In recent months I’ve been loaning my father various history books. Part of it is to, quite simply, make some space in my apartment. But for the most part, it’s my way of making my parents part of my scholarly life again. As I’ve written here before, my parents are the primary reason I’m in graduate school. Their reading habits became my reading habits. With my father squeezing in some time to read when he’s not at work at his truck driving job, I wanted to repay the favor.
This past Sunday, just a few weeks shy of his fortieth birthday, the critic, blogger, and journalist Scott Eric Kaufman (known to many readers as “SEK”) passed away following a long illness. Scott’s work is probably familiar to most of the readers of this blog. If it isn’t, the blog Lawyers, Guns, & Money, for which Scott wrote since 2009, has set up a memorial page, with links to remembrances of him, his work at various blogs and online journals, and the GoFundMe that his family set up to help defray the cost of his weeks in intensive care. I never met Scott in real life and my online interactions with him were always slight and transient: comments back and forth on Facebook (where we were friends) or in comments sections of LG&M and other blogs. But like thousands of other readers of LG&M, the AV Club (where Scott’s Internet Film School (2013-2015) was short-lived but beloved), Crooked Timber, Salon, Raw Story, the Valve, Edge of the American West, and his own personal blog Acephalous (among other places online), I feel like I’ve lost a friend. But there are many others, including some on this blog, who knew him far better than I did, so I won’t try to compete with their memories of him.
Rather than attempt to offer a comprehensive obituary, I want to write instead about two aspects of SEK’s career that are of particular interest to this blog: his path-breaking work as an academic blogger and his role as a public intellectual. Continue reading
[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]
This past week The Chronicle of Higher Education published Evan Goldstein’s article on public intellectualism and new vibrancy in left leaning intellectual magazines. Older magazine’s like Dissent have been given new life by young Ph.D’s and newer publications like Jacobin and n+1 are being run by this same demographic. Goldstein argues that the crisis in education – particularly in humanities and social science doctoral programs – is leading to a rise in public intellectualism. People who would have previously headed towards academia are now writing for liberal magazines and publications, harkening back to an earlier and often idolized era of intellectualism in the 1930s and 1940s. Continue reading
[Editorial note: the following essay is a guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez.]
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 2)
by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez
In my first post about Lin-Manuel Miranda, I wrote about the politics of Hamilton, looking at how the Broadway musical reconstructed the U.S. quintessential narrative of individual opportunity for the Obama era. One cannot emphasize enough how much the musical’s success is rooted in its hip-hop aesthetics, as the Hamilton soundtrack’s own popularity shows. Questlove, the famed drummer from The Roots who helped produce the soundtrack, has mentioned in interviews that he “feel[s] the spirit of hip-hop” through Hamilton. According to him, this feeling is connected to Miranda’s canny use of rap, which does away with the typical structure of spoken dialogue and song one finds in musicals. Furthermore, the rhymes, tunes, and beats that form the backbone of Hamilton constitute a reverential archive of references to hip-hop artists and songs from the 1990s and early 2000s, with the Notorious B.I.G. at its center. Hamilton’s celebratory sampling enacts one of the essential elements of the hip-hop genre: its creative incorporation of other songs, which are of course not limited to any genre (the musical itself also draws from pop and rock music and even a traditional show tune, sung by the King of England). As Questlove puts it: “Hip-hop, at its heart, draws on old pieces of multiple traditions but gives them a new context and new life.”
[Editorial note: the following essay is a guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez.]
