After The Last Intellectual

The Last Intellectuals edited by Russell Jacoby. Basic Books. Paperback, 304 pages. $20.

The cover of The Last Intellectuals

In 1997, writing in the journal Contemporary Sociology, Russell Jacoby passed along the pithy advice a literary agent once gave him. “Put ‘Intellectuals’ in your book title,” he was told, “and kiss sales good-bye.” Jacoby ignored the advice, or defied it, and wrote The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, published twenty years ago this fall. The book did well, going into a second printing within weeks. It remains in print and continues to produce cultural effects—most of them indirect and densely mediated, for its argument has long since circulated much further than the book itself.

That is one way of putting it. Another would be to say that, after two decades, The Last Intellectuals is a classic: that is, a work more often cited than read. A thumbnail version of recent cultural history has become familiar from its pages: Once, we are told, a hardy species of freelance thinker roamed the landscape of the American mind. This breed was independent, fiercely so. It practiced social and cultural criticism but never used jargon, and its accessible manner won a large audience. It prospered until not much later than the 1950s. Indeed, it is possible to speak of that decade as a kind of golden age.

But then something happened. More particularly, the 1960s happened, and the 1970s— an era of disintegrating consensus, of proliferating theoretical schemata, of perverse refusals to follow the guiding example of one’s elders. Smart young people decided not to write well. They used jargon like jouissance and the incommensurabilty of discourses. (Worse, they seemed to take jouissance from the incommensurability of discourses.) They sought tenure and tenure alone. They built careers and talked only to one another, while construing their own texts as radically democratic in spirit, somehow, and subversive of the established order.

And so something disappeared from American discourse. The give-and-take of serious discussion was damaged. Ideas did circulate, but only in narrow channels. This situation was unhealthy. It enfeebled the public’s critical intelligence while doing considerable damage to the ideas themselves; they became inbred and started to grow in peculiar shapes.

This account of certain long-term trends in American culture has been repeated so often as to become part of today’s conventional wisdom, and that lasting effect may be taken as proof, more or less, that Jacoby left a large impression on the zeitgeist. But in some ways, that is putting things backward. The Last Intellectuals had the complicated fate of appearing at almost exactly the same moment as various other cultural polemics, bearing monitory titles about tenured radicals, destructive generations, and closings of the American mind. The zeitgeist—which inclines toward the Reader’s Digest condensed-books version—tended to overlook features of Jacoby’s argument that did not fit into that thumbnail history.

For in fact, The Last Intellectuals did not celebrate the cultural life of the 1950s or deplore the excesses that followed. Jacoby was not arguing that there had been a golden age and a sudden fall. Neither was assigning culpability all that high on the book’s agenda. On the contrary, much of the book was devoted to saying quite the opposite. If the writers and critics working in the ’50s did not serve as models for those who came after, that was because the conditions that fostered them—affordable rent, an abundance of magazines open to certain kinds of reviewing and essay writing, and the tendency of society to produce “surplus intellectuals” unable to find employment in well-established institutions— were already disappearing. Or rather, new and altogether more comfortable circumstances were emerging.

The life of the intellectual freelancer had never been easy. It had been the product of a kind of double negation: the refusal of a refusal. Little magazines, avant-garde sects, and other marginal niches had operated by a certain cultural logic—to exclude the influence of institutions established and powerful enough to reproduce their power while excluding outsiders and deviants (racial, sexual, ideological, aesthetic). There is no sense in romanticizing any of this. The existence of such institutions had always been precarious, the cost often more than economic.

Another word for independence, in such conditions, is anomie: a condition of normlessness, of radical uncertainty about the relation between means and ends, even of despair, at times, about the possibility of coming to any solid notion of what “means” and “ends” might be. And this exacts its psychic toll. One can now find any number of nostalgia-infused accounts of the New York Intellectuals—those legendary champions of modernist aesthetics, anti-Stalinist politics, and polemical brilliance. But it might be worth keeping in mind other reminiscences, other stories, like that of the party in Greenwich Village at which two intellectuals got into a shouting match, with one accusing the other of doing nothing but imitating Dostoyevsky. The accused, simmering with rage, pulled out a book of matches and tried to set his own hair on fire, at least until his friends made him stop. The moral: It wasn’t all incisive essay writing and dialectical knife juggling. Bohemia can be fun if you have money; otherwise, it is hard on the nerves. But by the 1950s, something was starting to change. The possibility of being an independent (and/or anomic) intellectual had been deeply conditioned by the necessity, for many such people, of working in marginal circumstances.

