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Kazin: Debate About Topics That Matter

PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL

June 14, 1998|Thomas Bender | Thomas Bender, who teaches history at New York University, is the author of "New York Intellect" and "Intellect and Public Life."

Kazin was one of those mid-century writers known as the New York Intellectuals. Associated with the Partisan Review, they came to prominence in the 1940s and held the stage at least through the 1960s. They came to define the very meaning of public intellectual.

What accounts for their heightened position in our culture and historical memory? Largely, it was timing: The right people and ideas at the right time. A society that had routinely excluded Jews from college posts before the war was newly sensitive to the challenge to human dignity and pluralism posed by the Holocaust and Soviet communism. Granting public presence to new voices, many from the immigrant ghetto, was a testament to the possibilities of American society. It was the first time a circle of intellectuals, of mostly immigrant background, often Jewish, claimed to speak not merely for their group, but for American democracy.

This explains much of their prominence, but even more important were their ideas. The Cold War assured wide appreciation for a group of critics unmistakably of the left, while also staunchly anticommunist. The New York Intellectuals had spent the 1930s as Marxist anti-Stalinist critics in the internecine cultural and political debates on the left. By the 1940s, as they achieved wide visibility and influence, their position in the polity and in the fellowship of critics had become complicated. In so far as they spoke for modernist literature and an expansive democracy, they were critics of established power. But not completely. Whether by intention or not, critics can serve the ideological interests of more conservative power, and one might say as much about some of this group in respect to their liberal anticommunism.

My point, however, is not to judge the politics of the New York Intellectuals, but rather to argue that intellectuals gain public prominence only when they address the most difficult issues of a given historical moment--and do so in a common language. It is, therefore, no accident that Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West and Toni Morrison emerged as major intellectual voices in the 1980s and '90s, when the United States sought to understand the pain of racial injustice and comprehend the moral urgency of racial justice.

There is much nostalgia today about the New York Intellectuals, evident in the popularity of the recent documentary "Arguing the World." Seeking to understand this sense of loss, some insist that Kazin and his generation are the last public intellectuals, that academic life, characterized by specialization, professional privilege and self-referentiality, has captured the men and women who might otherwise have contributed to general public discussion.

The late French philosopher Michel Foucault offered a slightly different analysis, arguing that the contemporary intellectual would be, and ought to be, the specific intellectual. This argument is not the same as defending disciplinary specialization, but it does suggest highly specific rather than general interventions in public life.

Some observe that general intellectuals have been replaced by social-science experts, who focus on specific policy issues, avoiding the general commentary that marked the New York Intellectuals.

Others note that the intellectuals are still with us, as the examples of Morrison and Gates reveal. Their numbers might seem small, but that is because many intellectuals today are located differently on the political landscape. They have switched sides from left to right. Some of the most visible no longer speak for the extension of democracy and the emancipation of the oppressed. They are now identified with various right-wing causes. Hardly critics of power, these intellectuals, well supported by wealthy, conservative think tanks, represent and speak for established power.

There are truths in all these interpretations; they describe important changes in the relation of intellect to public life. Intellect surely survives in public life, but in different forms, and that represented by Kazin today is attenuated. The literary culture that enabled him to assume the role of public moralist is much weakened by the practices of commercial publishing; by literary study more interested in theory than art; by a crippling self-referentiality and jargon that, ironically, defeats a genuine desire to reach a public, and by an impulse toward identification in both text and audience rather than reaching for the unfamiliar, the other--so necessary a prompt to the political and moral imagination.

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