Did blogging kill the public intellectual?

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.

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  1. Posted 1/8/2008 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I found Jacoby’s conflation of the personal diary weblog with the topic-oriented weblog disturbing: hasn’t everyone been on the Internet long enough to know better by now? Bérubé’s blog seems like a personal journal, i.e. the average blog, if that blog were written by Bérubé, but to the extent that it’s the sort of mish-mash in Jacoby’s caricature, it’s an exception to the rule.

    The most successful blogs (in terms of Technorati ranting, hits, Bloggie awards, etc.) rarely mix diary entries with commentary on the outside word: their success is in part predicated on a particular, narrow focus. Someone blogging as a public intellectual (e.g. Andrew Sullivan or Arnold Zwicky) is generally not going to write much about their personal life. Likewise, a prominent diary blogger like Heather Armstrong of Dooce isn’t going to start mixing in posts on the federal income tax and welfare reform with pictures of her dog.

  2. Posted 1/8/2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Used to be that the media was something special. To have access to a medium which would carry your message to the masses, it was first a reality and then later assumed that the Voice being expressed in any given medium had to pass by several gatekeepers and editorial layers to be approved for publication/transmission. Media, then, was a token of social capital and the medium was seen as a means of validating the message. “They wouldn’t print it if it weren’t true.”

    Now, media has been handed to Everyperson. The bar of access to a worldwide mass media distribution has been drastically lowered. We’ve even got folks who are making their own homemade Star Trek episodes in their basement and broadcasting to the entire world, earning critical acclaim and guest cameos by original cast members.

    In the flood of new material available for public consumption, suddenly the old mechanisms for determining quality are being redefined as well. Who are the masses listening to? Why? How did they hear about them? Are these the voices, public intellectual or otherwise, that are best qualified to be listened to? Who gets to decide those criteria?

    Personally I see this as the same slow redefinition of professionalism which is happening society-wide. Old professions are being lost in the wake of the new technology, and skillsets and payscales are slowly being readjusted. Today’s professionals in any field must not only establish their own expertise in their fields, they are continually challenged to re-justify the need for a professional caste in that field to begin with. It’s just that the waters of social change finally rose high enough so that the ‘public intellectuals’ are starting to fear drowning, too.

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