May 15, 2012
Published in the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, Spring 2012
Puya Gerami: I'm hoping we might begin our discussion by briefly talking about the literary and political tradition, particularly that of the New York Intellectuals, that has influenced your work. Your first collection of essays and reviews, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, seems, in part, a salute to the vibrant literary culture that thrived during the mid-twentieth century. Can you describe the major features of style and content that characterize the writings of the New York Intellectuals? Although the corpus of these thinkers is anything but a homogenous collection, it does seem to provide a coherent model of progressive social criticism, rooted in political engagement and cultural authority.
George Scialabba: Irving Howe has limned the lineaments of this intellectual culture in a marvelous essay called "The New York Intellectuals". [L1] He emphasizes above all that they were amateurs, non-specialists, non-professionals, generalists - "luftmenschen of the mind," as he puts it. It was perhaps the last time in modern cultural history that one could aspire to be a generalist--well, of course one can always aspire to be a generalist, and sometimes one can achieve a great deal in that line--but still, they managed to be authoritative about virtually everything. Admittedly, part of their success may have been their extraordinary gift for sounding authoritative, whether or not they actually knew what they were talking about; but in truth they had an enormous range and versatility. I'm sure it had something to do with New York being the throbbing heart of a great world power, and also something to do with their being newly emancipated Jews, and therefore bringing the passion and resources of that long-suppressed and hedged-in culture and ethnicity to bear freely on their environment for the first time, being able to speak to and about their society as full members, as they rarely had in any previous society. So I'm sure there were things about them that made their extraordinary range and universality possible. But it was also the fact that it was still possible to marshal the resources of the canonical Western literary and philosophical tradition and bring it to bear on politics and society more or less directly.
But that capacity couldn't last forever. As the
One of the tools of the manufacture of consent was expertise. Public relations involved finding engineers, scientists, and social scientists who could make the ruling class's case persuasively. Formerly, all you needed to criticize American foreign policy and corporate policy effectively was a good ear for bullshit. Because government and business propagandists were basically amateurs, their critics could be amateurs. But the new techniques of social control called into being a whole new cohort of intellectuals - one might call them anti-public intellectuals: intellectuals in the service of power rather than in the service of the public. They deployed expertise, which in turn required that they be countered with expertise. But expertise takes time and effort to acquire; and it proved difficult to combine this time and effort with what had formerly been the chief activity of public intellectuals, that is, the cultivation of the humanities. Literary intellectuals like Randolph Bourne or Mark Twain, or philosophers like William James, could muster perfectly adequate critiques of American foreign policy in the early industrial age. But when the ruling class got smarter and better at hiring its apologists, the public needed experts of its own. And these tended to be investigative journalists--I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald--or maverick scholars, like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Kenneth Galbraith, Christopher Lasch, or William Appleman Williams.
PG: So it was, in fact, these changing material and ideological conditions that rendered the generalist intellectual obsolete.
PG: So What Are Intellectuals Good For? isn't necessarily a lament for the demise of the generalist intellectual. Rather, the growing complexity of propaganda today requires the public intellectual to practice a form of social criticism quite different from that which had been developed by the New York Intellectuals.
GS: Well, I'm basically a literary and philosophical humanist myself, not a journalist or scholar or expert of any kind, so I do personally regret that people like me don't have and never again will have the cultural authority that the
PG: What I find most difficult to grapple with in understanding this transition from the generalist to the specialist intellectual is the sudden absence of the literary imagination. You quote Chomsky, who remarks: "I've always been resistant to consciously allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history." This conscious resistance to the influence of literature seems to me to result in a tragic loss.
