Russell Jacoby has a column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed arguing, paradoxically, that blogging has drowned out the voice of the public intellectual. He argues that, in the US,
blogs are not so much about challenging an authoritarian state as about adding to the cacophony. Blogs may be more like private journals with megaphones than reasoned contributions to public life. Michael Bérubé, who teaches American literature and cultural studies at Pennsylvania State University and is an accomplished blogger, admits as much. “One day I’ll have an analysis of the hockey playoffs,” he wrote about his own blog, “the next day a story about the night my band opened for the Ramones, the next day an account of a trip with my younger son, Jamie.”
Of course personal sharing is not all he and others do in their postings, but what is the net result? The Internet provides instant communication and quick access to vast resources, but has it altered the quality or content of intellectual discussions?
There are a couple of problems with his assessment. The first, and less important, is that he assumes that a public intellectual inhabits the public sphere, and in this public sphere his professional life is nearly completely divided from his everyday life. I’ve written before about C. Wright Mills’s call for a journal in which the sociologist records the inspirations for her thinking found while experiencing everyday life. Certainly, talking about a hockey game or your child’s school work appears trivial when compared to a book-length treatise on social theory, but it is not intended to be the final word, handed down (and there is a strong sense of elitism inherent in Jacoby’s discussion) to an adoring public.
Perhaps it is because I am just back from seeing Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, it’s hard to think of academic interests–or at least interest in political theory–while ignoring the personal and cultural. Why should it be that a hockey game or opening for the Ramones is not relevant to understanding society? Why should the ways in which we arrive at our final ideas be hidden from public critique, involvement, and discussion? Understanding that Stoppard is writing an alternative auto-biography provides an insight that simply engaging the final text would not.
Jacoby seems to suggest that blogs supplant book writing and reading. Ceci tuera cela? Not at all. The dynamic may change, but there is still a place for a good book, for a completed idea that has not been jotted down in haste. He points to a New Yorker cartoon in which authors are lined up to sign books for a solitary reader. He has missed the point: blogs are for having conversations. Sure, they aren’t the kind of conversations we are used to having: they are more distributed, more lopsided, and more permanent. But they do not supplant books. They draw the public intellectual into the community, reducing the height of the ivory tower.
This leads to Jacoby’s second–and greater–error, and that is assuming that there is only a cohesive public for intellectuals to address. Perhaps public intellectuals have disappeared, but they have been replaced by “publics intellectuals.” Clearly, as we go into a presidential election season, there is still value in addressing a national or global public. But what readers and writers have both found is that new technologies allow for new kinds of publics. The Greek democratic public was constrained by the distance from which the voice of Stentor could be heard. Jacoby mentions the megaphone, but misses the importance of a large number of people owning them. We don’t need the world to hear, we need only form publics of interested parties.
In fact, it does seem that blogging has leveled off. I’ve predicted for some time that the hype over blogging would recede, and that we would see a large number of blogs disappear, though I didn’t realize how broad a hit this would be. Indeed, I suspect that the idea of blogging will fade away, even as the idea of a static web site–a site that is not periodically updated–fades. But blogging has not killed the public intellectual, it has drawn the intellectual and the public closer together, making more translucent and democratic the role of the intellectual, and undermining the myth of genius.