From Mark Greif’s rather ingenious (too ingenious?) essay on “the public intellectual”:
But the additional philosophical element that made this complicated arrangement work, and the profound belief that sustained the fiction, on all sides, and made it “real” (for we are speaking of the realm of ideas, where shared belief often just is reality), was an aspirational estimation of “the public.” Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and commercial, as we use “aspirational” now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are—and that naturally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing—and that every worthy person does. My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.
Aspiration also undoubtedly included a coercive, improving, alarmed dimension in the postwar period. The public must be made better or it would be worse, ran the thought. The aspiration of civic elites was also always to instruct the populace, to make them citizens and not “masses.” Both fascism and Sovietism had been effects of the masses run wild (so it was said). The GI Bill, and the expansion of access to higher education after 1945, funded by the state, depended on an idea of the public as necessary to the state and nation, but also dangerous and unstable in its unimproved condition. This citizenry would fight for the nation. It would compete, technically and economically, with the nation’s global rivals. And it must hold some “democratic” vision and ideology to preserve stability. Even the worst elitists could agree to that. Hence the midcentury consensus that higher education should “make,” or shape, “citizens” for a “free society”—which one hears from the best voices, and the worst, from that time.
Those of us attached to universities can feel, as strongly as anyone, how ideologies of the “public” have changed drastically from the older conception. After all, it’s on the basis of this increasingly servile, contemptuous, and antinational vision of “the public” that universities are being politically degraded, in vocational rationales for the humanities and the state’s lost interest in public higher education. The national indifference, from the top down, to the mass, the many, the citizenry, the public, from the 1970s to the present, expresses a late discovery that the old value and fearsomeness of the public had been erroneous. The mass public was no longer threatening, or needed. After Vietnam, the public was no longer needed for military service, as an all-volunteer army would fight for pay without inspiring protest. The public was no longer needed for mass production, as labor was exported. A small elite of global origin, but funneled through American private universities, would design all the new technological and financial instruments that could keep U.S. growth and GDP high in aggregate, though distributed unequally.
Greif is certainly correct, elsewhere in the essay, to chide contemporary academics for their condescending populism—which undergraduates, in my experience, do not appreciate in the least. But the defense of intellectual standards does not require this essay’s other assumptions.
What do 1950s nostalgics such as Greif actually want or think is possible? I am a little less than a decade younger than Greif, which makes puts me in the last generation to feel the afterglow of high-modernism-plus-social-democracy, so his nostalgia is in no way foreign to me. After all, I am a petit-bourgeois modernist too. But Greif has to know that reversing the process he condemns will involve reversing cultural developments I suspect he otherwise champions—or maybe not, since he rather boldly deploys a phrase that one imagines seeing in a Ron Paul newsletter or hearing in a Marine Le Pen campaign speech. I will let you, gentle reader, smart member of the public that you are, pick out the potentially offending phrase from the excerpt above: it should not prove difficult.
Left-wing intellectuals have not fully confronted the collapse of Marxism; they are like those post-Christian moralists scorned by Nietzsche, retaining all their values even as they admit that those values’ metaphysical foundation has fallen. To put it bluntly, international socialism was not and never will be on the table. Given that, the real options seem to be some kind of national socialism or some kind of global capitalism. This bifurcation means, in the realm of culture, that the “mass mobilization” Greif ambivalently elegizes is at odds with the ideological appurtenances of decentralized capital flows, which include feminism, multiculturalism, and the ever-expanding universe of sexual identities, all three of which would wither in an atmosphere of greater administration. Greif, of course, says he wants to make the public “dangerous” again—this is his subtle tip of the hat to feminism, multiculturalism, et al., a rose-colored (and I mean “rose” as in pink) look back at the ’60s as some Hegelian fulfillment of earlier radicalism rather than the new (let us say Nietzschean) thing that it actually was: not the climax of the 1930s but the prologue to the 1980s. In any case, let me ask again: what does Greif really want? The re-institution of the draft? Maybe we can invade Russia.
Enough politics; let’s talk literature. Was there a truly first-rate writer among the Partisan Review crowd? Auden and Bellow and Camus and Orwell are very good, of course, but also too smart and well-intentioned to be of the first rank, none of them crazy enough. Greif mentions Eliot (with a few other relatively enlightened European rightists, such as Benn and Jünger), but he was an ideological outlier and not part of the central group. Along with Eliot, Ralph Ellison (also not really in the inner circle) no doubt comes closest. Like Eliot, whom he admired, he had too strong a sense of the literary tradition qua tradition to put all his faith in mass mobilization or in any kind of politics at all. The mature Ellison seems to me to have been a realist, in the polisci not the litcrit sense; he knew what politics were good for and did not delude himself that they were good for everything. His is perhaps the example we should be following. From “The World and the Jug,” as Ellison patiently tries to explain to an exemplary New York Intellectual that sociology can never do the work of literary criticism:
I like your part about Chekhov arising from his sickbed to visit the penal colony at Sakhalin Island. It was, as you say, a noble act. But shouldn’t we remember that it was significant only because Chekhov was Chekhov, the great writer? You compliment me truly, but I have not written so much or so well, even though I have served a certain apprenticeship in the streets and even touch events in the Freedom Movement in a modest way. But I can also recall the story of a certain writer who succeed with a great fanfare of publicity in having a talented murderer released from prison. It made for another very short story which ended quite tragically—though not for the writer: A few months after his release the man killed the mother of two young children. I also know of another really quite brilliant writer who, under the advice of certain wise men who were then managing the consciences of artists, abandoned the prison of his writing to go to Spain, where he was allowed to throw away his life defending a worthless hill. I have not heard his name in years but I remember it vividly; it was Christopher Caudwell, né Christopher St. John Sprigg. There are many such stories, Irving. It’s heads you win, tails you lose, and you are quite right about my not following Baldwin, who is urged on by a nobility—or is it a demon—quite different from my own. It has cost me quite a pretty penny, indeed, but then I was always poor and not (and I know this is a sin in our America) too uncomfortable.
My own position, by the way, is not that global capitalism is a-okay, but rather that the post-modern waning of the nineteenth century’s utopian dreams has returned western culture to pre-modern and non-western norms, norms that put less faith in the state’s ability to materialize and reproduce the nation. A part of me mourns this development too, I can assure you (that would be my civic-republican side, to follow this blog’s vocabulary for my ongoing inner political debate, which confuses me but which I self-servingly prefer to the dead-certainties of the Twitterati). My anarchist side says we might just have to get used to it. From the point of view of art, getting used to it will mean learning to form artistic relations and institutions that do not rely on the nation-state for their material existence or, more importantly, their spiritual justification. There will still be people after The People.