GS: Yes, I see what you mean. I guess I'd say that once the chief apologists for policy were no longer younger sons of aristocratic families but instead people like McGeorge Bundy, Robert MacNamara, and Henry Kissinger, i.e., people with credentials, it was easier for them to shrug off or dismiss criticisms by literary intellectuals like Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, or Robert Lowell, even though those criticisms were cogent and true, because the literary intellectuals didn't have credentials themselves. They weren't experts. And this impressed the media, who reported the controversy in a way that privileged expertise. But the counter-expertise of people like Chomsky and Zinn couldn't be shrugged off in quite the same way. These counter-experts refuted, in detail and on its own terms, what pretended to be an authoritative expert case for government and corporate policy, in a way that literary people - even those who were perfectly right, like Mailer, Sontag, and Lowell - couldn't do. Obviously, the literary intellectuals had learned a certain amount about American foreign policy and about Vietnamese or Latin American history - their criticisms were largely true, after all. But to sway public opinion, the appearance of expertise backed by a large bureaucracy had to be countered not merely by lone individuals who mostly produced works of fiction, poetry, or literary criticism, and occasionally dabbled in politics. What was needed were people who deployed the same scholarly or investigative expertise and skills as did the anti-public intellectuals.
PG: You write that these new public intellectuals, in effect, sacrificed literary timelessness for the exigencies of real politics.
GS: Well, yes, putting it like that was a little bit of a literary flourish on my part. But it's true in this sense: people will read Orwell and Camus forever because their political rhetoric is itself a kind of art, a form of literature. People won't read Chomsky or even I.F. Stone forever. I hope they'll read them for a good long time, for as long as this is a class society. But even after this is no longer a class society, people will read Orwell for the beauties of his prose and the windings of his sensibility; while they'll be able to put aside I.F. Stone, gratefully, and say: "All right, God bless him for his beautiful life, but now we've learned what he had to teach; may he rest in peace."
PG: How does academic specialization fit into this transition from the generalist to the specialist intellectual? At the same time that you laud the rise of the specialist as a sign of genuine cultural progress, you have eloquently attacked a culture of academic specialization whose abstruse language guarantees public irrelevance and political impotence. "A critic with public purposes," you write, "has rhetorical obligations, above all, transparency." It seems like the jargon-laden vocabulary of academic specialization resists transparency, and therefore, political relevance.
GS: I do think that. Of course, where specialization is a necessary part of the practice, as in the sciences, I have nothing but approval and praise. It was possible in the early twentieth century for a powerful mind to take in very nearly the whole of science and mathematics: to have a strong sense of how they developed, where they were going, what the frontier problems were, and so on. Now, you can't even do that for molecular biology or the cognitive sciences: even individual disciplines are simply too much for any one person to get his or her mind around. That's painful to adjust to, but you can't regret it: it really is genuine progress.
On the other hand, I don't think specialization or expertise in the humanities or the social/ideological sciences is entitled to the same prima facie legitimacy. In a market society, competition is inescapable, and competition means product differentiation. Translated into academic terms, that means one has to carve out a niche, or revise old understandings, or invent a new vocabulary. But it's not inconceivable that in some cases - literary criticism, for example, or political theory - the old vocabulary is perfectly adequate. Alas, you can't tell that to a university administrator. They need to justify budget allocations to higher-ups, and they're used to justifying them in the "new and improved" language of corporate administration and marketing. Universities have become more like businesses--perhaps that's inevitable in a market society, but the cost is that they are run internally more like businesses. That involves hiring people with business backgrounds as university presidents and deans, and such people will ask: "Well, how can I justify raising salaries in this department? Are they offering something new, something that the competition isn't doing, something that will bring in more customers, something that I can sell to the President or the Board?" Where innovation is spontaneous and auto-generated, we rightly honor it. But where it's artificial and generated largely or purely by the pressures of competition, it often leads to spurious innovation.
I'm not an academic myself, so my acquaintance with the jargon of political science, sociology, economics, or literary criticism and theory, is a little rusty. But I certainly read complaints about them - you can hardly avoid doing so. Policymakers leaving office - most famously, Robert McNamara - sometimes look back and say, "My God! What a lot of absurdities I subscribed to!" Likewise, once academics are sufficiently eminent, they sometimes say, "My God! The profession really is getting to be a crock!" Of course it's not for me, an outsider, to dismiss all of contemporary scholarship in the social sciences and humanities as a crock. But a lot of it does seem like innovation for the sake of innovation.
