Mayashanti5282046’s Blog


The Intellectual Pt 2: The decline and revival

Posted by mayashanti5282046 于 十一月 22, 2008

Sim Kwang Yang | Nov 10, 07 12:12pm

Published in

The BBC Reith Lectures date back to 1948, with an inaugural presentation made by Bertrand Russell. Every year, the Lectures were a significant cultural event in the intellectual world of Great Britain, sparkling much debate and discussion among writers and the community of scholars.


In 1993, the person invited by the BBC to present the Reith Lectures was Edward Said, and he chose to speak on the redefinition of the roles and responsibilities of the intellectual.

Edward Said was a giant in his own times, inventing single-handedly the idea of post-colonialism through his analysis of prominent British writers like Jane Austin and Joseph Conrad.

A Palestinian Christian, educated in Cairo, and finally finding his niche as the premier Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the US, Said had a life-long interest in the changing roles of the intellectual. He had described them in the US as a “class badly in need of moral rehabilitation and social redefinition.”

In his hugely influential Culture and Imperialism, he expressed his dismay with American intellectuals “cocooned” in the “munificence” and “Utopian sanctuary” of the university campus blind to the inhuman politico-social realities of the world. According to him, American intellectuals had been defanged, having internalised the norm of the state, and pre-occupied with merely manufacturing consent in the comfort of their specialised professionalism.

Said’s criticism of intellectuals in the US could be applied to those in Europe as well. In France, the birth place of the modern intellectual, this class of citizens have been in retreat, having gone through the acrimonious schism during the Algerian War (1954-62), and collapsing after the failed students’ revolt on the streets of Paris in May 1968.

Bernard-Henri Levy, in his book entitled Euloge des Intellectuels (1987), gave his provocative definition of the term as “Intellectual, noun, masculine gender, a social and cultural category born in Paris at the moment of the Dreyfus Affair, died in Paris at the end of the 20th century; apparently was not able to survive the decline of belief in the Universals.” He called the disengagement and the return of French intellectuals to their ivory tower in the 1980s a “debacle”.

In his article entitled Are intellectuals a dying species? – War and the Ivory Tower in the postmodern age (1991), David Shalk clarifies that “the ivory tower is not just the university, as it is sometimes understood to be, in the United States at least, but in its original 20th century derivation referred more generally to the intellectual’s home.”

Derogatory signification

“As Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet in 1852, in the modern world of a developing mass culture which he (Flaubert) so detested, “we must, independently from that humanity which rejects us, live for our vocation, climb into our ivory tower, and remain there alone with our dreams.”

The French intellectual’s elitist self image as a self-righteous, morally upright, and iconic conscience of their times has never sat easy with the French political mainstream. In fact, the term “intellectual” carried a derogatory signification of a busybody minding other people’s business when politics ought to be left to professional politicians.

In pragmatic, conservative, utilitarian and empirical England, the intellectual fares no better than in France.

Immediately after Said’s Reith Lectures on intellectuals were broadcast, the historian Norman Stone wrote an article entitled Mud in your intellectual eye in the Observer on 27 June 1993 giving his knee-jerk retort.

“The multi-purpose intellectual is one of the great pains in the neck of the modern age. If ever you had a class of people who got things badly wrong, it was the writers.”

Edmund Burke had long ago bemoaned the mistake of the French Revolutionaries in following the precepts of the philosophes with “civil and military anarchy made the constitution of France.”

This sentiment was echoed by Mrs Margaret Thatcher some 200 years later when she described the French Revolution of 1789 as “a Utopian attempt to overthrow a traditional order….in the name of abstract ideas, formulated by vain intellectuals.”

Since coming to power in 1979, Mrs Thatcher had been bent on her conservative revolution. In pursuit of her reform of many ancient British institutions, she could not resist the temptation at attempting to dislodge those who she and her handful of advisors regarded as the “chattering class”, the entrenched intellectual class who had come to dominate Britain’s universities, the BBC, the civil service, higher journalism (such as The Guardian), the arts world, and even the Church of England.

