s too bad, but I think if you look (back), most of the time that acknowledgement has been there.

21

chris 02.28.11 at 10:09 pm

to mandate the invisibility of all papers, files, file caddies, briefcases, and snow boots in offices and cubicles

Wouldn’t that just lead to a lot of pointless spending on contrivances for hiding those necessary (but now anathematized) objects? What was the supposed point?

Being paid to read wouldn’t be so bad even if it was Gladwell, though (unless of course he expected everyone to read those books on their own time, or worse, buy them with their own money and *then* read them on their own time, which would be a great way to start off your tenure by pissing off everyone you’re going to work with).

22

Kal 02.28.11 at 10:11 pm

I was going to say what Mutt did – Badiou has written quite a bit on revolution. I haven’t read enough to speak to the value of his writing, but Malcolm Gladwell isn’t a fair comparison.

23

Malcolm Gladwell 02.28.11 at 10:40 pm

My great fan Henry Farrell strikes again! Well, if I might spring to my own defense here, I guess I’ll just point out that I’ve never claimed to be an expert on social media, revolutions or Egypt—or anything else,for that matter. I’m a journalist, and in the piece I wrote last fall on those topics I did what journalists do–which is talk to people in the field and read as much of the relevant historical and sociological literature as I can. As such, I’m perfectly happy to be proved wrong, or change my conclusions in the face of better evidence. And by the way, I do occasionally travel above 14th Street. In fact, guess where I just was? France! Where I wore a beret, drank cup after cup of espresso at Cafe Flore, and stared moodily into the distance.

24

piglet 02.28.11 at 10:53 pm

One of the reasons I gave up reading the New York Review of Books years ago was the ever-increasing amount of space given to academic specialists attempting to gut one another with the intellectual equivalent of butter-knives. (It’s much better now, of course, and I’ve come back to the fold.)

For me it’s the opposite. I wish they still did aggressive reviews. I very rarely find a review that I can learn something from. By that I mean that it exposes the weaknesses of the book being reviewed. As an example, I found it suspicious that virtually all reviews of Jared Diamond were full of praise. There must be tons of experts who think Diamond is an impostor, and I would like to read their criticism. I read some really horrible books (speaking of non-fiction) full of mistakes that I could discern as a non-expert and all the available reviews were positive. Am I the only one to make those observations?

25

AntiAlias 02.28.11 at 10:56 pm

Espresso is Italian.
You should have gone for the Calvados, else the French start getting umbrage.

26

Hidari 02.28.11 at 11:03 pm

‘I was going to say what Mutt did – Badiou has written quite a bit on revolution.’

I would have thought it was no more weird to have Badiou talking about an (implicitly) anti-American revolution than it would be to have Noam Chomsky (another generalist who doesn’t speak Arabic) talking about the same. Both are important thinkers of the ‘far left’. Now if you are anti-leftist and think that ‘communists’ or ‘anarchists’ by definition have nothing to contribute to the debate then that’s fine. But that’s a different argument.

27

Glen Tomkins 02.28.11 at 11:07 pm

Outsiders have their place.

I’m thinking especially of my own field of expertise, medicine. Most of my colleagues are admirably competent as idviduals, but we tend to be unreflective about our methodology, which really is “medicine” far more centrally than the body of knowledge and treatment decisions generated by that method. Unfortunately, in that lack of reflection, we have, at least in the US, let the profession as a whole get badly out of focus in its overall service of health.

I can’t see us reforming the profession from within. Within the profession, the highest prestige traditionally goes to practitioners who have mastered and stay current with either interventional techniques, or at least highly specialized subsets of medical knowledge, involved in high stakes interventions. Even reactions to this within the profession, such as Evidence-Based Medicine, still focus on interventions, where the methodology relies on quantitative methods, and ignores nosology and diagnosis, which are fundamental, but where our methods are not quantitative.

Within the profession, we’re turned the wrong way to be able to see what’s wrong with the overall direction of medicine. We’re good at what we do, we’re just not doing the right things (sort of like the US military!). It’s going to take customer dissatisfaction to provoke the needed reflection within the profession, as it did the last time we had a bout of reform a century ago. Well, it would take dissatisfaction plus a belief that we could do better. That last part is blocked for now by the persistent illusion that US medicine is the best in the world.

28

burritoboy 02.28.11 at 11:08 pm

Not only does Goldhammer not seem to have even glanced into Badiou’s written works, he also doesn’t know that Badiou was himself born and lived in the region (in Morocco) and founded a political party (OK, more of a splinter group, but nevertheless) whose main policy position was ending France’s involvement in Algeria. The anti-intellectual’s knowledge of the intellectuals is even more flimsy than the flimsiness he claims the intellectuals’ knowledge of the “Arab revolts” is.

