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Words, Words, Words

Scholars are in the word business. Even people who don’t work primarily with textual materials—architectural historians, say—generally get their ideas across through writing. So when scholars make an effort to reach beyond the academy to broader audiences, writing is generally how they go about it. But maybe writing about history and culture—or, rather, expecting that we can capture the full range of historic or contemporary experience in words—is precisely the wrong way for “public intellectuals” to engage with a broader public. When we talk about a public “commons,” we often envision a zone of communication—of speaking and writing—rather than of action. Historian Rhys Isaac, fusing approaches of symbolic anthropology, material culture, and cultural history in his account of eighteenth-century cultural change, showed that what we do can communicate far more powerfully than what we read or write: “In highly literate milieus the assumption is unquestioned that significant communication is conveyed by words, especially by written words, and above all by printed words. Yet one may ask: How many people in our own society—among the elite even—arrive at articulate verbal statements of the meaning of their own lives?” If there is a desire for public intellectuals to communicate important ideas more effectively to a broader range of people, perhaps it’s time to think about other ways for that communication to happen than by putting words on a page.

The past year has offered a series of public conversations that touch in telling ways on the role of the public intellectual in the twenty-first century and what the public space for common discussion might look like, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ anointing of Melissa Harris-Perry as “America’s foremost public intellectual” in January 2014 to the kerfuffle over Nicholas Kristof’s maunderings in the New York Times in February over professors’ lack of relevance to contemporary concerns. Both Coates and Kristof stressed the importance of avoiding “dead language or tortured abstractions,” but beyond the level of style, their visions for what a public intellectual should be asked to do and what the role’s qualifications are differed sharply.  For Coates, Perry’s academic credentials combined with the accessibility of her material and the size of audience make her a public intellectual. Kristof chose a much stranger exemplar of the type of public intellectual he wants to see—the Cold War-era spymaster and Ivy League wunderkind McGeorge Bundy. For Kristof, though, it was precisely Bundy’s lack of traditional academic credentials that qualified him as a public intellectual—his voice was free from the strictures imposed by academic training, which enabled him to weigh in on policy decisions and other “real-world” events.

But why are issues of policy the issues that public intellectuals should be talking about? In particular, why do conversations in these public spaces so often deal with political issues, and so rarely with questions of cultural production? The success of Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of “12 Years a Slave” at the Oscars is remarkable for many reasons, not least because it may be the only instance of a director of the film that had just won the Academy Award for Best Picture mentioning a historian in an acceptance speech. During the movie’s successful Oscar campaign we became familiar with the story of how Solomon Northup’s narrative of his abduction and enslavement was returned to print and verified as true through the single-minded, life-long dedication of Sue Eakin, a historian at Louisiana State University-Alexandria, who made Northup’s narrative her life’s work. Eakin worked as a journalist for many years, returned to graduate school at 42, and earned her Ph.D. at 60, but her career with Northup’s narrative began when she first encountered the book as a 12-year-old girl in the library of a Louisiana plantation house. As depicted in Steve McQueen’s film, Northup’s description of the horrors of slavery has prompted another round of discussions about both race in America and the continued practice of slavery around the world. Which are both good things. But they also point to a gap in what public intellectuals are asked (or expected) to contribute to the public commons. There is an expectation that public intellectuals speaking in public spaces to a general audience should be trying to address questions of politics or policy. The expectation that public intellectuals should operate a sort of “classroom” where Americans can go to learn about racial politics or the Arab Spring quite narrowly circumscribes the issues that public intellectuals are permitted to discuss, and effectively asks professors to do the same things that they already do—teach and write—just in shorter formats, and without so many big words.

In other words, public intellectuals are expected to be involved in telling, but not showing. Lots of people around the country spent a lot of time talking about 12 Years a Slave, but I didn’t hear many conversations in the public on “160 Years a Slave Narrative.” (Given the ongoing persistence of slavery around the world, there must be slave narratives being produced now. But what form do they take? And why aren’t we reading them?) There was a great deal of conversation about Sue Eakin’s lifelong quest to verify the details of Northup’s narrative, but there’s very little detailed discussion of why she had to work so hard to prove its veracity—the fact that the book was part of a genre that was thought to be fictional. That is, the public is oddly comfortable expecting intellectuals to discuss how slavery operated in the past and where it persists today, but don’t seem to want to know about the literary genre that has given us so much of what we know about that experience. Tell, don’t show, and make sure it’s about policy, not culture. But maybe it’s not a question of expectations. Maybe it’s what public intellectuals do on their own—perhaps the burden of anticipating critiques like Kristof’s makes it difficult for us to try to engage the public over an issue such as genre, which on its face may seem to have little political relevance.

So, in thinking about “public commons” I would call attention to the media forms that are employed (or invoked) as the best ways to bring “intellectual content” to a wider public: television, film, Twitter, Facebook (which is where Kristof says intellectuals should be). No traditional print media, no distinguished discussion panels on C-SPAN or PBS or NPR, nothing that resembles traditional scholarly output. Nothing with an argument. Yet even work produced by academics for a “general audience” is thought to be successful if it reaches an audience in the five figures (most academic books published by university presses have print runs under 1000 copies). But, in a nation of over 300 million people, if intellectual work isn’t of interest to more than 20,000 people, is it really part of a public discussion?

If we are to envision a “public commons,” where might this commons exist? Online? On TV? In a movie theater? And only in theaters that show commercially successful films, such as “Twelve Years a Slave”? What barriers to entry—financial, intellectual, technological—render a space “un-common,” or private instead of public? Do academic credentials get you into public commons or keep you out of them? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we heed Rhys Issacs’ call to contribute to people’s ability to make “meaning of their own lives” on their terms instead of our own? It may be that the main contribution that public intellectuals can make to the public commons is through speaking and writing. But, as Isaac illustrated, the commons is not solely (or even primarily) a world of words. Treating the commons like a “classroom” sets the expectation that the appropriate response from the audience is more words, thus resulting in “a conversation.”  A little less conversation, though, might be what the commons needs.

Paul Erickson: Off the grid

Image credit: Molly Springfield, Legibility, 2006, graphite on paper

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