Monday, January 25, 2016

The Intellectual Public



"The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself.


To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves. The public intellectual I have in mind is not indifferent to her readers; her project is not complete without them. But there’s a thin line separating her needing readers from her being needy of and for readers. And it is on that thin line — that tension wire between thinker and actor, intellectual and celebrity — that she must stand and balance herself. "I want to make 200 million people change their minds," said Gore Vidal, a writer who, not coincidentally, stretched that wire to its breaking point.

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader."

-Corey Robin, How Intellectuals Create A  Public, The Chronicle of Higher Education

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