Certainly, this did not happen overnight. Bit by bit, though, jobs and chances for publication were opening up, and the effect was bewildering. A sense that the critical edge was disappearing from American intellectual life was already acute by 1954, when Irving Howe published a long essay in Partisan Review called “This Age of Conformity.” It sketches the incipient form of those tendencies that Jacoby would treat as having reached their consummation by the time he was writing The Last Intellectuals:

The kind of society that has been emerging in the West, a society in which bureaucratic controls are imposed upon (but not fundamentally against) an interplay of private interests, has need for intellectuals in a way that earlier, “traditional” capitalism never did. It is a society in which ideology plays an unprecedented part: as social relations become more abstract and elusive, the human object is bound to the state with ideological slogans and abstractions—and for this chore intellectuals are indispensable; no one else can do the job as well. Because industrialism grants large quantities of leisure time without any creative sense of how to employ it, there springs up a vast new industry that must be staffed by intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals: the industry of mass culture. And because the state subsidizes mass education and our uneasy prosperity allows additional millions to gain a “higher” education, many new jobs suddenly become available in the academy: some fall to intellectuals.

Howe knew about this process firsthand. It wasn’t just that he had gone from marginal journals like Commentary and Partisan Review to more mainstream magazines; rather, he’d started out in the 1940s by contributing to esoteric publications of the Trotskyist left, so that even writing literary criticism for such a nonrevolutionary venue as PR must have seemed to him, at times, like embourgeoisement itself. By the time “This Age of Conformity” appeared, he had spent a few years reviewing books for Time and had recently begun teaching literature at Brandeis University.

Irving Howe at Baltimore Hebrew University in 1983.
Irving Howe at Baltimore Hebrew University in 1983.

Others were following a similar path. It was possible to avoid this course, but the important thing, in terms of the cultural ecology, was that fewer and fewer intellectuals were finding it necessary. “Bohemia gradually disappears as a setting for our intellectual life,” wrote Howe, “and what remains of it seems willed or fake. Looking upon the prosperous ruins of Greenwich Village, one sometimes feels that a full-time bohemian career has become as arduous, if not as expensive, as acquiring a Ph.D.”

But the expanding market for intellectual labor—the creation of jobs in academe, the media, and government that could make use of the particular forms of expertise once cultivated only in certain detached enclaves—would have other deleterious effects. Knowledge might be a valuable commodity, but criticism and radical skepticism, as such, were not. “The institutional world needs intellectuals because they are intellectuals,” wrote Howe, “but it does not want them as intellectuals.” The consequence was a bureaucratic imperative to produce work meant only for credentialing purposes. “The preposterous academic requirement that professors write books they don’t want to write and no one wants to read,” Howe put it, “makes for a vast flood of books that have little to do with literature, criticism, or even scholarship.” Yes, quite true. But at least it’s steady work.

The Last Intellectuals was written far downstream from “This Age of Conformity,” but the cultural situation Jacoby described is recognizable as the continuation, and deepening, of the one that Howe worried over. In 1965, Howe’s friend Lewis Coser included a chapter on “Unattached Intellectuals” in his book Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View; it opened by noting that “one of the most important observations that can be made” about the unattached “is that there are so very few.” A study of little magazines that Coser cited provided a telling index of what had been happening. In the 1920s, only 9 percent of the contributors had been academics. By the ’50s, that share had grown to 40 percent. “In any case,” he wrote, “the decline of modernism and radicalism and the eagerness of decision- makers within the establishment to utilize the contributions of formerly unattached intellectuals have led to the absorption of large parts of an earlier avant-garde into the major institutions of American society. Countercultures have been integrated into the common culture.”

