From the category archives:

George Scialabba seminar

Below find the final contributions to the seminar on George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For? ( buy from Barnes and Noble – preferred option since it often runs reviews by George, Scott and others, and is actively recommending the book in its excellent review section, Powells, Amazon) over the next few days. We’re really happy to have George with us – he is a frequent CT commenter, and, more importantly, one of the great public intellectuals of our time. A lot of the discussion will focus on the question of what role, if any, public intellectuals should play in modern culture.

The seminar is made publicly available under a Creative Commons license (see the PDF for details). All posts in the seminar are here. Those who prefer to read the seminar as a PDF can find it here. Those who want to play with the TeX file can find it here. Those who prefer to work in Markdown can find it here.

The non-CT authors:

Russell Jacoby is professor of history at UCLA. He is the author of numerous books, most relevantly including The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Powells, Amazon), and updated in his article, Big Brains, Small Impact (available for free until very recently at the _Chronicle of Higher Education)

Aaron Swartz was one of the founders of Reddit, helped write the simple markup language Markdown (which has been used to format this seminar) and is involved in sundry other causes and activities in the area where information technology and politics intersect.

Rich Yeselson is a research coordinator in the Strategic Organizing Center of the labor federation, Change to Win, and the Zelig of the American intellectual left.

Response

by george_scialabba on August 6, 2009

The previous symposium posts and comments are an embarrassment of riches. Doing them justice is out of the question, of course, but here goes.


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I’ve been reading George’s essays for years, but it is only when one reads a large number of them together that one really sees the interconnections. His interests are diverse. Borges, in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ notes that the critics of Tlön


often invent authors: they select two dissimilar works – the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say – attribute them to the same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres…


George, when he dedicates the book to Chomsky, Rorty and Lasch, may seem to be doing something similar as an exercise in self-definition – what philosophy on earth might possibly unite these three? The careful reader will at least be able to discern the outlines of an answer to this question when she finishes reading this book. While this answer is not as much an abstract philosophy, as a carefully elaborated set of political and critical judgments, which are both attractive and useful. George’s lens upon the world reveals relationships that would otherwise remain occulted.

One of the themes running through these essays is the proper role of the the public intellectual. George would like public intellectuals to have two features – a grounding in literary culture and a real connection to political debate. As he notes, however, these two requirements are difficult to reconcile with each other in the modern world. This dilemma is described most clearly in one of the earlier essays in the book, “The Sealed Envelope”


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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.
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What Sorts of Intellectuals Should There Be?

by John Holbo on August 5, 2009

On the whole, a great book. A real pleasure to read. I’ve never read Scialabba’s stuff before (or I haven’t noticed his byline, to remember it). My loss. But better late than never.

What’s so great about Scialabba? Temperamentally, there is his gratifyingly steady exhibition of generous severity to his subjects. (I can’t imagine anyone could object to being drubbed so fairly. With the possible exception of Christopher Hitchens.) Stylistically, there is his facility for cramming breadth into small literary packets, without recourse to cheap space-saving devices. Intellectually, there is his forthright evenhandedness—his awareness of what other people think—that never forgets, or neglects to mention, what he thinks. (Everyone else is praising George as well, so I won’t lay it on thick. But no kidding. Good stuff.)

Full disclosure: I left my copy of his book in Maryland – but only after reading it completely – then wrote this post in New York, from stuff on his website, with the TV blaring in the background. And now I’m in Singapore, polishing up a little.

What are intellectuals good for?

The cover seems to suggest the answer might be: nothing. Nothing good. ‘We fool you,’ announce the symbol-manipulating professionals, snug between those who rule and those who shoot. But no. The correct answer is: several things, surely. Two, for starters. [click to continue…]

Avoiding the Lasch of Modernity

by Rich Yeselson on August 4, 2009

George Scialabba wishes he could be as calmly appalled about our historical moment as Richard Rorty, but Christopher Lasch keeps haranguing him, shouting from an artisan commune on the Other Side that it is worse—much worse—than Bin Laden, Bush, and Jon and Kate plus Eight all rolled into one. Scialabba has been writing wittily and vexingly about modernity and its discontents for decades. And in What Are Intellectuals Good For?, a collection of his review essays, he demonstrates his astonishing erudition in considering and citing many thinkers besides Lasch and Rorty.
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Toward a Larger Left

by Aaron Swartz on August 4, 2009

Stanford, like many universities, maintains full employment for humanities professors by requiring new students to take their seminars. My heart burning with the pain of societal injustice, I chose the one on “Freedom, Equality, Difference.”

Most of the other students had no particular interest in the topic—they were just meeting the requirement. But a significant minority did: like me, they cared passionately about it. They were the conservatives, armed with endless citations on how affirmative action was undermining American meritocracy. The only other political attitude I noticed was a moderate centrism, the view espoused by the teacher, whose day job was studying Just War Theory.

It quickly became clear that I was the only person even remotely on the left. And it wasn’t simply that the others disagreed with me; they couldn’t even understand me. I remember us discussing a scene in Invisible Man where a factory worker brags he’s so indispensable that when he was out sick the boss drove to his house and begged him to come back, agreeing to put him in charge. When I suggested Ellison might be implying that labor, not management, ought to run workplaces, the other students (and the teacher) didn’t just disagree—they found the idea incomprehensible. How could you run a factory without managers? [click to continue…]

No Live Readings

by Russell Jacoby on August 3, 2009

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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.
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In his brief but delightful introduction to What Are Intellectuals Good For?, Scott McLemee offers a précis of the Scialabbian moral/political universe: “Reconciling the skeptical pragmatism of Richard Rorty and the geopolitical worldview of Noam Chomsky is not a simple project.  Rarely do you find them treated as two sides of one ideological coin.  But that seems like a reasonably accurate description of Scialabba’s sense of the possible.  If he were to write a manifesto, it would probably call for more economic equality, the dismantling of the American military industrial complex, and the end of metaphysics.”  This does indeed sound reasonably accurate, and it serves as a reminder that McLemee is one of the few contemporary writers and reviewers who belongs in Scialabba’s league.  For regardless of whether one agrees with Scialabba’s judgments on matters moral and political (and, often enough, I don’t, even though I’d endorse that hypothetical manifesto in a heartbeat), one has to be impressed with Scialabba’s uncanny ability to inhabit the books and writers he reviews.  Scialabba’s work in What Are Intellectuals Good For? is remarkable for its range, yes, and his prose is notable for its precision and clarity.  But what’s most impressive, I think, is the scrupulousness fairness that Scialabba brings to the task of reviewing.  Almost every essay in this collection allows the reader some degree of imaginative sympathy with the books and writers under review, even when Scialabba himself turns out to be largely unsympathetic to the material he’s writing about.  That’s because Scialabba, like McLemee, always offers a reasonably accurate précis of the material he’s writing about before he gets around to taking issue with it.  It’s easy enough to do, of course, when you’re writing about someone who sees the world as you do; but George Scialabba does it as a matter of course.  I wish I could say the same of all reviewers; and though it’s a standard to which I hold my own review essays, I know very well that I’ve sometimes honored it in the breach.

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