The Work Of Intellectuals

by Eric J. Weiner

Noam Chomsky

There are few people who spend as much time writing, thinking, and talking about the value of the work they do than intellectuals. Even as some noted intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Thomas Sowell bristle at the term intellectual to describe who they are and what they do, they among many other self-described or self-denied intellectuals have taken up significant time and space writing and talking about the roles and responsibilities of intellectuals. The bibliography of work about the roles and responsibilities of intellectuals by intellectuals is impressive and too long to review here. Suffice it to say that from the dissident side of the intellectual coin, the work of Antonio Gramsci, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Pierre Bourdieu, Henry Giroux, James Baldwin, C. Wright Mills, Doug Kellner, Stanley Aronowitz, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Michel Foucault, Ellen Willis, Eddie Glaude, and Cornel West represent some of the best and most provocative ideas and examples to date about the roles and responsibilities of intellectuals in modern times. Out of these conversations comes more exacting representations of the intellectual based on the kind of work she or he does. From Pierre Bourdieu comes the idea of the Collective Intellectual. From Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux we get the Transformative, Critical, and Accommodating Intellectual. Doug Kellner gives us the Postmodern Intellectual. Most famously, Antonio Gramsci offered up the Organic, Traditional and Hegemonic Intellectual. From Noam Chomsky, we get a simple dichotomy between Dissident Intellectuals vs. Commissar Intellectuals. Michel Foucault identified Specific Intellectuals. And then there is the beloved Public Intellectual. There is also a significant body of work specific to the role of Black Intellectuals.

From the hegemonic side of the intellectual coin, the work of Richard Hofstadter, David Horowitz, Bill Bennett, Thomas Sowell, William F. Buckley, and Heather Mac Donald represent the work of intellectuals who, not surprisingly, deny or minimize the importance of their role in manufacturing a form of common sense that rationalizes the status quo of culture, power and knowledge. Their attacks on dissident intellectuals distracts from their own role as hegemonic intellectuals. Their attacks are not on intellectual work per se but on dissident intellectual work that exposes how various ideologies of official power naturalize oppression, violence, poverty, sexual harassment, white supremacy, and other social modalities of brutality and injustice. The primary project of hegemonic intellectuals, in addition to producing intellectual work in the service of established ideological, cultural, educational, and/or military power, is to attack dissident intellectual work and the intellectuals that produce it.

From the cynic’s perspective, the work by intellectuals about intellectuals is a form of elevated navel-gazing necessitated by its irrelevance in matters of everyday life and work. The general public in the United States sees intellectuals as disconnected from their everyday struggles and concerns. From this perspective, intellectuals don’t actually work like the laborers amongst us, but are engaged in a kind of elitist moralizing, one that has no concrete product beyond finger-wagging, criticizing, and the conceit that they are smarter than everyone else.

Although liberals are typically more open to the work of intellectuals than their conservative counterparts, they still struggle to overcome their bias for practice over theory, their ideological commitment to instrumental rationality and efficiency, and their fetish for positivistic forms of measurement. The practical and aesthetic value of ideas that resist easy measure are foreign to many liberals who see true value in only those things that can be objectively measured and/or commodified. Within the liberal imagination, ambiguity creates discomfort while theory engenders ambivalence, apathy, and anger. What is probable takes precedent over what is possible, revealing a quiet commitment to reform over radical reinvention. Without directions, guides, or some kind of “how to” manual, liberals become quickly exasperated with intellectuals for what they perceive as their lack of concrete solutions to the problems they have identified and analyzed. They have even less patience with the utopic transgressions of intellectuals as these discourses find their footing in the social and historical imagination. This is a sphere of thought and critical reflection in which (neo)liberals, with their penchant for tinkering, rationalization, and reform, spend little time. Their demands for practical solutions to entrenched problems that first arose out of problematic ideas, not faulty execution, ends up reproducing the problems that many wish to correct.

For diverse ranks of conservatives, intellectuals are simply not to be trusted unless they confirm conservative ideological biases while—and this is essential—representing themselves as something other than intellectuals. How these intellectuals have convinced their natural constituencies that they are not intellectuals is an ideological sleight of hand but effective nevertheless. These intellectuals have tried, and to a great extent have succeeded, in convincing both liberals and conservatives that dissident intellectuals aren’t revealing systemic problems that need to be fixed, but are the problem. Most recently, Trump became their hero and savior in large part because he wraps the kind of anti-intellectualism that they peddle in an aesthetics of ignorance.

An aesthetics of ignorance doesn’t veil stupidity, but celebrates it as an expression of power, strength and beauty. It’s loud, vulgar, aggressive, arrogant, and brutal; it always lies, even when it tells the truth. Within the aesthetics of ignorance, violence becomes entertainment, suffering becomes weakness, compassion is effeminate, a democratic education is indoctrination, and hope is for suckers. Wearing diamonds on her shoes, cynicism displaces critical thinking while sarcasm trumps wit. Sexual violence is rationalized and naturalized just as pornographic representations displace passion, intimacy and desire in the sexual imagination. The aesthetics of ignorance, like all aesthetic movements, gets traction in the fertile soil of affectivity and imagination. Reason and logic are no match for the emotional release that an aesthetics of ignorance excites. The release is euphoric; the scent of ignorance lingers. Working in support of fascist ideologies, as Walter Benjamin astutely observed in his time, an aesthetics of ignorance turns that which will destroy us into something beautiful.