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 1)
by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez
As the end of 2016 approaches, the Hamilton phenomenon continues its successful march in the United States, spreading across the nation its hip hop-inflected celebration of the Founding Father. A new production of the play will begin its run in Chicago later this month, while a national tour has been planned for the next two years. Not only has the massive demand for tickets not abated, but also a lavishly designed book based on the musical has now become a bestseller. The title of the book, which contains the play, chapters dedicated to Hamilton’s production history, and a plethora of photographs and footnotes, affirms the far-reaching impact of Lin Manuel Miranda’s creative genius in bold fashion: Hamilton: The Revolution. Theater critic Jeremy McCarter, who wrote the book’s laudatory chapters, explains the meaning of the book’s subtitle in the introduction, saying that the musical “doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: it continues it.” (11)
But what does it mean to continue Alexander Hamilton’s “revolution” in the year 2016? The musical’s most prominent fans, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, offered their own interpretation in the video introduction to the cast’s performance at the Tony Awards this year. It is worthwhile to cite a portion of their presentation here to indicate how much the Obamas identify with the musical’s social and political vision:
As I imagine has been a common experience for historians and educators, I have been a bit distracted in the past week by the events unfolding at Yale and the University of Missouri. Consequently, I don’t have much to offer today – everything that desperately needs to be said is being said, not only by commentators, writers and historians but most of all by the students of Yale and Mizzou who are daily enduring the frenzied attempt of white America to delegitimize their concerns, their activism, and their claims about the reality of institutionalized racism itself.
And so I thought instead just to direct your attention to one of the events leading up to the resignation of Tim Wolfe. A month ago, student activists staged a protest when they blocked Wolfe’s car from moving forward during the Homecoming parade by joining together and linking arms. Starting in 1839 (the year the university was founded), each student came forward to relate a historical event that illustrates the deep foundational relationship the University of Missouri, higher education, and by implication the entire United States has with white supremacy. Watching the entire demonstration, and the outpouring of emotion that followed, is well worth your time – as the students illustrations of oppression inch closer to the present, the discomfort of the surrounding crowd grows, and it is an amazing thing to watch the activists push forward with their story as the auditory and physical resistance around them mounts.
Our discipline is currently engaged in a long debate about the meaning of public intellectuals and the responsibility of the historian to create publically accessible scholarship. Watching these students bravely connect the past to the present and personal experiences to policy, it occurred to me that such hand wringing, in light of this, seems a bit myopic. Where are our public intellectuals? They are right here – disrupting the easy and celebratory routines of white Americans’ every day lives with the reminder that, as they eloquently put it, all of this was built on their backs.
Anyone who attended the plenary this weekend on Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, which was just one part of a vigorous and immensely pleasurable conference, knows that Leo Ribuffo in particular, but Claire Potter and Jonathan Holloway as well, were unsparing in their critiques of that book’s narrow vision of who an intellectual can be. Drawing from their own life experiences, Potter and Holloway demonstrated the intellectual vitality of communities for which Jacoby’s argument simply had no time and no apparent inclination to see in 1987. Ribuffo’s critique was in some ways more direct: Jacoby’s definition of “intellectual” was merely “honorific” (I imagine, since Ribuffo brought him up, that he meant that in the Veblenian sense: the word dots The Theory of the Leisure Class as a sort of leitmotiv of disdain and irony).
Yet Potter and Holloway and even Ribuffo’s frontal attack leave, in an odd way, the central contention (as I understand it) of The Last Intellectuals untouched. What each critique does is encourage us to look away from the center of the world Jacoby described and to acknowledge how much lies around that center, to find in the margins what Jacoby stipulates became impossible at the core. But what their critiques do not do, I feel, is challenge Jacoby’s argument that, within the same demographic category (white, urban, well-educated men), there was a distinctly visible decline in deliberate engagement with a broad readership. Considering The Last Intellectuals not as a social diagnosis but as an account of a failure of cohort replacement, I imagine that many intellectuals (in the non-honorific but rather sociological sense) today would still basically assent to Jacoby’s narrative. The university may have been the starting point for a “long march through the institutions of power” for women, sexual minorities, and persons of color, but it was, the consensus might reluctantly admit, the long, plump sofa on which the men who were to succeed the New York Intellectuals schluffed and schlumped. The message that so many have taken away from Jacoby’s work is that, well, not everyone can be Edmund Wilson or Irving Howe, but someone in the 1980s (or 1990s or 2000s or 2010s) should have been.
