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Gitlin's Intellectuals and Social Movements

After hearing Gitlin speak this week, I am somewhat perplexed on his ideal for “public intellectuals� or even the necessity of a social movement given today’s “democracy.� To recap his lecture and the “necessity� of public intellectuals, it almost seems like “intellectuals� have not been public for awhile and his remedy still doesn’t make them “public�. To not simplify things too much, here’s the basic premise of his argument (and in part what is in a chapter of his latest book):

1. We used to have true public intellectuals. Those folks like C. Wright Mills who were true generalists, who had a theory of the social in which their intellectual endeavors stemmed. Intellectuals who were not contained within a discipline or even university walls—they could live, write, become “voices� for movements and give reason and power to the social. But, this “bohemian� lifestyle could not be maintained so they had to put themselves in universities to get earn a living.

2. Universities (and knowledge produced) become more specialized and departmentalized. There are really no more true public intellectuals. Profs write for academic journals or really other academics—not for pure public good or public audiences.

3. There is no longer “reason� in society. He has another argument based in how media has made this possible, but in terms of intellectuals and movements, it is rooted in education not being rooted in teaching a canon or argumentation.

So what does he propose in the end? We need public intellectuals—intellectuals who purposefully try not to “specialize� in their fields, who write for both public and academic audiences, and who teach the canon and argumentation.

At the same time, he acknowledges that there is a constraint on academics today to publish in academic journals and even if they do get to write for popular presses, there is still a definite “nonpublicness� about writing for the New Yorker vs. the Star Tribune. AND, although he isn’t necessarily writing about movements, he had opportunity to address this issue in the Q&A—and didn’t. Change was all rooted in teaching the canon, teaching argument and reason. This, to say the least, is unsettling for our understanding of movements. This “public� intellectual isn’t one that gets to leave the university or whose necessity is rooted in material social change—just working at a discursive level (ie Bush’s Administration uses no logic or reason, thus, we must promote reason thinking).

Setting aside some of the critiques against the elitism and exclusion that critical-rational (argument) is known for and assuming—which I do in part—that argumentation and reason is the path to democracy, then it would hold that intellectuals are in that path to democracy and we have come to see in this class that social movements are another means to democracy and change. But here is the tension—even though many movements (some of the case studies in the pink book included) have had their public intellectuals to help lead the way Michael Warner similarly advocates that public intellectuals help the “public� make sense of the world which in turn mobilizes them for creating change—but not necessarily rooted in argumentation. As we have probably seen in our own movements, argumentation is probably not the means to creating social change and that intellectuals have acted in another way. Where am I headed here (the bigger questions we might want to think about):

1. Is the purpose for social movements to help create democracy? If so, then do we accept Gitlin’s vision of reason in this democracy (or at least “reason� through argument)? Why isn’t Gitlin addressing movements here?

2. Where is the role of intellectuals in movements? Are they more in the grassroots part of the movment—writing about the movement, giving legitimacy to the movement by writing and speaking in public OR do intellectuals remain in the university to teach the canon and hope that they can publish for multiple audiences?

3. Lastly, is “collective� movements and “Collective� identity gained in an argument culture overall? My sense is that Gitlin’s overall move here is a very individualized effort—we teach individual students to reason. He suggests that teaching the canon does give a sense that students are part of a collective, a group because of shared knowledge. Can we deny that students of his day with their copies of C. Wright Mills didn’t see themselves as part of a larger project or group? But at the same time, given what we have been reading in terms of collective identity in movements, is our education enough? And given that not everyone will be taught the canon…where does that leave us with democracy?


Would it be fair to suggest that Gitlin has taken a conservative turn in at least some of his most recent writing? Gil Rodman and I shared a brief conversation in which we discussed Gitlin's critique of cultural studies. Furthermore, Gitlin's reemphasis on the canon and on the basic principles of humanism can--note that I only used the term can--be seen as a conservative move within a leftist intellectual tradition.

On another matter entirely, the desire for public intellectuals, regardless of the source, seems like a kind of nostalgia to me. When was this golden age of public intellectuals that benefited society in a politically progressive manner? Sure, we can identify a number who fall into this category, but let's not forget the public intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries who popularized the sciences of ethnology, population studies, and eugenics. Their influence on society was certainly as strong if not stronger than that of Mills or David Riesman. More to the point, they embodied an era when the public intellectual had meaning and purpose. Are we suggesting a return to the kind of conditions were public policy was shaped by academics with big ideas about how to structure society?

Public intellectuals, in my opinion, have often served the interests of 'common sense' or of institutionalized leadership beyond the academy. At least in the United States we have precious few examples of independent social action. Those intellectuals that we can celebrate rarely create the sort of impact that we can observe among well educated but non-academic activists.