29

Dave 02.28.11 at 11:12 pm

if I might…I guess I’ll just point out…I’ve never claimed to be an expert…read as much…as I can…As such, I’m perfectly happy to be proved wrong, or change my conclusions

Blink, you fail.

30

ben w 02.28.11 at 11:18 pm

I did what journalists do

Probably true; not a defense.

31

Hidari 02.28.11 at 11:20 pm

Actually just a bit more about Goldhammer: googling the names of the intellectuals involved (I must confess with the exception of Badiou, I hadn’t heard of them) with the possible exception of Elisabeth Roudinesco, the reason why these guys were picked to comment about this particular topic are very obvious. All of them have written about Islamic fundamentalism, revolution, ‘worker’s revolts’ etc. They weren’t just picked out of the ‘phonebook of intellectuals’ at random, as Goldhammer seems to imply.

32

William Timberman 02.28.11 at 11:43 pm

(to piglet @ 24)

It’s not that eavesdropping on two experts arguing about matters of import in their field isn’t helpful. Since few of us can know everything about one thing, let alone everything, listening to what experts think can indeed help the non-expert purge his own opinions of obvious nonsense.

When experts indulge in diatribes that resemble an elevated version of chat-room flame wars, however — as they often used to do in the old NYRB — it becomes difficult to trust them even when they should be trusted. Perhaps, like precocious children, we members of the great unwashed should be sent to bed before such things get going.

33

Tim Wilkinson 03.01.11 at 12:19 am

piglet – agreed, book reviews are there to say how good or bad books are, publicly. The grotesque debasement of the literary currency that arises from the near-non-existence of forthrightly negative book reviews is a shameful thing, and impoverishes us all.

Here’s an example of the ructions that occurred when a philosopher wrote a bad review of a bad book. In the process, the review unavoidably supported the conclusion that the book’s author was a hack who had no entitlement the position of seniority and prestige he had attained. That’s a feature, not a bug – the kind of salutory effect an honest and proportionately scathing book review has. More of it is needed.

But the occurrence was such an outlier (rather than falling on, say, an 8th or 9th decile of badness) that it prompted a great fluster of endless speculation about ulterior motives, animus etc., despite the fact that no-one at all disagreed with it in any way. Which is if anything more corrupt than police, politicians, doctors or oligopolists’ (or journalists’) mutual backscratching and ranks-closing.

34

annie 03.01.11 at 12:34 am

very ignorant to compare badiou to gladwell

35

bianca steele 03.01.11 at 12:50 am

@chris,
The company paid for all the books, and of course reading was on their own time. Some of the managers may have been big readers, I don’t know. None of the books was especially difficult in any kind of humanities-subject way. The VP himself had an engineering degree. Whether he or his subordinates gave quizzes, I don’t know.

36

weaver 03.01.11 at 1:37 am

@piglet

There must be tons of experts who think Diamond is an impostor, and I would like to read their criticism.

Well, Louis Proyect had a savage go at him, but he may not be who you had in mind.

—–

This specialist/intellectual dichotomy reminds me of Jim Hacker* explaining to Sir Humphrey that the reason he was good at being a Minister was precisely because he knew nothing.

(*character in Brit sitcom Yes, Minister, for those who don’t know and whose access to Google is blocked.)

37

Andrew 03.01.11 at 2:22 am

Oh come on Henry. You’re drawing a conclusion about “the current crop of French intellectuals” and Malcolm Gladwell based on the quick impressions of two other bloggers? This is either a cranky argument or a playful one.

As to the particular cases put forth – my first stop to inform myself on revolution in Egypt, or Tunisia, or Libya, or Yemen, or Bahrain, would not be Malcolm Gladwell. Nor would it be four columns in Le Monde. But neither is intended to fulfill that function.

38

Substance McGravitas 03.01.11 at 2:33 am

I had no idea Le Monde wasn’t for informing people.

39

Kathryn Papp 03.01.11 at 2:38 am

I would like to suggest the the global internet is the Sixth Estate.

As such it is totally different from the Fifth, which is where Malcolm Gladwell as well as six news company recipients of Assange’s wikileaks reside. The Sixth’s methods of narrative, shared thought, modes of commentary show few commonalities with its predecessors.

It has its own boundaries and behaviors that reside within and outside the “ordinary”. Most intriguing … the Sixth is self-aware.