PG: It seems even pernicious.
GS: Well, yes it does, insofar as the resources that go to support critics, teachers, practitioners in the arts and humanities are necessarily finite, and so the more that goes to hucksters, to those who have only a factitiously novel but highly marketable jargon, the less can go to people doing enduringly valuable work. In that sense, it's pernicious. It doesn't oppress or exploit anybody, I suppose. But material support for the humanities is limited, and if available resources go to less valuable work, it can't go to more valuable work.
Another thought about specialization. I myself have never been professionally attached to an academic or journalistic institution. I've had a clerical job (in a university, as it happens) for more than thirty years now, which has paid the bills. It's relatively undemanding, but it's also rather dull. It's thirty hours a week, and I'm awfully sorry that I've have to spend so much of my life at that damned desk. But I'm also awfully glad that I've never had to write looking over my shoulder. It has never crossed my mind - as it must inevitably cross the mind of even the most independent-minded and brave young academic - to wonder what a dean or department chairman or tenure committee is going to think about what I have to say, or where I write, or what I've chosen to write about. Even a staff writer at a relatively independent magazine or newspaper has to make compromises, has to work out a beat and a style with an editor, a boss. You can learn from a boss sometimes, when the enterprise is a healthy and an honorable one, but it's also constraining. Some people have told me, perhaps too generously, that I've achieved a gratifyingly direct voice, a common style. I'm glad--it's certainly what I've hoped to do. But to the extent that I have, I'm pretty sure that I couldn't have done it if I had been subject to the ordinary pressures that most young academics and journalists are subject to today. So there's that to be said against specialization.
PG: And yet, increasingly for students of the humanities, the only route after undergraduate education is the pursuit of an advanced degree. Not that this is a bad thing at all; it's simply the only option. It's nearly impossible for a young intellectual to do what you do, in the society we live in today.
GS: I think the best explanation I've come across for their plight is Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals. He highlights not just developments internal to the world of ideas and culture but also the material conditions of culture. It's hard to have public intellectuals when urban real estate is out of sight. Rent control arguably underwrote New York intellectual life for a long time. How do you live in New York today without an income of sixty or seventy thousand dollars a year? You can do it in your twenties, maybe, you can share or scrimp, but pretty soon, you're going to start being obsessed by the thought: "My God, how can I persuade somebody to give me sixty or seventy thousand dollars a year?" Well, perhaps you can go to the Maine woods or the Nebraska prairie, now that those places are wired up to the Net. But yes, the choices and constraints facing young intellectuals now are stark. They certainly would have stymied me.
PG: You just mentioned the Internet. In the last essay of What Are Intellectuals Good For?, you write: "At this stage of our political and cultural development, electronic collectivization would produce not new, marvelously complex and efficient forms of cognition and communication, but historical amnesia and mass manipulation." In recent years, numerous commentators have suggested that cyberspace can offer an unprecedented, globalized forum for social and cultural debate. Do you find this plausible, or will electronic collectivization erode civic virtues and our linguistic tradition?
GS: This line of argument was put best, at least by my lights, in Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies. Though the book is now twenty years old, developments since then have only confirmed that changes in the physical form of reading gradually, on a molecular level and scale and pace, do indeed alter our psychic metabolism. One of the great virtues of Birkerts' book is its evocation of the spiritual and imaginative possibilities of deep reading. The book is a phenomenology of deep reading, of the way that immersion in a great and demanding text, piece of music, or piece of visual art can activate deep and previously untouched capacities and allow connections to be made among our cultural neurons, which can only happen in relative stillness and isolation.
PG: In solitude.
GS: In solitude. That's his argument; and I'm persuaded. The second part of the argument is that stillness and solitude are just what life online makes increasingly difficult. Since The Gutenberg Elegies was published, Nicholas Carr has written The Shallows, which makes something of the same case, without Birkerts' literary flair but with a certain amount of reporting on recent developments in cognitive science.
