I finally got around to reading the very long, very thin screed, “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals?” by Mark Greif, printed in last Friday's Chronicle of Higher Education. Greif longs for the golden age when elegant writing and clever thinking emanated from the pages of the Partisan Review. He tried to put the magic back in the can with n+1, but couldn’t find the authors he was seeking among the engagé professoriat.
Well, I’m sorry that I have to be the one to say this, but times have changed. Back in the 1940s, if you were an intellectual drawn to political and social critique, you were a novelist, a poet or a critic. The social sciences were still getting on their feet, and the few people who could bridge the worlds of economics/sociology/political science/etc. and politics were also writers and critics—J. K. Galbraith (novelist), David Riesman and the like. A literary epoch.
Today there are scads of public intellectuals using their social science chops to tackle the big themes of politics and culture. By and large, they are not literary stylists. They are active researchers, typically using abstruse methods to shed light on large or murky data sets. Their professional writing is incomprehensible to those without grounding in the relevant academic literatures. To reach a more general audience they are forced to commit the very sin that Greif excoriates, dumbing down.
My problem is that my world has too many public intellectuals. I can spend all day reading fascinating blog posts by economists and other social scientists and postpone forever doing my own work. This writing does not have the literary flair (usually) that the finest writers are able to display, but the ideas are far more precise and engaged with empiricism than anything you will find in the archives of Partisan Review. You can learn more from a good day in the social science blogosphere than a year of reading Dwight Macdonald, and I actually like Dwight Macdonald.
Being a superior writer is no longer a sufficient basis for expertise in culture and politics.