40

Kaveh 03.01.11 at 2:40 am

Nine @17:
But did the specialists get it any righter than the non-specialists in this instance (academic and non-academic specialists – for example it’s been said that French military intelligence on North Africa/Mahgreb is formidable) ? There’s been plenty of ridicule directed at the economics and FIRE professions for their faliures. So what about ME/North Africa specialists or any of the “hundred” expertises that Goldhammer thinks qualifies the vestee as an authority, how did they fare ?

Not too bad for the parts of the world I am more informed about. Juan Cole made Egypt #1 on his New Year’s Day list of places/issues to watch during the coming year, because the presidential election is coming up, Mubarak has one foot in the grave and was trying to install his son as his successor, and there is an overwhelming sentiment among Egyptians that people have had it up to here with him. Asef Bayat, a scholar of modern Iranian social movements, who was teaching in Cairo in the 90s, wrote in his book on Iran, Street Politics, that conditions in Egypt were similar to those in Iran under the Shah–ripe for a revolution. Basically, everybody has been saying that Egypt (and I think these things have been said about a lot of the Arab world) is ripe for a revolution for a long time, it’s just a question of when. Academic specialists tend not to be as informed about minute-to-minute developments as journalists or spies, so within those parameters I’d say our field did pretty well.

41

LFC 03.01.11 at 2:50 am

Isn’t it true, going out on a limb and generalizing here, that many French intellectuals have always been, as Goldhammer implies, more willing to make grand, sweeping pronouncements about n’importe quoi than most (though, to be sure, not all) of their Anglo-American counterparts? Glance e.g. at the first few pages of Touraine’s ’05 book A new paradigm for understanding today’s world (Un nouveau paradigme pour comprendre le monde d’aujourd’hui) (on Google books). To that extent I sort of get Goldhammer’s point, even though he overdoes it and even though there was some basis for choosing these particular people to speak on this topic (Touraine, as I noted in a previous comment, has written a lot about social movements).

42

Kaveh 03.01.11 at 2:52 am

I should add, while historians might be a bit less inclined to make predictions in general, and I don’t recall a lot of people other than Juan Cole specifically predicting that Egyptians would try and prevent Mubarak from running again or making his son his successor, people in the field tend to listen to each other and hold similar views on the broad outlines of Middle East politics, so Cole’s view is probably consistent with what most historians of the modern Middle East would have told you a few months ago, if you asked them.

Also, a great example of people using scholarly expertise to understand ongoing events is the blog, Jadaliyya, especially the two posts by Paul Amar, Why Mubarak is Out and Why Egypt’s Progressives Win. The first of his predictions proved right, and I think for the exact reasons he gave in the article.

43

Lemuel Pitkin 03.01.11 at 2:57 am

the Fifth, which is where Malcolm Gladwell as well as six news company recipients of Assange’s wikileaks reside.

Wait, so what’s the 4th estate then?

44

Andrew 03.01.11 at 3:36 am

@38 I hadn’t realized that papers had begun inviting commentary strictly for the informational value of such commentary. Obviously this changes my view of the New York Times Op-Ed page. And what in the world was the Wall St. Journal thinking when it published Robert Putnam’s account of his trip to Libya, and his thoughts on events there? He’s no expert on Libya, and while his impressions of Gadhafi, derived from a two-hour conversation, are interesting, they’re surely not those of someone with deeper knowledge of the man.

If Le Monde claimed to be delivering expert commentary, and instead delivered four “intellectuals” without it, then there’s a fine criticism to be made. But Goldhammer criticizes Le Monde simply for inviting four intellectuals to comment, without alleging any misrepresentation of their expertise. And that’s simply silly, since many of us read commentary on various events by non-experts because we find what those particular non-experts have to say interesting, or provocative, or entertaining, or some mixture of the three. We don’t turn to this kind of commentary primarily for information about events.

45

Puss Wallgreen 03.01.11 at 5:27 am

“the Situationists were onto Sartre as early as 1966”
How were they “onto” him, precisely? Because he approvingly quoted a Malian who stressed one feature of Mali’s economy while not mentioning another? Is the implication that Sartre was oblivious to the role of the industrial working class, or something like that? I always thought the standard accusation was that he was rather too concerned about the mood at Billancourt.

46

josh 03.01.11 at 5:39 am

With all due respect to Arthur Goldhammer (who it is ridiculous to accuse of being an “anti-intellectual”) ,I agree that this doesn’t seem a fair criticism of Le Monde’s selection (and it’s also a bit jarring to read Henry refer to four figures who have been publishing since the late ’60s — one of whom is in his 80s — as the “current crop” of French intellects:). Touraine at least has done interesting and important work on a variety of social movements, from various countries, backed by considerable empirical work, over many years. To think that a comparative sociologist who studies (sometimes revolutionary) social movements might have something interesting to say about Libya doesn’t seem ridiculous.
I am not a great fan of Badiou, nor Glucksmann — but if Le Monde was going, not for expert comment, but representatives of the intellectual far-left and the intellectual sort-of-center-right, those are reasonable selections (and as others have commented, newspapers do sometimes publish things by ideological pundits rather than academic experts). Roudinesco I know nothing about – other than that she is or was a Lacanian, which is not a great plus in my book; she does seem an odd choice.

