Public Intellectuals in the Twenty-First Century

May 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

The idea of a public intellectual belongs to a far-gone era, but the unusual emergence of Thomas Piketty’s treatise Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and the viral celebrity that has been attained by its author, has Sam Tanenhaus placing him alongside so-called rock stars from previous decades: Susan Sontag, Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, Francis Fukuyama, Samantha Power. (It is interesting that, even though Piketty is French, hotshot European thinkers like Slavoj Žižek and Bernard-Henri Lévy go unmentioned in the article.)

Sontag embraced the role more willingly than the others:

As Ms. Sontag worked through the long history of outlaw art, she made herself, and her reactions, part of the story. “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it,” she wrote. “That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.”

That she talked about it in the pages of Partisan Review, a bastion of somber high seriousness, compounded the allure. So did Ms. Sontag’s dramatic good looks and sleek black-clad figure. Eventually she would impersonate herself in Woody Allen’s “Zelig” and pose for Annie Leibovitz. To this day, no intellectual has so elegantly played the role she actually lived.

The channels for such personalities have been winnowed. Hollywood would never welcome them back, and if it did, they would resist the irony that requires them to play along. We do not have The Dick Cavett Show anymore, are unlikely to see televised feuds in the Mailer-vs.-Vidal vein. Nobody watches C-SPAN2. The Daily Show and its companion programs try to do what they can without spitting into the soup. As we are finding out by this year’s slew of cancelled university commencement speeches, the free market rewards self-congratulation–for which there will never be an attrition of demand–and not the challenging of assumptions.

Likewise, Piketty’s ascent comes at a time when the public has been starving for someone to use their heft to smack around the job-creator myth and send it back to its lair. It is valuable that he has put into words what many laypeople have been thinking, and arming them with new arguments for the kitchen table, but it’s not going to help discourse on any level if that is the only reason people are reading his book.

If Piketty has a rival for celebrity, it might be Evgeny Morozov, whose writing does not eschew discomfort, but rather explores the dark tunnels of human interaction in the age of social media and offers well-intended caution about what the Internet promises versus what it delivers.

In the book Mr. Morozov puts quotation marks around every reference to “the Internet,” and with that tic he makes a larger point: readers should stop and question everything they have been taught about technology, including that the Internet exists.

Without such skepticism, Mr. Morozov and his supporters say, the public easily succumbs to the slick promises and catchwords of online entrepreneurs or TED talks — “open” or “generative” or “transparent” or “participatory.” And those words lead to real beliefs, with real consequences, he argues — for example, that privacy is just an archaic notion, or that information “wants to be free.”


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