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Re: <nettime> A Puff Piece on Wikipedia (Fwd)
Keith Hart on Mon, 6 Oct 2003 15:06:20 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> A Puff Piece on Wikipedia (Fwd)



Kermit Snelson wrote:

>But to be honest with ourselves, we must look deep into what
intellectualism means.<

I know that intellectuals are killers, sometimes not just figuratively. I
am one myself, after all. But not all forms of thinking or persons that we
might deem to be "intellectual" are equally homicidal. Indeed some
intellectuals struggle mightily to retain their humanity and even to
contribute to schemes of human improvement.

This notion of the close affinity between intellectuals and death starts
with opposing ideas and life. Hume called ideas "pale sensations" and we
all know what he meant. Ideology, Marx's camera obscura, is the attempt to
persuade people that ideas shape their lives rather than the other way
around. The author's dream and nightmare is that his/her living thoughts
will survive like so many frozen embryos in dead books.

Trebor Scholtz (New Media Education and Its Discontent, nettime, 5.10.03)
published a fascinating essay on this list, while we were extending the
boundaries of the present thread, about the anti-intellectualism of
American students. This aspect of the Anglophone empiricist tradition goes
far beyond the students and helps to account for the estrangement of
American intellectuals from their own public. When I was dining at the high
table of my Cambridge college one evening, a neighbour asked me if I
thought I was an intellectual. I replied yes. He looked around at the other
fellows, deep into their mortgages and creme brulee, and said " Well, you
are the only one here." I have long thought that the function of the
universities is to take bright young people and persuade that they will
never change the world with their ideas.

The intellectual has to dehumanise him/herself in order to do the work.
That is what detachment means -- avoiding domestic responsibility, staying
out of today's political fight, separating ideas from the persons who acted
as midwife to their birth, subjecting oneself to inner torment in the small
hours, riding the rollercoaster between mania and depression. And if the
intellectual is nourished by social engagement, by acrtually caring about
other people, by all the human passions, then moving between the two poles
of his/her existence can be a rocky ride.

Max Weber, who suffered from terrible depressions and tried to be both a
politician and an intellectual, wrote two wonderful essays called "Politics
as a vocation" and "Science as a vocation". In them he claimed that the
politician, in engaging with the struggle for power, must be guided by
passion. But he also has to take care to be reasonable, since people will
reject him if he is clearly mad. Equally, the scientist must be guided by
reason and cultivate objective detachment. But Weber notes that the best
scientists are also passionate enthusiasts for their work. So that,
although the two professions appear to depend on the ideal types of passion
and reason respectively, in reality they must be combined to be effective
as human practice. Nevertheless, DNA was not discovered by people kissing
babies on the stump. How can engagement and detachment be synthesised as a
pattern of daily work or as an alternating cycle?

Exile, as Edward Said among others insisted, is one possible answer. The
involuntary exile has to time to think and write, while being reminded
daily that s/he is the victim of coercion. Imprisonment, in some extreme
cases, has been an even more powerful incentive to sustained intellectual
production. It is curious, given this intellectual-killer hypothesis, that
Rene Descartes, our common ancestor, found that signing up as a
professional soldier in the Thirty years war gave him lots of time to think
between the sporadic fighting. He spent most days in bed until midday and
then got up to read books by the fire. Every now and then he took a few
weeks' sabbatical in a Paris monastery.

This example raises Kermit's second point about the dependence of
intellectuals on patrons who are themselves directly or indirectly
responsible for killing (or let's call it "exploitation"). Well, again
there is wide variation in that. A 19th century French civil servant
holding down a  sinecure while writing novels on the side isn't  exaxctly
Paul Wolfowitz. Compromised, for sure, but then we all define our personal
politics by picking the battles we want to fight. In the 70s, I worked as a
consultant for the World Bank, the British Foreign Office, USAID etc, but I
was never employed by the same agency twice. Some people would prefer to
stay outside. I wanted to see how these things worked and kept my tattered
integrity by writing reports that no proletarian could afford to write.

The kind of intellectualism and its forms of expression also make a
difference. For the last two centuries, the relationship between living
persons and impersonal collective entities has been obscured by most
traditions of western social thought. This contrasts vividly with the two
vehicles of mass instruction and entertainment in this period, novels and
movies. Public education has largely been based on the "hose and bucket"
principle that students should leave their personal experience at home,
while they allow themselves to be filled up with impersonal knowledge in
the classroom. 

Probably the apogee of dehumanised intellectualism was French structuralism
in the 1960s, a response to American systems approaches which dumped the
subject, history, dialectic and all the other baggage of the German
tradition. Not many intellectuals actually kill someone, but Althusser did.
At the same time, the debasement of the liberal tradition into economics
and its apotheosis as state capitalism encouraged an anti-liberal strand,
now in the ascendent in dissident circles. What is common to both sides is
indifference to the need to hold the personal and impersonal dimensions of
life in some dialectical relationship, as they were in the liberal
Enlightenment.

Brian Holmes wrote:

>Acknowledging that inheritance seems to me like buying with one's
spiritual faculties into a status quo of inequality, oppression and
domination <

I do not aspire to be in the liberal Enlightenment any more than I would
want to live in Europe's religious wars. Nor can I understand how
individuals like Locke, Rousseau and Hume can be identified with what they
were fighting against. I just think that the weakening of state capitalism,
under social and technological conditions we may summarise as the digital
revolution, opens up new opportunities for us to reconfigure relations
between the personal and impersonal dimensions of human experience, whether
as practising intellectuals or not. In this regard, I find more food for
thought in the eighteenth century than among the neo-liberals and
anti-liberals of our time.

This is why I resist Kermit's conflation of a series of posts into his
"persecution of writers" theme or indeed the "intellectuals as killers"
motif on which I have hung this post. Voltaire's duplicitous exercises in
character assassination stood in dialectical relationship to Rousseau's
platform of authorial transparency. I am drawn to (and sometimes appalled
by) the latter's conception of the writer's public responsibility which can
and must involve being personal at times, but should not, according to him,
impinge unnecessarily on his audience's sensibilities. This contradictory
rule of style is hard to follow in practice and may account for the lapse
of judgment at the end of my previous post.

Keith Hart

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