47

ajay 03.01.11 at 9:23 am

I am unable to tell whether 39 is spam or not. It has that hazy air of almost-relevance that characterises all the best spam comments.

48

Alex 03.01.11 at 9:53 am

I presume the talking-head who pissed Goldhammer off was Glucksmann, who is basically a professional ex-trot, turned whatever the French equivalent of a Decent is, who pronounces for hire on pretty much anything and usually discovers that it’s all about Israel. I honestly can’t imagine why you’d invite him when you could invite Olivier Roy, for example.

Also, I don’t know if the person claiming to be Gladwell is Gladwell, but if they aren’t it’s note-perfect parody.

49

Random lurker 03.01.11 at 11:08 am

I always had problems with the definition “intellectual” (and the similar one “artist”).
In theory, every man has intellectual (and artistic) capabilities, so every man is an “intellectual”.
If we restrict the term intellectual to those people that have a reasonabily high culture, in the world of today we mean something around 20% of the population of developed countries. This is a big difference with past centuries, when very few people could actually study and have a good culture. As a consequence, the term “intellectual” loses its meaning.
If we further restrict the term to those who are “professional” intellectuals, we change the meaning from referring to one’s culture to referring to one’s job. Thus, the term would include those people whose job is to provide opinions/thoughts regardless to their culture/knowledge. This means only some media guys and an handful of academics famous enough to have a public (hence a sort of media guys them too).
Bottom line, it seems to me that the sort of distaste that I perceive in the post for the role of intellectuals comes from a contradiction between the “people with high culture/knowledge” idea of intelectuals, that IMHO cannot apply to the world of today and was last appropriate in the 19th century, and the “media guy/pundit” idea of intellectual, that is the result of the world of today and is IMHO what we are going to get up to the dissolution of the idea of intellectual, a sort of de-specialization.

50

Epikhairekakia 03.01.11 at 11:20 am

@Alex, 48: It’s note-perfect parody even if it is him.

51

Chris Bertram 03.01.11 at 1:18 pm

@48 Glucksmann is not an ex-Trot but an ex-Maoist, but his renunciation of the left is 34 years ago with the publication of _Les Maitres Penseurs_ (at the same time as Bernard Henri-Levy (“God is dead but my hair is perfect”) published _La Barbarie à Visage Humain_.

52

ajay 03.01.11 at 1:58 pm

49: but fundamental to the whole idea of the ‘public intellectual’ is that they aren’t supposed to know what they’re talking about. Noam Chomsky wouldn’t be a public intellectual if he only ever talked or wrote about linguistics. Ahmed Rashid isn’t a public intellectual, he’s an expert.

53

Henry 03.01.11 at 2:15 pm

Thanks all for the information/corrections about French intellectuals. As best as I can tell, #23 is the real Malcolm Gladwell. But (assuming you are Gladwell), the defense is a bit unconvincing. It is a little hard to do the “I am not an expert and make no claims to expertise” routine simultaneous to the “Do not pay any attention to my critic who is a mere Brooklyn-based pajama-clad blogger” one, without tripping over oneself. Or was Laura’s description of the event inaccurate? I am presuming (perhaps wrongly) from the fact that you do not dispute it, that it was a reasonable reflection of what you said.

More generally, there is to my mind a quite substantial difference between the argument that you were making a couple of months ago – viz. that new media were likely actively to hurt protest movements that tried to use them to organize themselves, because they produce weak ties, lack of hierarchy, endless debate etc, and the argument that you were making after Egypt, that it didn’t matter whether the Egyptian protesters used Twitter, Facebook or anything else. The first (unless I misunderstood it very badly) is an argument that medium _does_ matter, because media are associated with certain forms of social organization, and new media go together with weak tie networks that are a lousy basis for organizing risky protests. The second is an argument that medium does _not_ matter, or, as you put it, that “the least interesting fact … is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

These don’t gel particularly well with each other, obviously, unless there is something I am missing here. Obviously, you may have changed your mind in the intervening weeks, as you are very much entitled to do. Certainly, what has happened in Egypt and elsewhere has overturned some of my own expectations. But if you _have_ changed your mind, I think it would be a good thing to say so directly, and to maybe talk about how you have changed your views, so as to avoid slipping into a McArdle from which it might be difficult to extricate yourself. If you agree that this might be a good thing to do, feel free to do so in comments here of course (Clay Shirky at least will likely read them), but a more prominent venue might be better for the public debate.