The work of hegemonic intellectuals like Sowell, Horowitz, and Bennett tries to persuade the public that intellectuals (i.e., dissident intellectuals) are trying to indoctrinate people into believing falsehoods about the United States. This leaves Sowell openly horrified that if “intellectuals” get their way, public schools would be tasked with educating children to become intellectuals. When I first heard him say it, I laughed out loud. But he was not joking. For Sowell and other hegemonic intellectuals, there is no greater threat to the status quo than “intellectuals” taking over the schools and airways to convince gullible publics and innocent children that the United States is a deeply racist, homophobic, patriarchal, xenophobic, and economically oppressive state. The irony that they provide this critique of the intellectual while functioning as an intellectual is completely lost on them or their cynicism has no bounds. Sowell, for example, although trained as an economist, nevertheless finds serious fault in those intellectuals that use their positions of authority to address issues outside of their academic disciplines. Noam Chomsky and Cornell West are two of his favorite targets.

From the perspective of dissident intellectuals, the work by and about intellectuals is a way to defend what one does to a public brought up on various representations of anti-intellectualism as well as provide a guide for future dissident intellectuals to follow. What these intellectuals argue is that all modern societies require people who function as intellectuals. Through the development of ideas, societies evolve, political systems transform, and cultural knowledge and literacies transgress historical boundaries. Intellectuals, they argue, are essential because at the heart of all practices and policies, and at the center of all scientific research and educational praxis, are the development of ideas through the critical process of asking and then trying to answer questions. These questions and the speculative answers they generate form the structures of knowledge that for many people remain invisible. Intellectuals, and public intellectuals more specifically, help create these structures of knowledge as well as unveil them to a public who remain skeptical of their existence and influence. Dissident intellectuals argue that their work can help people think more critically about how these structures of knowledge develop into formations of state and corporate power. Unlike hegemonic intellectuals who begin with questions relating to cultural conservation, law/order, individual opportunity, and profit, dissident intellectuals begin with questions relating to injustice, fairness, sustainability, mutuality, and radical love.

Both dissident intellectuals and hegemonic intellectuals spend a good amount of time thinking about power. Dissident intellectuals argue that inequities and cleavages of power are problematic for a functioning democracy and should be transformed at a systemic level. From the economy to culture, inequities of power they argue not only undermine the promise of democracy, but seriously compromise our ability to create a human ecology that is not oppressive for some people. Hegemonic intellectuals argue that inequities of power are not of concern as long as people have similar degrees of opportunity to access power. How people get similar degrees of opportunity while struggling within systems that rationalize inequities of power is unclear. Most people intuitively understand that having more power means having more opportunities. But the responsibility of hegemonic intellectuals is to ignore this truism while repeating the mantra that hard work creates its own opportunities. Pointing out inequities of power is an excuse for individual failure, not its explanation.

Unlike dissident intellectuals, hegemonic intellectuals are not constrained by the imperative to speak the truth and reveal lies. They are only required to speak the truth as it is understood within the constraints of their ideology. This makes hegemonic intellectuals ideologues without apology. By contrast, dissident intellectuals, although always working to advance an ideological project, are not policed by the ideology they are working to advance. It’s an important distinction to recognize. The best work of dissident intellectuals is constrained and grounded by a commitment to what Cornell West discusses as moral consistency; that is, they must remain principled in their critiques, not caring if someone or some system is ideologically aligned or sympathetic with their own project. If the practices and/or the ideas a person espouses and/or supports contradict the general principles of universal human rights and democratic freedoms, if they are lying or misrepresenting the facts, then dissident intellectuals have a responsibility to bring critical attention to these ideas and practices. Hence, West’s relentless critiques of Barack Obama when he was President. Immanent critique, critical reflection, epistemological criteria, and fallibility–the tools of moral consistency–provide checks against becoming a hegemonic intellectual. It is far from a perfect system and there are plenty of examples of dissidence gone afoul.

Coming down from the Formica tower, many dissident public intellectuals have also made collaborating with people in the spheres of everyday life and work a primary responsibility of their intellectual work. Historically their essential roles and responsibilities are the same as they have always been: To speak the truth and uncover lies; unveil the mechanics of ideology in everyday life, particularly when they rationalize or veil contradictions and abuses of power; amplify the voices of the silenced, marginalized, and oppressed; and provide historical context for the things that are happening all around us. Dissident intellectuals are driven by a refusal to accept the status quo when it leaves millions hungry and without real political power. They are also guided by what Giroux calls an educated hope for a future in which people are empowered to take control over their lives. Their social imagination—what Maxine Green calls “the not yets”—is animated by a collective vision of a future without poverty, violence, war, and paralyzing inequities of power. It is a utopic vision that asks a few simple questions: How can we make our “glocal” communities more humane, sustainable, and free from tyranny? What must we do to make these utopic visions, as Audre Lorde has written, irresistible? At its center, this is a pedagogical question. How can we provide intellectual leadership to those people in our “glocal” communities that are struggling for a better life? How can we provide intellectual clarity that can cut through the fog of misinformation, mid-education, and a general aesthetics of ignorance that fuels the rise of neoliberal fascism in the 21st century?

Against Sowell’s admonishments (and maybe because of them), I believe we should be educating students from the earliest grades to be intellectuals. Whether they become dissident or hegemonic intellectuals will be for them to decide as they develop deeper and broader levels of knowledge about the world and their place in it. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read my work that I imagine that an education that teaches students how to function as intellectuals in a democracy will compel many of them to dissent in the face of injustice, disrupt traditions that limit opportunities, and trouble systems of thought and behavior that reproduce inequities of power. I believe it’s the role and responsibility of all intellectuals who teach to make the pursuit of positive freedom through dissident intellectual work irresistible. Nevertheless, educators must always leave the door open to the possibility that some of their students will want to function as hegemonic intellectuals or choose to not function as intellectuals at all. But students should have the opportunity to make an informed decision about such things. They can only do this if they learn what it means to function as an intellectual, learn the skills and knowledge that supports intellectual work, and are given opportunities to practice using these skills and knowledge in an educational environment.