The book in its physical form probably can't last forever. It's not part of my or Birkerts' hope or brief that it should. But deep reading, imaginative immersion: those things do need to last forever. The printed book can be lost and left behind, but the spiritual habitus Birkerts is describing can't, or mustn't, be left behind - it's the royal road to the very best that any individual can achieve. And it's at risk in our current mental ecology. Here, as elsewhere, how to preserve the best of the old in the course of vast changes is a perennial problem.
PG: I suppose we're talking about the modern predicament.
GS: (Smiles) "The modern predicament" - an excellent phrase!
PG: I want to explore this term mental ecology. In your 1999 review of Ellen Willis's Don't Think, Smile you write: "As the global economy and mass culture lay siege to inwardness, plow up our psychic root system, and alter the very grain and contour of our being, conservation increasingly becomes a radical imperative." You express a skeptical, if not fearful, judgment of certain cultural developments that threaten human inwardness, rootedness, and our psychic or mental ecology. More specifically, what exactly--what institutions, perhaps--ought leftists or social critics seek to conserve in the face of these vast changes associated with modernity, and in response to the claims made by cultural radicals like Ellen Willis?
GS: The terms in which I see and approach the problem were formulated largely by left-wing anti-modernists like Christopher Lasch and Jackson Lears. I spoke before about the social and political consequences of mass production, that great watershed in American history - another way to look at the consequences of that shift is to trace, as Lasch does, the effects of mass production and the growth of medical, psychological, educational expertise and bureaucracies on individual character structure. We humans have an evolutionary history. We have a specific, somewhat plastic but not infinitely plastic biological endowment. We have a specific gestational history and an early developmental history. It matters to creatures who have this, or any, kind of body and biology, what scale they live and grow on. From time immemorial, children grew up with two main, and a great many other auxiliary, authority figures, who corresponded to figures in their infantile fantasy life--initially overwhelming, terrifying figures. Gradually, as children became more familiar with those figures, as they watched their parents and other adults cope with daily life, their fantasies gradually shrank down to manageable proportions. That, to simplify quite a bit, is a description of human psychological maturation.
PG: And this is according to Lasch's psychoanalytic critique of modernity.
GS: Yes--I think Lasch is a matchless interpreter of Freud.
PG: His work has endured as a key subject of fascination for you.
GS: He's an indispensable social critic and cultural historian. As he tells the story, what happens in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is that, first, the father is taken out of the home, out of the child's immediate environment and off to the factory. He doesn't go to work next door in the field, shop, or forge. The child can't just come and watch and play nearby and see his father make mistakes on the job and win or lose arguments with customers - all of which tended to humanize him. Now the father's activity is all beyond the horizon. It's mysterious, obscure. The child gathers that his father is not in charge of his own life, that he is a subordinate. An abstract force called the company, corporation, agency, or state is what controls his father. As for the mother, instead of its being the individual woman, making use of whatever traditions she absorbed from her own mother and the older women in her circle, it's again the distant state, in the form of the school system, medical system, and social welfare bureaucracy, that wields ultimate authority.
As authority becomes more remote and abstract in real life, there's no way for it to be whittled down to human scale and manageable proportions the child's fantasy life. But fantasy life--this is Lasch and Freud's crucial premise--is fundamental to how our character develops. Because primitive fantasies cannot be reduced to human scale, as they used to be - since authority is now distant, obscure, remote, mysterious, and omnipotent - the individual grows up fatally ambivalent - either enraged or passive - toward authority. That is the classical definition of narcissism. Parents, as it used to become clear to the child from firsthand observation, are fallible and limited. As the child grew, she eventually became as strong and as smart as her parents, and finally more so. That was individuation and maturation. But you can't measure yourself against an abstract entity like the state or the corporation.
PG: So Lasch's suggested preservation of local, formative authority would foster the individual's ability to challenge and overcome authority in general.
GS: Yes, exactly. Just as the infant does in fantasy life, and the growing adolescent does in real life. You can't grow up without the experience of overcoming prejudice and arbitrary authority; you have to live through them and live them down. In any case, some arbitrary authority is simply necessary for every child's safety and every pupil's formation. But of course, arbitrary authority has a checkered record historically, as cultural radicals are quite right to point out. And those who feel that oppressive history especially keenly are women and minorities, which is why a large proportion of leading cultural radicals are women and minorities.