54

dsquared 03.01.11 at 2:36 pm

Gosh, that “strong ties” article is pretty weak. The US Civil Rights movement is a very, very untypical kind of popular revolution; nearly all of Gladwell’s examples are equally irrelevant apart from the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which his key point is “these people didn’t have telephones”. Which rather raises the question; why didn’t they have telephones, and could this possibly have something to do with the police state they lived in not wanting them to?

55

bianca steele 03.01.11 at 2:56 pm

On the one hand, I think most people understand what journalists do and don’t have a problem with it. On the other hand most people who have seen something they know about covered in the press have had the experience of feeling the truth was misrepresented. I don’t think this can be attributed simply to the fact that journalists have direct access to sources in the field who are more sophisticated than “most people” are (which is the only sense I can make of a general anathema on bloggers, that they aren’t credentialed journalists and thus no different from “most people”).

56

Laura 03.01.11 at 3:34 pm

Here’s a video of the evening. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/the-big-story-webcast.html

As I said before, Gladwell and Remnick were very entertaining and we had a great time that night. #notburningbridges My main critique of Gladwell was that he created a strawman. He characterizes his critics as Internet crusaders, who ascribe all events to the Internet and attend conferences sponsored by Google. But there are also the sane middle ground types, who say that the Internet is one of many factors that helps to explain modern social movements. There are political scientists who specialize in revolutions, social movements, social media and comparative politics. I wish that people with this expertise were at least interviewed for his article.

57

philofra 03.01.11 at 3:36 pm

Galdwell should know better and refer back to his theory of the ‘tipping point,’ when things begin to change.

In Tunisia and Egypt a tipping point was reach, when there was a sufficiently developed ‘critical mass’ (people thinking and wanting the same), when things begin to change. And that’s when facebook and social networking made a difference, rallying the people in a common cause.

Without that social network the change needed and wanted would have been more difficult to pull off.

58

Chris Bertram 03.01.11 at 3:37 pm

Surprised that no-one has so far quoted Max Weber, _Politics as a Vocation_, so I will

bq. If the life of a young scholar is a gamble, still he is walled in by firm status conventions, which prevent him from slipping. But the journalist’s life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one’s inner security in a way that scarcely occurs in any other situation. The often bitter experiences in occupational life are perhaps not even the worst. The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the ‘scavengers from the press.’ Moreover, it is no small matter that one must express oneself promptly and convincingly about this and that, on all conceivable problems of life – whatever the ‘market’ happens to demand – and this without becoming absolutely shallow and above all without losing one’s dignity by baring oneself, a thing which has merciless results. It is not astonishing that there are many journalists who have become human failures and worthless men. Rather, it is astonishing that, despite all this, this very stratum includes such a great number of valuable and quite genuine men, a fact that outsiders would not so easily guess.

59

Arthur Goldhammer 03.01.11 at 4:07 pm

Well, I am, as far as I know, the real Arthur Goldhammer. I am not now, nor have I ever been, an anti-intellectual. I don’t care much for Badiou, though I plead guilty to the charge of not being aware of his birthplace or past as a political organizer. I concede that I was also unfair to Alain Touraine, who can claim expertise on social movements, although I stand by my belief that it might be useful, in order to apply that expertise, to have some specific knowledge about social movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. I didn’t really expect my blog post to be subjected to such close scrutiny. Had I anticipated the reaction, I would have written it more carefully. I posted it mainly as a protest against the media’s neglect of any number of scholars in France who could have been called upon to provide more specific knowledge of recent events, as Olivier Roy did (at the behest, originally, of The Spectator, not Le Monde). The article by Foucault, whose title I misremembered, is in fact about the rise of the “specific intellectual” over the “general intellectual.” Foucault didn’t say that the general intellectual was useless or (as I mistakenly implied) “dead.” He did say, however, that the specific intellectual might in the future prove more useful to progressive social movements than the general intellectual, who offered mainly prestigious blessing (like his own, regrettably, of the Iranian revolution) without useful guidance. As for my alleged unfairness to Le Monde, I will say only that I commend them for sparing us the commentary of Bernard Henri-Lévy.

60

Carlos Piera 03.01.11 at 4:27 pm

For the record: I am sure Chomsky does not speak Arabic, but he does read it.

