Institutions are conservative (Donald Schon coined in 1970 the lovely phrase “dynamic conservatism”) and, despite the rhetoric in recent decades about “innovation”, don’t tend to favour original thoughts or ideas – so those seeking support for their ideas from university promotion boards or from lending agencies are generally disappointed and learn to dumb down. I grant you that the Web came out of the state scientific system but most significant innovations these days have come from youngsters pottering in garages and using their own cash….
And a remarkable number of the books which have made an impact in the last 100 years were not written by those with university sinecures…..
George Scialabba is not exactly a name to conjure with – but he is probably one of the greatest of our contemporary polymaths/public intellectuals. I apparently downloaded a short book of his - The Divided Mind – a year or so ago but did not appreciate then the other collections of his essays which have been available since 2006 and which point to a very rare writer who has at least 5 crucial qualities –
- Breadth of reading
- Humanist perspective
- Generosity of analysis
- Elegance and clarity of writing
- Significant chunks of quotations to allow the reader to make his/her own judgement
He may be known to an increasing number of American readers as a critic and essayist but is – as this review points out –
a building manager at Harvard, the school from which he graduated in 1969. The facts of his vocational life are quite relevant, in a very homely, obvious way, to the splendid work that he does.There are almost no professors who do Scialabba’s kind of work, nor any journalists. It is not the case today, nor has it ever really been the case, that one got tenure by knowing the collected works of thinkers like Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, Leszek Kolakowski, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Gray, both Trillings, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Academia is simply too segmented by disciplines, and besides, many of these writers matter not for any scholarship they wrote but because of how their writing influenced a broader audience. No, the only people who read public intellectuals current and past are professional journalists or book critics, and obsessive, usually left-wing amateurs. The book critics stop at a certain level of difficulty. "Times" critics might review the English political philosopher John Gray, but would their readers be interested in Kolakowski?
So it’s largely left to the obsessive amateurs.What most amateurs lack, however, are the skills. George Scialabba has the time, the freedom, and the passion of the amateur—and he also has the perspicacity, and the pen, of the Harvard alumnus. It’s a wicked combination.
What does Scialabba want, besides that you read good, important books? Just turn to the book’s dedication, which reads: “For Chomsky, Rorty, Lasch—three answers.” I can’t imagine there are too many people who would be willing to spend their lives sitting on that three-legged stool. First, as noted, there are very few people alive who know the works of all three writers well. What’s more, while I am attracted to both Rorty and Lasch, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s allying with both Rorty and Chomsky—the former with his affirming, and ultimately patriotic, pragmatism and the latter with his curdled, bitter skepticism.
A review of one of his earliest collections of essays (2007) pinpoints his writing style -
He writes in what William Hazlitt -- the patron saint of generalist essayists -- called "the familiar style" and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. He challenges the aura of mystery and mastery which seems to be sought by those who aspire to intellectual authority.
But it is the scope of his reading that has impressed the American cognoscenti and led to one of the best of the academic blogs (“Crooked Timber”) dedicating one of their famous seminars to his 2009 book What are Intellectuals Good For?
But before you pursue that link, I want to present an excellent review which epitomises the fairness with which Scialabba apparently conducts his work -
Scialabba belongs to a tradition of generalist essay-writers and “citizen-critics” (his term) of the democratic left whose forebears include Albert Camus, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, George Orwell, and Ignazio Silone—to mention those Scialabba refers to most often. In the book’s title essay, Scialabba describes this species of intellectual. They “wrote in the vernacular, with vigor and clarity, for the general, educated reader. Their topics were large, their interests wide; however small their actual, engaged audience, their writings opened out, and so helped sustain at least the idea and the hope of a public culture.”
He quotes Irving Howe’s description of one group of such writers: “The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to ‘go beyond’ its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation.”
Reading several of Scialabba’s essays together, one can sense his particular intellectual vocation. It is what Matthew Arnold, writing about Edmund Burke, called a “return . . . upon himself.” Scialabba writes:“To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponents; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problems that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing—this is disinterestedness as Arnold understood it”.
Scialabba is forever returning upon his own arguments, subjecting them to the most serious critiques he can find or invent. Again and again, he comes back to the cases against his own democratic, modernist, and socialist convictions: the nagging questions raised by elitist critiques of democracy, the conundrums of the liberal-communitarian debate, the new griefs that arrive with modernization, the unarguable successes of the parties of social inequality and war and imperial power......
We are saturated with words and images produced by “anti-public intellectuals” of the public relations industry; corporations and the wealthy have accumulated overwhelming political power; the “decline of print literacy” saps what sources of public thought might remain. Thus our most evident intellectual need is for writers who can research, expose, debunk. It might seem obvious, for example, that Reaganomics was bad for ordinary Americans—this, if nothing else, a contemporary left-wing intellectual ought to be able to affirm with confidence. Unfortunately, some undeniably honest and intelligent people affirm the contrary. One who is determined to see ‘all sides of every question’ must then learn how to distinguish among ways of measuring median family income, job creation and job loss, unemployment, and several other economic indicators, along with the basics of monetary theory.
For a literary intellectual, this is quite a chore.The chore becomes a Herculean labor when we consider not just the specialized vocabulary and research methodologies of economics but also those of ecology, public health, nuclear physics, chemical engineering—and so forth.
“To be, or at any rate to seem, an expert on everything,” Scialabba writes, “is now not a challenge but an invitation to vertigo.” None of us today can “‘put together’ all of culture.” The scope and complexity of our problems and the quantity of information necessary to the serious investigation of our situation are so great that generalist intellectuals cannot hope to “make social relations transparent,” as Merleau-Ponty called on them to do. Literary intellectuals cannot be the legislators of our world because they are simply “ordinary citizens without politically relevant expertise.” And without relevant expertise, how is one to make a useful contribution to a public world in which rulers rule by obfuscating and in which questions of justice must be formulated and answered in technical vocabularies?
Scialabba argues, against his own example, that the only useful thing to do is to abandon the ideal of the humanist intellectual and become an expert in some area of public debate. Social criticism has necessarily “grown far more empirical, more specialized,” than it was in the day of writers like Macdonald and Orwell. The newer kind of intellectual this situation calls for does not display the “pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle” (Howe’s words, from a passage Scialabba quotes more than once) of the older literary intellectuals but simply aims to teach citizens “how to read the newspaper.” These empirical intellectuals are not artful in their composition of ideas; the most we can ask is that their writing be “[l]ucid, penetrating, austere, unaffected.”
The contributions of the seminar can be read here
His website is here