Jerry Cohen, a personal appreciation

by Chris Bertram on August 6, 2009

A few unsystematic thoughts about Jerry Cohen:

Jerry Cohen's valedictory lecture

A friend called yesterday to tell me the news about Jerry Cohen and then I spent the day feeling disoriented, sad, confused, not really knowing what to feel or think. For me, and I’m sure, for many friends, colleagues and former students, Jerry was a constant presence. If I’m writing something I often hear Jerry’s voice telling me that I’m being evasive, that I’ve failed to explain a distinction, that such and such is “bullshit”, and so on. At the same time, Jerry was quite brilliant at striking the right balance between the discipline of following the argument where it leads and the importance of hanging onto one’s deepest convictions.

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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”:http://www.barnesandnoble.com/bn-review/longlist.asp?cds2Pid=23991&linkid=1378512, 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”:https://crookedtimber.org/category/george-scialabba-seminar/. Those who prefer to read the seminar as a PDF can find it “here”:https://crookedtimber.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/scialabba.pdf. Those who want to play with the TeX file can find it “here”:https://crookedtimber.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/scialabba1.tex. Those who prefer to work in Markdown can find it “here”:https://crookedtimber.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/scialabba.txt.

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”:http://chronicle.com/article/Big-Brains-Small-Impact/11624 (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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