61

Malcolm Gladwell 03.01.11 at 6:55 pm

The comment about bloggers in Brooklyn in their pajamas, I should point out, was meant to be a joke . David Remnick was egging me on, and I was engaging in a bit of self-parody which, as some have noted above, I’m prone to. (I am about to move to Brooklyn; I write in my pajamas; I blog, etc, etc). But I guess the joke was lost on some in the audience and came across as obnoxious, and I’m sorry about that. (Clearly my editors should keep me in Brooklyn, in my pajamas). Have I changed my mind on social media and revolution? Well, my “position” on Egypt isn’t really a position; it was just a one-paragraph expression of my frustration at how, at a time when people were risking their lives in the streets, some of the digital faithful seemed to be spending just a little bit too much time agonizing over whether the activists did or didn’t use Facebook and Twitter. I think that was a fair observation, and I don’t see that it contradicts my New Yorker piece. If I were writing that New Yorker piece today, would I write it differently? I’m not sure. I still don’t understand how the new digital communication tools affect the “hard” part of successful social organizing—putting together committed, disciplined, strategically sophisticated operations. I interviewed John Lewis not long ago, and asked him how he thought the civil rights movement, with the benefit of hindsight, could have been more effective. And his response was that they should have spent more time developing the principles of non-violence—which I found interesting. They didn’t lack for communication or organizing tools, in his mind. They lacked for ideological sophistication. On the other hand, I have been as dumbstruck as everyone else by what is happening in the Middle East. So I’d probably hold off writing that piece today, at least until I thought we all had a better understanding of how this wave of unrest might differ from pre-digital revolutions. I hope that makes sense. By the way, I appreciate how much more temperate your tone was this time around, Henry. It makes it easier to have a conversation. When you first wrote about my social media piece, a few months back, I felt like I’d been sent to the headmaster’s office for a caning.

62

F. Blair 03.01.11 at 7:37 pm

” Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. “

This is just classic. A “former political science professor” thinks that David Remnick, who literally spent almost every day between 1988 and 1991 doing extraordinary on-the-ground reporting during the fall of the Soviet Union, doesn’t know anything about revolutions. What a f— joke.

63

Hidari 03.01.11 at 7:38 pm

#60 Really? I’m not being smart arse here, I’m genuinely surprised. I knew he read French and Hebrew and had some knowledge of native American languages but I didn’t know he read Arabic. He’s certainly never mentioned it, so far as I know. Oh well you live and learn.

64

Puss Wallgreen 03.01.11 at 7:59 pm

“For the record: I am sure Chomsky does not speak Arabic, but he does read it”
Reading Arabic is a damn sight more difficult than speaking it. If Chomsky has arrived at this combination, he is pretty unique.

65

Laura 03.01.11 at 9:00 pm

Thanks for responding, Malcolm.

66

Joce 03.01.11 at 9:30 pm

Clearly none of these journal/newspaper editors have read Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello.

67

piglet 03.01.11 at 10:10 pm

“Well, Louis Proyect had a savage go at him”

No clue about that. If you have a reference, let me know.

“these people didn’t have telephones”

Who, GDR citizens? Of course they had telephones. Otherwise what would the Stasi have been eavesdropping on?

68

Henry 03.01.11 at 10:23 pm

By the way, I appreciate how much more temperate your tone was this time around, Henry. It makes it easier to have a conversation. When you first wrote about my social media piece, a few months back, I felt like I’d been sent to the headmaster’s office for a caning.

Well I should not have been as much of an arsehole as I was, and I apologize for it. FWIW, my frustration was a general one, provoked by a seemingly never debate which seemed to have a lot of very grand claims – The Internet Is Leading To Sliced Freedom and Democracy! Noes! It It is The Autocrat’s Best Friend and so on – combined with a near-total dearth of reliable evidence. I think that things have improved a surprising amount since – at least in the willingness of people making various claims to be more specific about the mechanisms underlying their arguments and to moderate the ambition of their claims. I also agree – at least part-way – that it is too early to make any very hard claims regarding the role of social media in these revolutions. I _do_ think that it is hard to sustain any claims that social media crippled movements in Tunisia and Egypt, since they seem to have done pretty well despite their use of Facebook and so on. But I also want to see much more data, whether qualitative or quantitative, as well as a lot of thinking about the precise mechanisms through which change might or might not have occurred etc so that we can really figure out what happened.

69

Laleh 03.01.11 at 10:47 pm

Re: Badiou and what he has said about the Middle East and whether he has any expertise on it. In fact, as somebody who would consider herself an avid student of politics the Middle East (and FWIW teaches it in academia), I was pleased to see that the entirety of his commentaries since the beginning of the year has been precisely this: “that we [read the “West”] should hold our tongues about teaching them [read the “East”] what we think we know about democracy and how they should do it or how they should recognise it.” It is a call for humility, and you don’t need expert regional knowledge to make it.

