Tag Archives: public intellectuals

Ephemeral, all too ephemeral; Or, does anybody remember what Russell Jacoby wrote yesterday?

David Rothman over at Teleread announced today that I’ll be blogging for them on a semi-regular basis. As I’ve indicated on this blog in the past, I think Teleread is a very good portal for getting good information about all things reading, with a special emphasis on e-books and the general interface between the digital world and books. Also, though I’m not involved in this whole end of things, they function as an advocacy group for universal computer and open library access. A worthy cause in my estimation.

David wasn’t dissuaded by my protestations that I don’t consider myself an expert on reading, e-books, or blogging. I’ll try to keep it from being too much the amateur hour.

But wait, some people are saying that blogging is THE amateur hour, to the destruction of our civilization. So perhaps I’ll just do my best to contribute to the end of all things.

Seriously though, as this blog reaches its one month anniversary, I’ve realized that I’ve been thinking at least as much about how blogging works as writing as I have about how reading is functioning in our contemporary culture. Russell Jacoby, whom I generally respect for his now somewhat ancient call for a renewal of public intellectual work, wrote a kind of scathing dismissal of the contemporary academy, and along with it a rather sniffy dismissal of blogging.

I think Jacoby’s categorical thinking is part and parcel of our problem in grappling with the nature of reading and writing—and thinking and intellectual work—in the contemporary world. It is true that blogs are somewhat ephemeral, but on the other hand, how many of the many periodical essays of the 1950s do people really remember. Moreover, if blogging specifically eschews the media of print and permanence, we might ask what kind of intellectual work, what kind of cultural work generally, is being done by this kind of writing?

It seems to me to apply the standard of permanent value to any public intellectual work is wrongheaded. The things Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling had to say in the 30s, 40s, and 50s can hardly apply to our world at the dawning of the 21st century. But more importantly, they did a specific kind of public intellectual work that was appropriate for the media and age in which they worked.

Blogging can be “id writing” as described in the NyTimes the other day. But it can also be a kind of intellectual and cultural work much different from those that we are used to. The 1950s saw both a lot of what we now envy as influential public intellectual work, and it also saw the explosion on the scene of Playboy magazine. Perhaps this was why people claim even yet today to buy it for the writing.

My point is that magazines and middle to upper middle brow journals were a media through which to do particular kinds of intellectual work. It seems to me that blogs and other kinds of interactive and multimedia formations are the site of potentially important intellectual work today.

But what is the nature of that work. How does it differ from that of the past. Well, for one thing, I think it aspires more to the kind of interchanges that go on in coffeeshop culture of the 18th century, where intellectual work was not yet located (imprisoned?) in as yet undeveloped academy. It’s even much more like the intellectual work that goes on in classrooms or in informal exchanges with colleagues and students after a lecture or reading.

Academics mostly sniff at this kind of thing as beneath their consideration. But it seems to me that it is precisely out of these kinds of exchanges that enduring and important intellectual work comes from. This is why I decided to start blogging a month ago. I wanted to imagine an intellectual space, a conversational space, that wasn’t imprisoned by the conventions of academic work. I also wanted to imagine doing writing that was more like the energy I feel in conversations with good friends about topics I care about deeply.

I think, honestly, that this will lead to another kind of writing that is more conventional. I still want to publish a book on the reading in the contemporary cultural imaginary. On the other hand, just because I continue to envision a more conventional form of intellectual work, I think I’m coming to think that we are mistaken if we think that blogging or other kinds of intellectual exchange on the web can only be justified if they lead to that kind of thing. If they do, great. But if they don’t they are their own kind of good. When Jacoby criticized blogs for the ephemerality, he is holding out the standard of books, and even more books that continue to be read decades after they are written, as the only worthy definition of intellectual work. I dispute that. The immediacy of blogging, the effort to grapple in written words with difficult problems, the opportunity to have friends and strangers read or respond, these are their own goods. This is a kind of intellectual work worth doing regardless of what other forms it may lead to, and regardless of whether it leads anywhere else at all. Just as the engagement I have in my classroom is its own good and produces knowledge worth having in me and in my students, the process of writing, of thinking through issues on a daily or weekly basis, is a knowledge worth pursuing even if it disappears next week or next year.

Well, enough for now. I’ll try to come back later and put in some links for Jacoby’s piece and some other things I refer to in this post. Right now I’ve got to go party with my wife. She thinks I love my blog more than her, so I better go prove her wrong.