PG: It seems like, in order to avoid what you deem "the twin specters of antimodernist fundamentalism and postmodernist nihilism," we must proceed gradually through modernity, or in other words: we can't skip steps, out of respect for our evolutionary history and psychic ecology. While Lasch's critique of modernity and skepticism of so-called "progress" is indeed persuasive and compelling, his idea of an alternative model for social organization is conspicuously lacking. This might go some way in explaining the frequent charge that he is somehow conservative or regressive, or that he would prefer to revert back to premodern insitutions like craft labor, traditional concepts like the intrinsic value of individual work. His brilliant analysis of modernity notwithstanding, it doesn't seem like he offers an alternative to replace what is undoubtedly a problematic state of affairs.
GS: I think it's a pity that both Lasch and Ellen Willis died too young to thrash out some of these issues between them. I know Lasch had a brief but warm correspondence with Barbara Ehrenreich, who certainly was not likely to blink at any anti-feminist implications of this critique of modernity. Yes, it's true that the hegemony of mass society is virtually complete nowadays. You mentioned craft, the value of work, as a premodern tradition ...
PG: Or even the most general communitarian ideals...
GS: Yes. Well, I know that by "premodern" you didn't mean that there was something necessarily archaic about them. There isn't. The point is to preserve under modern conditions the essence of those ideals: craftsmanship, autonomy at work, individual responsibility. The responsibility of the shopkeeper, the craftsman, the proprietor, the farmer to stand behind his work - this was identical, in pre-industrial America, with being a full citizen.
PG: In your writings, you repeatedly emphasize the value of self-discipline.
GS: Which is something there's almost no scope for, or motivation for, in the contemporary workplace. In the sciences, yes; or among autonomous professionals or other people who are the privileged elite of the modern economy, yes. But even among those who are lucky enough to have regular employment, most no longer have any autonomy at work. Everyone knows that responsibility at work simply means thinking "How can I meet the company's goals better (or successfully pretend that I am)?" rather than thinking vain thoughts like "Should I even be doing this at all? Should the company be doing this at all?" The job's goals, techniques, and materials are defined by management; the history and internal requirements of the practice count for nothing.
PG: Lasch's critique seems to have gained relevance and urgency with the rise of neoliberal individualism and the unprecedented flexibility of labor and capital.
GS: Nowadays, of course, "flexible labor" means the complete freedom of management to deploy labor as it sees fit, when it seems fit. Any flexibility on the part of the worker to define his own pace or purpose or approach is simply inconceivable. Try discussing the question with an economist - blank stares.
Even the Left has largely abandoned all concern over the degradation of work. Lasch traces the course of two different kinds of working-class resistance to 19th-century industrialization. One, organized labor under the guidance of socialists in the European tradition, focused almost entirely on compensation and benefits and job security - which, it goes without saying, are valuable in and of themselves. But he distinguished this approach from that of the Populists, who were protesting against their loss of autonomy, the loss of work which they valued for its own sake.
PG: He lionizes the Populist movement in America, isn't that so?
GS: He does. Perhaps "lionize" might suggest that he idealizes or overvalues it, but I think he's responding to a tradition of undervaluing the Populists, which was given special force by Richard Hofstadter and other mid-century historians.
Nowadays, when subsistence for fifteen or twenty percent of the population is an issue, and two to three million people in the past few years have lost their homes, how do you raise demands for work that has value again, or for craftsmanship, or the autonomy of the worker? It sounds absurd, almost fantastic. Bare subsistence and minimum economic security are and must be the issues of the day. But once we get past austerity-- and unfortunately, it looks like we're in for a very long spell, which apparently suits the financial elites just fine--these aspirations, these values, have to be reasserted.