I also agree with Kaveh that Middle East academics have been making fairly correct predictions, and funnily enough the most radical of these academic/activists As’ad AbuKhalil (angryarab) has been spot-on at every turn in his assessment of the various movements.

70

Alex 03.01.11 at 11:05 pm

FWIW, my frustration was a general one, provoked by a seemingly never debate which seemed to have a lot of very grand claims – The Internet Is Leading To Sliced Freedom and Democracy! Noes! It It is The Autocrat’s Best Friend and so on – combined with a near-total dearth of reliable evidence.

You’re right. I would point out that this went with a near total lack of either solid historiography of modern revolutions, or any knowledge of the technology. One of the reasons this stuff is ridiculous is that the views are either late 90s Gilder-fuff without the knowledge of Ethernet switching or else general purpose It Wasn’t Like That In My Day.

More seriously, I can’t think of any protest movement that didn’t love any new technology it could lay hands on. There’s surely a PhD to be had on new social movements and Letraset.

71

tom bach 03.01.11 at 11:46 pm

Re telephones in East Germany, the Stasi could tap and tape those with phones but phones were distinctly luxury items. It’s easy to forget how poor and in what crappy shape the East was in and to forget how many billions of marks the West spent fixing things. I was in Halle a/d Saale ten years after the fall and they just finally fixed the center city, which was a bomb crater.

72

engels 03.02.11 at 12:21 am

More seriously, I can’t think of any protest movement that didn’t love any new technology it could lay hands on.

The Luddites?

73

rosmar 03.02.11 at 1:18 am

Ha!

74

tomslee 03.02.11 at 1:55 am

There’s surely a PhD to be had on new social movements and Letraset.

Gestetners FTW.

75

weaver 03.02.11 at 2:54 am

@piglet

No clue about that. If you have a reference, let me know.

Here’s the category listing at his blog. There’s a review of Collapse in there (2nd article) though most of the stuff’s about the New Yorker controversy. Which, I’ve just noticed from a comment on the review, was also covered here at CT.

76

Paula 03.02.11 at 3:41 am

Well, personally speaking, you don’t need to be “glib thinker Malcolm Gladwell” to express skepticism about the ability of the internet to build social movements.

Egypt is a case study, Iran is another, the United States is another. We didn’t all end up with the same kind of “change” after the internet involved itself in our elections.

77

mclaren 03.02.11 at 5:14 am

To paraphrase the Duke in “True Grit,” I call that tough talk for a man who lives in a country where Tom Friedman is considered an intellectual.

78

Harold 03.02.11 at 6:54 am

I am an admirer of Malcolm Galdwell and don’t think he is glib at all but has done a great service in educating the public. I don’t understand this academic invidiousness.

79

Harold 03.02.11 at 6:55 am

sorry for the typo Gladwell, am getting cataracts.

80

philofra 03.02.11 at 2:08 pm

I also wrote Galdwell instead of Gladwell. But I am without cataracts.

81

chris 03.02.11 at 2:27 pm

@77: Certainly Tom Friedman is considered an intellectual… by Tom Friedman. If you want to claim anyone other than Tom Friedman considers him an intellectual, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask for citations. Most other people seem to consider him a buffoon.

82

engels 03.02.11 at 4:06 pm

83

salazar 03.02.11 at 4:16 pm

@81:” Most other people seem to consider him a buffoon?” That’s a VERY strong statement concerning someone whose signature appears twice a week in the NY Times op-ed page.

84

chris 03.02.11 at 8:30 pm

@83: And yet, the ratio of people saying “Tom Friedman’s latest column is wrong about X, Y, and Z and he’s an embarrassment to the NYT” to people saying “Tom Friedman has a good point” is extremely high; I’m not sure I’ve *ever* seen an approving link to Tom Friedman.

Could be selective memory, though — if you see anyone taking Tom Friedman seriously, or agreeing with him, let me know.

85

piglet 03.02.11 at 8:46 pm

Thanks weaver 75. This is what I mean: writers like Diamond throw around bold theories about everything, based on “evidence” that is often merely anecdotal and sometimes flat out wrong. And they are not held accountable.
In the case of the revenge controversy, which I wasn’t aware of, it is telling that such a story gains traction in the US of all places. The US legal system still embraces revenge as a guiding principle while much of the world has explicitly rejected it.

86

salazar 03.02.11 at 9:41 pm

@ 84: The link in 82’s a pretty good start.

