Monday, December 13, 2004

Incorrect Opinions: The Error Striks Back

I'm not, it seems, the only one whose recently read Judge Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, which was recently translated and published in China.

Posner argues that most public intellectuals are nowadays entertainers rather than thinkers, with a life-story, such as Robert Bork's being turned down for a seat on the Supreme Court, that makes us identify with them as if they were soap-opera characters. He argues that, like dentists, lawyers or pharmacists, we can't evaluate their output a priori, so instead, we buy inferior products.

I find this economic explanation convincing. I'd add my own twist, namely that public intellectuals are like public toilets. In general, the "private" intellectuals - the medical doctors, bankers, lawyers, engineers and academics - get enough of a payback from their activities carried out away from the media gaze not to need or want to adapt their thoughts for the media and can be satisfied by their professional life or their families and friends. Only if there is no reward in either of these two spheres - and who would take Tolstoy or Marx or Sartre as an example of an upstanding husband or father? - will you look for the cold comforts of the newspaper page or TV studio.

One of my own hobby horses, which I indulge mostly on other blogs, is ridiculing such people, since I generally find that few know even enough about my own areas of expertise that any basic textbook would tell you. Their favourite perches the public intellectuals' tabloids write about ideas, but outside the authors' area of experience or academic expertise, without a basic check by anyone more informed. Worst of all are those building a political analysis based on a lifetime studying novels, poetry, photographs, pottery or old matchboxes without reference to more solid forms of knowledge.

Let it not be said that British academia is amiss in jumping on the bandwagon. Now, from the industry that brought you degrees in computer games studies, you can now sign up for a course to train as a public intellectual, to be run by Slavoj Zizek, whoever he is . Besides being the author of Lacan in Hollywood, Zizek seems short on impact; in fact, until reading the press release, I'd always confused him with the other Yugoslav philosopher, Milovan Djilas, who does seem to have achieved something with his time on the planet other than wasting all our oxygen.

Zizek comments: "When you speak out from the left today, you are seen by many as either harking back to the nostalgia of the miners’ strikes, or some kind of postmodern madman… but there is another perspective that is not well represented in the public arena."

Yeah, Professor, it's called the RIGHT. You should try it sometime.