No misdeed, no crime, no tragedy fills the op-ed pages of top American newspapers quicker than an elite college admissions scandal. Injustices surely more heinous happen every day, such that a cynic might begin to wonder if all those deeply personal expressions of indignation are less about systematic assaults on equality than they are about stolen valor.
Well now you’ve gone and endorsed Trump. Forty whacks with a wet noodle, you lil’ rascal.
Slavoj Žižek’s recent thoughts on the U.S. presidential race have made him some new friends at Breitbart, outraged others, and made the rest of us do the Lucille Bluth eye roll (see “Martha Stewart Needs to Get Somewhere…“). It has also revived the old discussion about the decline of the public intellectual.
Quartz‘s Olivia Goldhill has offered a particularly thoughtful piece on the subject, arguing that Žižek’s recent pronouncement is the latest sign that philosophy has become so decadent and insular that it has lost sight of its purpose entirely. As we re-adjudicate the matter of the public intellectual in contemporary culture, we are likely to, as Goldhill does, invoke past greats like Sartre, Camus, Arendt, and Foucault. And it’s true that when it comes to public intellectuals, they don’t make ’em like they used to.
But I would urge caution before laying the problem entirely at academic philosophy’s feet. To do so is to misunderstand the relationship between the philosopher and the public intellectual. When the likes of Arendt and Foucault were asked to talk in a public forum about social issues, they were not being asked to ‘do philosophy’ in a public forum. Rather, they were asked to give their opinions on social issues because they had done important philosophical work elsewhere. Their importance as philosophers translated into credibility as public thinkers. This is not the same thing as doing philosophy in public. You can see this division most clearly in the work of Noam Chomsky, who is the last living public intellectual of that previous era (although I think Chomsky has always adhered to the division too strictly).
Part of Žižek’s problem is that he has built his brand on philosophical readings of pop culture so that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether he is philosophizing, publicly opining, or just performing. Actually, I don’t think that’s a problem in and of itself because he has made some really significant philosophical contributions that way. The point is that Žižek is a difficult figure not because of the philosophy he actually does in the public but because he does philosophy in the public at all. That’s the part that doesn’t fit the mold of the public intellectual.
As for his stupidity and naive nihilism regarding a President Trump, I chalk that up to the perils of academic superstardom. He’s been surrounded by sycophants for so long (and academics can be champion sycophants) telling him that everything he says is brilliant and revolutionary that he sometimes believes it himself. It’s precisely why Jerry Seinfeld is no longer funny.
So yes, philosophy has become decadent and insular. There are some really good philosophers out there working on that problem as we speak. But the decline of the public intellectual also has to be an indictment of the public itself. At best, people with advanced degrees in Philosophy (or any of the Humanities for that matter) are considered vestigial organs, and and worst, they are the First Estate circa 1789…or perhaps the last druids hold up on Anglesey.
We seem much more content listening to the public opinions of people who only make opinions for a living. That’s the real death of the public intellectual.
There’s a part in The Being of Analogy where I claim I don’t really know what “scientism” is supposed to mean. That was a bit of disingenuous rhetorical flourish used to distance myself from the term, and I probably shouldn’t have said it. I know perfectly well what it means and why it exists, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I’ve been uncomfortable with “scientism” ever since I made the transition in graduate school from physical anthropology to English studies, which is when I first encountered the term. I identified then as a lone scientist besieged by an army of deconstructionists, and, as such, “scientism” smacked of glib, kneejerk anti-intellectualism. It still feels pretty kneejerk to me, but I no longer see it as glib or anti-intellectual. My beef with it now is that it’s too ambiguous and it’s often a gateway to either hypocrisy or disengagement with science.