Also, Charlie Rose hardly seems to treat Friedman like a buffoon. http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8649

This is said, The Moustache of Understanding irks me as prodigiously as he apparently irritates you.

87

John D 03.04.11 at 12:51 am

Malcolm Gladwell’s response above is admirably reasonable and civil, so I don’t want to bash much…but the pair of blog posts first cited reminded me of another (real!) French intellectual, the much-missed Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote a lot about various forms of “cultural capital,” and he used the term “specific capital,” by “autonomous” producers, to designate the particular sort of cultural production that was a product of scholar-to-scholar, peer-reviewed-type intellectual laboring–as opposed to what he termed “heteronomous” cultural production, i.e., popular writing, journalism, etc., that was basically market-oriented, by producers who generally didn’t have any deep, market-divorced knowledge of, well, anything much. You know, the folks who are on TV a lot.

And he cites an interesting study somebody did querying which French intellectuals, writers, etc., supported/collaborated with the Nazis during the ’30s and ’40s, and which didn’t–and (guess what) it was almost entirely the heteronomous folks–those lacking “specific capital.”

A bit heavy, I know, in this context, but that passage of his has always struck me as a touchstone (and I’m not an academic)–and it says a lot about who, almost by definition, gets on TV (and who doesn’t), and what, almost by definition, they’ll say once they’re on (which, often, is pretty much whatever is required).

88

Harold 03.04.11 at 2:50 am

The NYT apparently considers Friedman (and Brooks) to be intellectuals, and so does the New Yorker, or else they are deeply cynical — or both. They are a blight, as is the Hilton Kramer crowd.
As far as Diamond, there seems to be a reflexive reaction against generalists and comparatists, which I think has gone too far and we are the losers. I suppose it is positivism gone wild and all moralistic. It is a shame. I think there are some people in evidence around here who are a bit jealous because they are lacking in the urbanity and good humor needed to put ideas across. How much I would prefer to open my paper — or computer in the morning and see a column by Diamond or Gladwell than Brooks or Friedman.

89

Lemuel Pitkin 03.04.11 at 4:06 am

weaver @ 75-

Thanks so much for the link to that CT thread on Diamond. I’d completely forgotten about it. But what a lot of great comments by Adam Henne, Doctor Slack (are either of them still around?), Keith Ellis, Kaveh, and others. I bitch about this place all the time but it’s really astonishing the quality of conversations that happen here, and for how long they’ve been sustained. This site is like my favorite thing on the Internet. Seriously.

90

John 03.04.11 at 12:59 pm

This is complex. Gladwell is a classmate of Paul Kingston, a professor at University of Toronto

http://www.scar.utoronto.ca/acad/bios/data/kingston.html

Kingston is a specialist in the politics and history of the Middle East and has traveled a lot in Egypt.

They both attended Trinity College– they were 1 year apart, from memory– Trinity is less than 400 students (about 200 men), and Kingston and Gladwell lived in the same all-male residence of the college, they would have known each other.

If Malcolm spoke to Paul, then it’s entirely credible he knows more about it than your average journalist. I don’t remember whether they were friends.

Has someone asked either of them whether they have spoken?

91

Harold 03.04.11 at 10:31 pm

Another thing, the intellectuals of former days were often novelists or artists and unlike those who disfigure the media today, didn’t have doctorates in Area Studies, Public Policy, or Political Science, but were humanistically educated.

92

tomslee 03.05.11 at 2:33 am

chris @84. $40,000 per speaking engagement sounds pretty serious to me.

It is easy to dismiss people like Airmiles, but to do so is to opt out of major threads of public debate, and I think it’s a mistake.

93

Harold 03.05.11 at 4:34 am

No wonder the NYT is going bankrupt.

94

Harold 03.05.11 at 5:18 am

I don’t think Sartre made that much and he wrote some pretty good books that will be read as long as there are readers.

95

Norwegian Guy 03.05.11 at 1:35 pm

Harold @91:

I think you are on to something, but I wonder if the novelists or artists were necessarily humanistically educated. Émile Zola is often regarded as the first major intellectual, but I don’t think he was particularly well educated. It has never been common for novelists and artists to have doctorates, even in the humanities.

Authors and playwrights have maintained some of their standing, but theaters don’t have the same influence as they had a century ago, something that is undoubtedly related to the invention and popularity of moving pictures. Perhaps filmmakers like Michael Moore are among the more important public intellectuals today?

96

Harold 03.05.11 at 4:01 pm

Well, I didn’t mean having a doctorate — though I think Sartre might have had one. I really meant steeped in literature. How the prestige of literature has fallen — now that I think of it!

Comments on this entry are closed.