Blogs > Cliopatria > Think Twice

Sep 10, 2007 9:32 pm


Think Twice



My essay on the 20th anniversary of Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectual will run in the new issue of Bookforum. It is currently available at the website -- though at 4000 words, minus any of the section breaks used to structure the piece, it is hard to believe that anyone could actually read it online.

Here's hoping the print incarnation is easier on the eyes. As if to provide evidence that some folks have made it through the"screen version," however, I've received a couple of messages from people asking about the concluding paragraphs. Is the scenario sketched there likely?

One note came from Melvyn Dubofsky, the labor historian. Before going on to quote him --with his permission -- let me pause to ask whoever it was who borrowed my copy of Dubofsky's history of the Wobblies to please give it back. It's been a while, and I don't even remember who borrowed it, but such is the awesome power of blogging that I figure it can't hurt to ask. Anyway, to continue...Dubofsky writes:

Way back in 1974 when EP Thompson was in the US for a conference at Rutgers, he and I were having coffee, and Thompson, having met numerous unemployed US academics during the conference, observed that the US might finally develop an independent left intelligentsia (the Russian word really works better than the Anglo-American variant). Marginalized by the increasingly tight academic labor market, young scholars, he noted, would have no choice other than to act as independent, institutionally-free intellectuals. One more shattered dream, or the more things change....

So in short, I shouldn't get my hopes up. Todd Gitlin writes to make more or less the same point. And yes, the odds are overwhelmingly against my concluding vision. Total pessimism is called for in this matter. It's true that I read an awful lot of stuff nowadays by members of the lumpenprofessoriat who are suspended, as it were, somewhere between the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself, as it were. But the chances of a leap are just too small. And the rewards for making it, after all, just about nonexistent.

Oh lord, are they ever. Stay in school, kids. Be diligent, color within the lines, and keep your eye fixed on that impressive device with the carrot and the stick. Otherwise you could end up like the guy from the 1940s mentioned in the essay -- the one who pulls out a book of matches and sets his hair on fire. The situation may make for a good story, but in real life it just stinks.

(crossposted to Quick Study)

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anthony grafton - 9/12/2007

Very well argued, as usual, Scott, so far as your analysis of Jacoby's book and the history of American intellectual life go. But much as I like your concluding scenario, I have my doubts. It's hard to see how high rents and adjunct employment or its counterpart in other fields will produce a large and eloquent body of free intellectuals. Most recent moves in this direction--like the rise of the Baffler--took place in more prosperous times. I hope you're right, but I don't expect to see this anarchist millennium anytime soon.

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