Of course, there have been other critiques which point out how dependent even Jacoby’s icons were on university paychecks. Jacoby certainly understated the degree to which, even if they were not securing tenure-track appointments, the generation he lionized often picked up short-term university teaching to cover their bills. (The new biography of Saul Bellow provides abundant evidence of the prevalence of this pattern.) Yet the sociology behind The Last Intellectuals has never been the point for most people, although as Potter argued, it is probably at its best in its arguments about space. Instead, the book has been and continues to be read, I think, as literary criticism, as a diagnosis of a generational change in prose style; all other considerations–in what venues that prose appeared, whom it addressed, who or what paid for it, where it was written–are secondary. That is, my innermost materialist tells me, pretty silly. Continue reading
Craufurd D. Goodwin, Walter Lippmann: Public Economist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)
Review by Tom Arnold Forster
Craufurd Goodwin’s new book is the most sustained and detailed account yet written of the journalist Walter Lippmann as a figure within the history of economic thought. The relationship between Lippmann and economics has recently generated much interest among historians of neoliberalism, and we now know a great deal about how the “Colloque Walter Lippmann,” a 1938 gathering of key thinkers to discuss the French translation of The Good Society, helped to create intellectual and institutional foundations for neoliberal political economy. Scholars dispute Lippmann’s commitment to neoliberalism as a political project (his diffidence is deftly described in Angus Burgin’s Great Persuasion), but his significance as a touchstone in the intellectual history of market liberalism has been richly demonstrated.
Last week, the website (it preferred to call itself an online magazine) The Dissolve suddenly announced that it was closing down. Founded just two years ago by some of the most interesting and serious young critics – many of whom had previously been associated with the Onion’s sister site The A.V. Club — and funded by established online media player Pitchfork Media, The Dissolve was devoted exclusively to film criticism. It quickly developed a reputation among film fans and film critics as one of the most important places online for the discussion of motion pictures. The Dissolve reviewed the latest mainstream Hollywood movies, but it also discussed older films and indie and foreign cinema. And it did so in a voice that was serious and fun and always inviting, whatever ones level of film knowledge. And the site quickly developed an engaged, intelligent, and interesting commentariat. This was one of those rare sites in which you always wanted to read the comments. In its podcast and movie-of-the-week forums, it created spaces for the websites regular contributors – and occasional guests – to share ideas about films, past and present. And every day it presented a curated list of the best film writing around the web. Though there were some indications that the site was in trouble – most notably its letting co-founder Nathan Rabin go earlier this year – its closure came as a shock to most of us.
I have often said – on this blog and elsewhere – that I think we’re in the middle of an incredible renaissance of the public humanities. Criticism has become a central part of the consumption of films, television, books, video games and other media among the general public. Digital technology has altered both the way we consume these media (in the case of video games, it has created a medium) and the opportunity to discuss and analyze them. And the discussions in turn have altered the media themselves. The simplest and most ubiquitous version of this phenomenon is recap culture. But The Dissolve exemplified a more sophisticated aspect of the same general trend. Film criticism, even serious film criticism, has always been even more at home in the public realm than in the academy. But while the conversations that took place in journals like Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment tended to take place among a fairly small set of cineastes and critics, The Dissolve’s reach – or at least potential reach – was much wider and more immediate. It was free. It could both respond quickly to film news and discuss longer-standing issues in cinema. And, thanks to the internet, it could often link to films and critics with which it engaged. Since it had a serious commentariat with which its writers actively engaged, it could also function as a kind of salon. Of course, none of these things are very remarkable. Indeed, we take this kind of new critical space for granted. What made The Dissolve special was its quality. And that, in a sense, was the source of its problems. Continue reading
Yesterday evening Corey Robin asked the following on his Facebook page: “Crowd-sourcing question: What do you think are the best texts — books, essays, journal articles, blog posts, tweets, whatever — on public intellectuals?”
Since I keep a rough file of works on this subject in my Zotero database (given the prominence of the topic here at the blog), I offered a brief list of 9 pieces on the subject. Shortly thereafter Corey’s comment thread exploded. I monitored the contributions and added several works to my file. What follows is a reproduction of my selections from that thread. The works below are first given in publication date order. After that they appear according to the date they were added to my file. Please feel free to add your favorites in the comments! Continue reading