The only vision I've encountered of how to organize a modern society from the ground up in a way that values the ideals of craftmanship, of sexual equality, of sustainability, and of citizenship, is Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia. It was published in 1975 and was a sort of underground classic in the seventies and eighties. It's rarely referred to now, but it's awfully good, and I hope the ideas in it will resurface on the Left in the future.
PG: My impression of your larger argument is that we must stall or perhaps prolong modernity. We're going at far too past a pace, and we must universalize what we have already. You quote Matthew Arnold, who says, "The secret of the life of the future is civilization made pervasive and general." We shouldn't move forward toward a postmodern future--whatever that might look like--on a planet with such staggering inequality.
GS: Amen. I couldn't put it better than that. By all means, let's move forward someday, toward postmodernity or wherever. But together.
PG: A final question: in your writings you have argued that the overabundance of information and staggering breadth of the cultural and political conversation today has made it increasingly difficult for anyone to develop "a position on everything." Because there are far more texts than one will ever have the time or ability to read, many students struggle, even, to find a place to begin. What do you think students of literature and politics should be reading today? Alternatively, what shouldn't they be reading?
GS: For native English speakers, the single greatest moral resource in the language is the nineteenth-century novel. I taught for a few semesters at a writing program and would always ask my students how many of them had read Middlemarch or Bleak House or Portrait of a Lady. It was a top-tier writing program, all highly competitive, excellent students, but a distressing number hadn't read some or even any of these books. Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Meredith, Trollope, James, Hardy, Conrad are, together with Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, a matchlessly deep and precious trove of wisdom.
Every language's poetic tradition is rich, but ours in English is very rich. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English verse is a source of many, many exquisite pleasures. You do have to work a little--the language is not colloquial twentieth-century English--but it's the root of our English. And then, the King James Version of the Bible. My favorite twentieth-century writer, D.H. Lawrence, wrote a lovely essay on growing up with the Bible called "Hymns in a Man's Life." The KJV Bible is even richer than Shakespeare, both psychologically and linguistically. (I don't mention Shakespeare only because I don't think your readers will need my recommendation.)
Well, that's a bare minimum. As for other writers besides novelists or poets, I would recommend Nietzsche, my favorite philosopher, as well as John Stuart Mill. Appreciating those two simultaneously is the challenge of a lifetime.
As for what not to read, I would say don't read your e-mail, or most of it. Don't read text messages, or tweets, or ads. Stay off Facebook. We all waste so much of our lives chatting, shopping, being assaulted by ads. And don't watch television. Television is an enormous realm, and there's a lot that's good--but it's very hard, almost impossible, not to find oneself relaxing into flabby, promiscuous spectatorship, just as it's very hard to eat only one or two potato chips.
PG: An assault on inwardness, perhaps? What would you recommend with respect to socialist thought? It seems like your intellectual heroes include the most prominent Victorian socialists: Ruskin, Morris, Wilde...
GS: Mill, Morris, Ruskin, and Wilde, yes. I'm an ethical socialist. Marx is also a great moral philosopher, rhetorician, and social critic. But frankly, though I've studied Capital with some excellent teachers, I still don't understand it. I just don't get the labor theory of value. I guess you have to have a mind that adapts well to German philosophy.
PG: Or perhaps Capital isn't quite relevant to the direct political struggles we're facing today. In other words, ethical socialism might be a far more viable project for one to commit to.
GS: I don't mean that I've seen through Marx or that I'm satisfied that there's nothing there. It does seem to me that he had some remarkable predictions about the periodicity of crises in capitalism and the financialization of the global economy. I think his description of the future course of capitalism was strikingly accurate. I just don't know whether those predictions came rigorously out of his theory, or simply from his almost unparalleled knowledge of economic history. There does seem to be something to the notion of surplus value as an explanation of the vicissitudes of the business cycle. But I have to confess I can't come to terms, finally, with Marxist theory. I'm not sure that Occupy - or the American citizenry as a whole, if it ever rouses itself to reassert its sovereignty - will really need Marx. But it will need Mill, Ruskin, Wilde, Morris, Randolph Bourne, and Ernest Callenbach.
George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament.