Charisse here. I want to thank those who attended Part 1 of The Public Intellectual last Thursday evening. The weather was perfect, the conversation lively, and the gathering an appropriately mixed bag of dancers, writers, educators, a publisher, a nurse, a builder, visual artists, polymaths—have I forgotten anyone?—whose ages spanned close to forty years, allowing for multiple perspectives on then and now.
In the interest of on-goingness, I offer a little recap of what I heard, in hopes that others will hop on to add, contest, or amen.
As Sarah P. mentioned in her morning-after Facebook comment, one thread of the conversation was the cultural legacy of the ‘60s. Several participants posited that it wasn’t so much the individual brilliance of the public intellectuals themselves but a more centralized system of communication that allowed certain names to loom large in the ‘60s, to the point that we still recognize them today, even if we don’t know exactly what they said. Within our tiny cross-section gathered at the picnic table, people across generations seemed to agree that our current consumption and production of art and ideas takes place within small affinity groups, pods or cells, that exchange their goods below the radar of the mainstream media, via websites, collectives and co-ops, book groups, publications, ad hoc projects (such as Open Field!), or favored venues—clubs, galleries, coffee houses. These groups of people may or may not share the traditional aspects of community—think small town—of geographical proximity, a history of problem-solving together, and homogeneous values. Rather, they comingle in an ever-shifting pattern of sharing based on their evolving tastes, interests, and commitments.
In short, maybe it’s not the quality of the public intellectuals that has changed, but the concept itself of the public, which has atomized into more publics than we can count. In this situation, ideas spread virally, yet at the same time no corpus of information is common to all. For this reason, perhaps, our group hesitated when challenged to name influential thinkers of today. Was this perhaps a failure of imagination, as Sarah asked, or did we need more time, or is fishing up names that everyone will recognize really hard? As a group, we talked about making a list of resources—texts, people, organizations, projects, objects, touchstones, inspirations—to share at the end of the three sessions. No reason not to start that here, right? If everybody threw down a few suggestions, we’d all have some fun take-away. So here goes:
Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times
Jen Bekman, curator of online art market 20×200 (http://www.20×200.com/)
Jane Champion, filmmaker
Lydia Davis, writer
Lightsey Darst, local impresario
Rain Taxi Review of Books
Walker Art Center
Now, the jury is still out about this thesis of it’s not the people it’s the media. As Douglas pointed out, the ‘60s public intellectuals tended indeed to be cultural gunrunners, subversives—Leary, Sontag, and Davis were all arrested at one time or another, and Baldwin, as a gay man, certainly could have been if he hadn’t moved to Europe (consider also Martin Luther King, Jr.). Is the case still that the people thinking outside the box are serious threats to the status quo? Or, as Nick suggested, is there no oppressive dogma left to dismantle in our permissive society? Something to mull and revisit in two weeks.
By the way, when I was researching this project, before I decided to focus on the ‘60s, I found that a lot of people that came up in lists of public intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, Richard Posner, Paul Krugman, Martha Nussbaum, Al Gore) worked in the areas of public policy, law, and economics rather than culture and the humanities; this shift seems to be generally acknowledged. If you are interested, check out http://www.infoplease.com/spot/topintellectuals.html or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_100_Public_Intellectuals_Poll. How many do you know?
And so, mes amis, I look forward to July 8, when we will enter the mosh pit with Betty Friedan and Angela Davis. Before then I’ll put up some optional talking points. Again, the readings for part 2 are available on my website https://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/home (click on part 2) or from me by request to Charisse.firstname.lastname@example.org.