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Intellectuals, Books, and Gitlin

Here is just some thoughts I have been playing with after reading Derrida, hearing Gitlin, and reflecting on our week with publics: starting with this initial question: Can we have public intellectuals without books?

OK, now let me trace this out. Intellectuals have, in general, been part of social movements and have been actors in the public in the public’s function of constituting democracy. Warner articulates that intellectuals in the public are for giving reasons, are for articulating a world that could be and that frames things for movements to strive towards. They also legitimize movements and actions in the public through their writings and even through movement members using theory and philosophy intellectuals provide. Now I do not mean to suggest that intellectuals are face-to-face with other movement participants or always on the front lines so to speak—their writings and books could be the way that the movement uses or has intellectuals involved. It is through the circulation of works of C. Wright Mills and Marcuse (for example) in the public (of students especially) that helped to constitute movements or action in the public. So let us hold that the writings of intellectuals in the public are an important feature of being a public intellectual and the role of intellectuals for movements.

Which brings me back to books or at least the “paper? currency that might be necessarily for “public intellectuals? to really exist. We talked about with Warner that his idea of publics being constituted through the circulation of discourse is rooted in an idea of published/paper texts. Given some of Derrida’s musings, paper does in some ways grant legitimacy in its own right. We have an idea that what is in a book or printed article carries more weight, is more of the “truth? than some musings on a blog or something we found on the internet. We haven’t moved away from this yet. So, given this, the power of a public intellectual is still for an intellectual to write—to have books—that are carried around by the movement/by citizens. Can we really have public intellectuals if we don’t have books? Are intellectuals important if they do not help constitute publics in some way through paper writings?

And back to Gitlin: the one striking thing about his book and his lecture was that being a public intellectual is all about being able to reason, to teach argument and reason. He indicated that it is also in writing and publishing things for general and academic audiences and that public intellectuals should be more “generalists? with theories of society at large and certainly not specialists, but at the same time he indicated that the reality is that not many academics can or will publish in the way to make them true public intellectuals. Legitimacy is constrained by the place which we publish.

In summary: 1) if we move to a fully electronic world, does the technology preclude the ability for there to be public intellectuals at all? And 2) In Gitlin’s world where intellectuals are just based in writing and teaching reason, should we be satisfied that is ONLY what public intellectuals have the power to do (all, essentially on the page or in the walls of the university?).