Story behind the Passage
In a conversation today, someone brought up the term “public intellectual.” I love that term, as you might know by now. Even though I am constantly mourning that seemingly extinct group of leading minds, I cannot let go of them. Well, that is not true. I am not mourning all the time, of course. I am just being a bit critical about the state of society, that is all.
We also talked about the relation between the university, startups, and society today. As you might remember, I started this daily blog under the heading “startup storylearning.” In fact, this has become somewhat obsolete by now. Yes, I talk about startups sometimes but only in relation to some larger issues, especially education. If that turns me into a public intellectual, I do not know. I am too young and too unintellectual for this, I think.
But it would be nice to have earned this “label” by the time I close my eyes. We all have our small and big visions. Do we not?
Yesterday, I watched a movie that really impressed me. It was called “Cherry Blossom Hanami” (“Kirschbleuten Hanami”) written and directed by Doris Doerrie. I think people like her are real public intellectuals. There was so much wisdom and social critique in this movie, and so much beauty and art — I am so happy I finally watched it. I wonder why I never got deeper into movies and movie scripts. I assume, it is a wonderful genre. Screenwriting must be exciting. Well, for someone like me who gets really excited about too many things, this is not a good thing, I guess.
Edward’s Said’s book Representations of the Public Intellectual also made me become really excited when I read it. I think, I actually bought it for a talk I wanted to give in 2018. Well, I did not actually want to give this talk. It was part of a major examination. But it was my favorite choice to talk about this topic. I was pretty sure that the committee would choose this topic for me. And it ended up being a very moving talk because I made myself vulnerable. Whenever you talk about things that are really important to you — to who you are — you make yourself vulnerable.
But it worked out fine and people had no idea how important that topic was for me. It was just a problem for me. There were quite a few academics in the room but only two or three of them come close to representing public intellectuals — according to my interpretation. The others, as far as I can tell from their questions, will never worry about that issue. For them, academics are people who know a lot about one topic. And every single question they ever ask is related to this topic. This is scholarship. I have to accept it.
Edward Said was not like this. I really got into him during my dissertation research on Arab Americans. Now, I can hardly remember the details of his arguments because his words about the public intellectual have stuck with me. If there ever was a person in literary studies that I really admired, it is him. And yes, you can argue about his positions. But he spoke up for Palestine. He really did. And that is what public intellectuals do.
“In the end, I am moved by causes and ideas that I can actually choose to support because they conform to values and principles that I believe in.” This sentence is quite funny because it makes me wonder whether you can truly “choose” the topics of your academic work — as opposed to topics represented by the public intellectual. I know, theoretically you are free to choose. But, of course, there are trends in research and it might be smarter to choose a topic that is somewhat promising to earn you some third-party funding.
I am not even saying that this is my problem. My problem is that my entire field feels like a narrow tunnel to me. I feel I have to choose topics that are somehow related to the U.S., even though, what I am saying, applies to the humanities in general. And no, I am not overstretching my claims. There really are issues that have nothing to do with one tiny discipline only. Yes, I know that this really big picture thinking is called “philosophy.” But I missed to study philosophy. I will makes up for this.
Still, philosophy is my anchor. It is actually the only reason why I think about research that much. Philosophy is something that, if you really get into an argument, finds a home among deep thinkers and it makes sense to publish these thoughts in a somewhat more sophisticated manner. So, philosophy is actually the “value” that I believe in. And it also allows me to choose what I want to support. Philosophy is clear thinking — not more. There is no deeper level of thought. You cannot get deeper into infinity.
“I do not therefore consider myself bound by my professional training in literature, consequently ruling myself out from matters of public policy just because I am only certified to teach modern European and American literature.” Actually, for a while, I had not even known Said’s real profession, i.e., his professorship in Comparative Literature. I had thought he really did Middle East Studies or something related to his political advocacy. By now, I think his choice of splitting the two — his activist work and his scholarly work — was just right.
I wish, I could separate the two.
Somehow I always have the impulse to do research on topics that move me in depth. And then, because academia teaches you all the tools to actually turn a research impulse into practice, I start sketching the new research project in my head or even on paper. And then I realize that I have lost the connection between the “rank amateur,” the expert and the public. That is when I close my document usually, thinking that this will not lead anywhere.
I wish, I could unwire my brain and stop it from making all these connections all the time. It would make things more simple. But maybe it was not simple for Said to always separate the two. I do not know exactly. As far as I remember it from the book, it looked like Said never had a problem with this separation. It was like an inner rule to not talk about Palestine in the classroom. Life is all about taking roles and knowing exactly which role you are in right now. This is where the movie parallel comes in again. I think, screenwriters know very well how to draw borders between the characters they construct.
“Of course I make a conscious effort to acquire a new and wider audience for these views, which I never present inside a classroom.” When I reread this line now, I was quite surprised. This issue of acquiring and enlarging audiences is so prominent these days, especially due to the immense potential of social media. I had not realized that Said was already dealing with this issue so consciously. And yes, I know that audience reach has been important as long as books exist. Still, Said seemed to have a very strategic approach to this.
I am not sure if the intention to “never present” these views inside the classroom would work nowadays — or if that is even desirable. Firstly, students associate stuff with their professors without the professors constantly reiterating the topics they promote in their role as public intellectuals. Secondly, I am not sure if this separation is that healthy. Yes, professionalism is important. But just masking one important aspect of one’s identity to not mix too much is not authentic, I think. And authenticity, after all, is what moves people. Public intellectuals do this, they push other people’s minds to their limits and out of their comfort zones.
The latter issue at least, pushing people out of their intellectual comfort zones, is something that I sometimes manage to do — even accidentally. It does not even take writing for this. And it does not turn me into a public intellectual. But at least, I can try. Adorno, Gramsci, de Beauvoir and all the others that Said mentions in his book are legends guiding us. If we all only take on one tiny element of their public intellectual rigor, public discourse would already be a lot more evocative.
1) Do public intellectuals still matter from your perspective?
2) Do you agree with Said’s separation between the public intellectual outside the classroom and the scholar inside?
3) Which audience do you consider yourself to be part of?