But this picture of total integration and complete containment was due to be challenged in short order. The New Left appeared, for example—a group Howe did not welcome, to put it mildly, and which returned the favor by disregarding him more or less completely. Feminism, which had been such an important part of earlier movements in bohemia and elsewhere, returned to life at a pitch no one had predicted—least of all Coser, with his description of intellectuals as “men of ideas.” And there were the discussions among black writers and others whose full and speedy integration into the cultural apparatus had not yet been placed on the agenda. All this had the effect of creating a considerable body of new and “unattached” intellectuals, at least for a while. But did it fundamentally alter the dynamic that Howe described? The answer implied by The Last Intellectuals was, basically, “No, the academic system was able to absorb enough of personnel and ideas from those upheavals to change itself—without really changing itself.”

This is where Jacoby parted ways dramatically with those other polemics coming on the scene as the cold war was winding down and the culture war heating up. The right-wing complaint was that the tenuring of radicals gave them a power base to subvert society or, at least, to indoctrinate their captive audiences. (An argument that would be more credible if students did the assigned reading.) Jacoby’s brief was that precisely the opposite had happened: “In the end it was not the New Left intellectuals who invaded the universities but the reverse: the academic idiom, concepts, and concerns occupied, and finally preoccupied, young left intellectuals. . . . Professionalization leads to privatization or depoliticization, a withdrawal of intellectual energy from a larger domain to a narrower discipline.”

This process did not unfold in a vacuum. Jacoby’s analysis did not place all its emphasis on academe’s rapacious inclusivity. The price of real estate, the flight to the suburbs, the tendency of the mass media to stick with the predictable and the prepackaged—these were also factors making it highly difficult to sustain anything like a subculture hospitable to unattached intellectuals. Even some of the tendencies in mass culture that had given Howe dyspepsia were starting to look good in hindsight: “The eclipse of the big general magazines, such as Look and Life, itself registers a parcellation of a once more homogeneous public,” wrote Jacoby; “they have been replaced by ‘special interest’ magazines—tennis, computer, travel, sports.” The possibility of addressing a general public being so slim, and the chances of paying the bills so precarious, who wouldn’t prefer the security of a professionalized niche, far from the madding crowd?

Speaking of public intellectuals: “As far as I know,” Jacoby wrote in the introduction to a reprint of The Last Intellectuals in 2000, “I was the first to use this term.” Not quite—evidently he forgot his own citation of sociologist C. Wright Mills, from The Causes of World War Three (1958), which challenged his peers “to act as political intellectuals . . . as public intellectuals.” But Mills never made the phrase part of the cultural conversation, and Jacoby did. In time, it drifted away from its original polemical framework, where it served to point at an empty spot on the contemporary cultural terrain. By the 1990s, public intellectual was losing its neologistic quality, as well as much of its critical force, and was becoming fully normalized as part of the common coin of language.

So it is interesting to revisit Jacoby’s original formulation—and to see how provisional it was, “a category,” he wrote, “fraught with difficulties.” For one thing, its meaning was haunted, at least potentially, by another expression that had undergone a problematic change over recent decades: publicist. It had once referred to an informed and authoritative writer on public affairs—something like wonk but with more honorable overtones. “‘Publicist,’” wrote Jacoby, “if it once connotated an engagement with the state and law, is almost obsolete, victimized by Hollywood and ‘public relations’: it now signifies someone who handles and manipulates the media, an advance or front man (or woman). A public intellectual or old-style publicist is something else, perhaps the opposite, an incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one.” But it had to have another overtone as well: “The definition must include a commitment not simply to a professional or private domain but to a public world—and a public language, the vernacular.”

At this point, one can almost hear a chorus of ten thousand graduate students reciting, “But difficult ideas require complex language! Anything else is mere journalism!” Be that as it may, Jacoby insisted on the vernacular as a necessary corrective to the tendency of intellectual discourse to ossify, thereby excluding readers. The example of scholastic Latin came to mind. The turn to common language “characterizes modern culture since the Renaissance,” wrote Jacoby. “The adoption of the vernacular was not always simple or peaceful, for it meant that groups excluded from religious and scientific controversy could now enter the fray.”