In response, the British “high-brow” class of intellectuals regarded Mrs Thatcher as philistine, suburban, middle brow, housewifish, and simply crude. Mrs Thatcher’s humiliation came in 1985, when Oxford University broke with the dictate of past tradition and voted NOT to award her an honorary doctorate.

Personal lives dissected

Nevertheless, Mrs Thatcher had not been nicknamed the ‘Iron Lady” for nothing. She had her own coterie of acolytes, admirers, and enthusiasts, who launched a sustained re-examination of the role of intellectual, viewed from the perspective of the Right.

One of the most widely read attacks on the British intellectuals came in the book entitled Intellectuals by Paul Johnson and published in 1988. Johnson’s tactic is this: judge intellectual not by what they write, but upon what they do.

He methodically dissected the personal lives of Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Russell, and later on Norman Mailer, and Franz Fanon as well. He paid particular attention to the sex life of those great men. On the surface, he seems to be saying that if those influential intellectuals have messed up their private lives, then they would be guilty of hypocrisy when they preach to the world from the moral high ground of justice and humanity. For instance, Karl Marx’s writing would be useless because he appeared to have fathered an illegitimate child.

But Johnson’s argument actually goes deeper than mere personal attack. The great crux of the intellectual life, he contends, is that the intellectuals’ passion for radical absolutist solutions inevitably draws them into endorsing the use of violence. “One of the principle lessons of our tragic century”, he observes, “which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed to improve the lot of humanity is – beware intellectuals!”

At the end of the book, Johnson concludes what could be the most representative sentiment of anti-intellectualism everywhere:

“I think I detect to-day a certain public scepticism when intellectuals stand up to preach to us, a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers, and philosophers, eminent though they may be, to tell us how to behave and conduct our affairs. The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old.”

Such an attack, like many assaults upon the traditional intellectual’s Ivory Tower, was a reflection of the new era. The Enlightenment belief in eternal universal truths, to which only the learned scholar and writer could gain access, has become out-of-date. Truth has become far more problematic epistemologically, tending to be thought of as relative to cultural and textual contexts. The age of postmodernism and deconstructionism has arrived, at least in Europe and the US.

Intellectuals refuse to die

Therefore, it would appear that the sort of intellectual originally proposed by Julien Benda would no longer be tenable. On both sides of the Atlantic, grave doubts were indeed cast over the continued existence of the traditional intellectual, leading many engaged writers and scholars to rethink their position in relation to the new world order.

Fortunately for the intellectuals, the power centres of the world have continued to perpetuate injustice on a grand scale into the 21st century, persecuting their citizens most of the time, but increasingly across national boundaries as well. If nothing else, the ugliness of the human race has spawned generations and generations of younger aspiring intellectuals to be engaged with affairs of state, and intervene into the cauldron of national and international politics.

(As I write, Kuala Lumpur sits in tense anticipation of a massive rally to demand clean and fair elections, organised by a bunch of young, idealistic, and independent intellectuals in Malaysia. A police helicopter with searchlight swirled overhead, and Farish Noor sent a message of solidarity from Berlin. The FRU, the water cannon, and the tear gas must now be in abundance on the streets around Independence Square, or Dataran Merdeka.}

Despite the attack on the intellectuals, and their outright genocide in less civilised nations of the world, the strange species of intellectuals refuse to die. There will always be those citizens in any country who think, read, write, and sometimes act.

This is what the much persecuted Salman Rushdie described as “the unfettered republic of the tongue” in A Declaration of independence (1994). As he explained:

“The creative spirit is treated as an enemy by those mighty or petty potentates who resent the power of art to build pictures of the world which quarrel with, or undermine their own simpler and less open-hearted views.”

That is why Edward Said’s Reith lectures need to be revisited, to reaffirm the vocation of speaking to power truthfully and independently.

To be continued…



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