‘The choice is to join an institution or die on the vine’

No, Jacoby, it isn’t.

Five years ago I would have assumed that Jacoby was right. Three years ago I would have agreed with Jacoby. Two years ago I would have despaired with him. A year ago I floated the question: “Is it possible to live otherwise today?” That little question has made all the difference.

Our problem is not just political; it is also conceptual, lying with our failure of imagination.

Jacoby’s conclusion applies only to the public intellectual who has joined an institution (hence not a public intellectual) or who is dying on the vine (hence not a public intellectual). The question is whether the mid-century public intellectual was all that effective in his criticisms of the status quo. I doubt it. In any case, in the early 21st C. other figures have sprung up in his place.

In the long view, Jacoby and Scialabba represent an older generation of intellectuals whose thinking was shaped by the rise of the university after WWII. They were important then, but their time has past. And now their bitterness is apparent.

The following is an excerpt from a symposium at The Crooked Timber (August 2009) held on the work of George Scialabba.

Russell Jacoby writes,

The anthology that Robert Boynton published some years ago, “The New New Journalism” subtitled “Conversations with America’s Best Non-fiction Writers on Their Craft” tip-toed around a issue that still remains too hot: money. How [in the early 21st C.] do intellectuals earn enough money to write and think?

The possibilities are worse than ever. Yes, a few souls manage to hustle and do quite nicely, for instance, Christopher Hitchens. Yes, a few magazines like the “New Yorker” pay a living wage, but for most to survive, if not flourish, requires a working (and willing) spouse, family money or an academic position (or its equivalent such as a slot in a think tank or policy outfit). Yes, [George] Scialabba has a chair at Harvard, but his sits behind a desk on the ground floor of the building which he superintends. Only the most resolute can juggle for years a day job and night time of writing. For almost everyone else, the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.

George Scialabba replies,

Russell asks another fundamental question: “How Will Intellectuals Eat?” Independent intellectuals have always depended on conversations, lectures, seminars, libraries, museums, bookstores, newsstands, cafes, small publishers, little magazines, cheap apartments, and easy movement into and out of part-time jobs, preferably on the fringes of culture or academe. In other words, cities. In return, they supplied the civilization in “bourgeois  civilization.”

Capitalist rationality is not synonymous with bourgeois civilization; on the contrary, it is the chief subverter of bourgeois civilization. By its inflexible logic, the material prerequisites of intellectual life were economically irrational. Inexpensive urban neighborhoods, small-scale enterprises, relaxed personnel policies all succumbed to the same polite, deadly formula: “We’re sorry, but nowadays investors expect a higher rate of return.” In an earlier example of industry consolidation, Nixon’s delightful Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, helpfully advised small farmers and ranchers: “Get big or get out.” They got out, and American food is now, by and large, mass-produced dreck. Will the same thing happen to American culture? There are symptoms: the difficulty of getting non-blockbusters published, promoted, and kept in print; the pressure of bookstore chains on independents; the vast wasteland of Clear Channel radio; the metastasis of the Murdoch media empire. There are also exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions to trends before they become accomplished facts, as a great many people were eager to remind Russell when The Last Intellectuals appeared. But in general, I think Russell’s formulation here is spot-on: for nearly everyone, “the choice is to join an institution or die on the vine.”