Beneath this historical analogy, another set of references may have been active in shaping this call for a new public-intellectual vernacular. Jacoby’s earlier writing included studies of the Frankfurt School, and there were obvious echoes of Jürgen Habermas’s work on the public sphere—the space of free and open debate emerging in the eighteenth century, in which arguments must be made (and unmade) without respect to rank or privilege. But that may not have been the only Frankfurt School overtone. Jacoby complained about the tics and routines of academic prose—not just the jargon and the tone deafness, but the acknowledgments section, with its compulsive recitation of every colleague ever met (no back left unscratched). Any critical intent toward the larger culture was expressed in a form that served constantly to signal its participation in a subsystem of what Herbert Marcuse had called one-dimensional society.

Marcuse admitted that his analysis yielded “two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.” But the recuperative capacities of a prosperous, bureaucratically administered consumer society were formidable, tipping the balance. Such a condition, as Marcuse wrote, “shapes the entire universe of discourse and action, intellectual and material culture,” and generates “an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives.”

Which hardly gives grounds for optimism about the transformative potential of any new cohort of public intellectuals. And so it is understandable that Jacoby’s book, while long on diagnosis, was short on prescription. It gave no hint of what the new-model public intellectuals might be expected to do or what effect their activity might have—let alone whether they could escape one-dimensionality.

The call was answered, in one way, and ignored, in another. In 2001, Richard A. Posner could publish a book called Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline that was actually, in spite of its subtitle, a study in the effects of an economic bubble—the growth of a sector of the labor market consisting largely of professors who intervene in the mass media. Posner offered a table listing more than five hundred public intellectuals and charted the number of references they had received in various public venues (on websites, in the media, and in scholarly journals) between 1995 and 2000.

It looked as if the trade in public intellectuality were robust. But this sector was unstable and unreliable, in Posner’s estimate, for the quality of output went down when these entrepreneurs shifted from producing for the academic sector to moonlighting as pundits. Posner is a federal-court judge appointed by Ronald Reagan, but his analysis was far more economically deterministic than any in Jacoby’s quietly Marxist polemic. Treating commentary as just one more commodity, Posner held that prevailing conditions often resulted in consumers (i.e., the public) being swindled: “The sellers, at least the majority that are academics, are uniquely insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers, able at any moment to leave the public-intellectual market at low cost.”

But this seeming consolidation of the market for the public intellectual’s wares (however compromised it might be, however permeated by the mores of infotainment) was hardly a fulfillment of the longing that had suffused The Last Intellectuals. The professor with a publicist was not, after all, operating outside either academe or mass culture, and it was not as if rents had gone down or as if carving out a freelance life had become any more plausible.

An individual might still pursue such a career, here or there. But no generational cohort had emerged to do so. And one of the defining emphases of The Last Intellectuals had been precisely that of generation: the way common patterns of life shaped, and were shaped by, the shared structures in which young intellectuals thought and felt and (when necessary) yelled at one another.

So one could only pity any obtuse soul who, at the age of twenty-five, had taken The Last Intellectuals as a guidebook to the promised land. By forty-five, he might be yelling only at himself—for who else would want to listen? Indeed, whom else could he blame? Jacoby had made it quite clear, after all, that the material conditions sustaining the possibility of an unattached intelligentsia did not exist and were unlikely to return.

Meanwhile, academic professionalization did not weaken. On the contrary, it went into overdrive. (One historian recently told me, “An ambitious graduate student now comes in with eyes set on becoming the expert on the rise of white identity among Czech immigrants.”) Under the circumstances, any notion of a public-intellectual sphere functioning apart from institutional machinery seems preposterous.

Unless, of course, that machinery accidentally re-creates some of the constitutive elements of the old cultural order: a body of surplus intellectuals who are not very well integrated into the system. Who have (for example) full access to the range of questions and ideas debated within scholarly networks but cannot find full-time employment in academic institutions—the products, but also the victims, of a system of higher education that is ever more dependent on a parttime labor force.

A group of writers and of thinkers—and even, who knows? of eloquent yellers—who enjoy no economic security and occupy low rungs on the status ladder, without much reason to think this will change. Such people, finding themselves excluded, might in time start wanting to “exclude the excluders.” Then the tenor of intellectual discourse might change, and public life with it; and a space for discussion might appear in which it would be possible to move in more than one dimension.

Scott McLemee contributes the Intellectual Affairs column to www.insidehighered.com.