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A Cautious Appraisal of the Twentieth-Century Intellectual
on April 17, 2012
"Representations of the Intellectual" is a compilation of the six Reith Lectures that Edward Said delivered over BBC Radio in 1993. The title is somewhat misleading: Said doesn't really examine representations of intellectuals so much as offers a prescriptive way he thinks they should function within a society. His particular interest is the intellectual in the late twentieth century, confronted as they sometimes are on all fronts with ideological and political concerns. How is the intellectual to align himself or herself with these, or should they?
The title essay was for me the most interesting, drawing a sharp distinction between the conceptions of the intellectual developed by Antonio Gramsci and Julien Benda. Gramsci himself discerns between two types of intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals are the "teachers, priests, and administrators, who continue to do the same thing from generation to generation," while organic intellectuals are "directly connected to classes or enterprises that use intellectuals to organize interests, gain more power, get more control" (p. 4). Gramsci thought that everyone has the potential to be an intellectual, even if some people do not function as intellectuals in society. In his 1927 essay "The Betrayal of the Intellectuals," Julien Benda's decidedly less demotic, even Platonic, ideal of an intellectual suggests that they are "a tiny band of super-gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the conscience of mankind" (p. 4-5). Benda thought intellectuals had largely given up the objective, dispassionate analysis of issues and had become corrupted by special interests, politics, and vulgar nationalism. Said uses Gramsci and Benda as touchstones throughout the essays for what he thinks the intellectual should, and shouldn't, strive toward.
The rest of the essays revolve around a small number of reoccurring themes. The intellectual should always wear the mantle of the exile if not literally, then at least figuratively. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski are two such figures, even though Said displays sublime self-control in not pointing out that they both used their intellectual firepower to further the hegemonic interests of the most powerful nation in the world. Said also favors the approach of the amateur over that of the professional. The professional is epitomized by the "impossible to understand classroom technician, hired by committee, anxious to please various patrons and agencies, bristling with academic credentials and a social authority that does not promote debate but established reputations and intimidates non-experts" (p. 72). Instead, the amateur (literally, one spurred on by care and affection) works outside, or at least in addition to, his or her narrow specialization in an effort to understand matters in a broader context.
This is a solid foundation, but left a lot of important questions are completely unconsidered. What about those intellectuals who seemingly do align themselves with avowed political concerns? Do Noam Chomsky's endorsement of anarcho-syndicalism and continued skepticism regarding many American foreign policy decisions mean that he cannot be considered an intellectual? Apparently not, as Said refers to him approvingly at least once.
And while the scope of a set of six lectures, each originally a radio address with a duration of thirty minutes, is almost necessarily narrow, the essays don't address the dynamic change in the role of the intellectual over the centuries. While Said's ideal of the intellectual is almost necessarily a public intellectual, such a thing would have never existed in medieval Europe. Would the fact that a member of the medieval clerisy was almost always a member of the Church change anything here? Or that the Renaissance artist was always beholden to a wealthy Maecenas, whether religious or secular? I realize that these questions are beyond the scope of Said's project, but I found myself wishing for a book-length treatment that would have given them thoughtful consideration.
Most of the material here is a noncontroversial adumbration of what has been said about intellectuals by others: the intellectual should (excuse the cliché) "speak truth to power," shouldn't be the tool of political or ideological interests, should eschew narrow professionalism. Having previously read Said's "Orientalism" and "On Late Style," both of which were innovative and thought-provoking, I found these essays to be relatively conservative. For the most part, the intellectual as exile, as someone not beholden to deeply entrenched ideological or political interests, and as passionate amateur are not new. Reading Said always leaves me wanting the wild-eyed radical that he is so often accused of being by predominant American neoconservatives, although in this case, I was left with something much more pragmatic and altogether cautious.