[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.
I love these publications – in fact I aspire to write for many of them. But is this actually the rise of public intellectualism or is it something else? Jacobin’s circulation is at 20,000 and Dissent’s is at about 5,000, according to Goldstein. But the audience of these magazines are other academics, journalists, and the “educated reading public,” the same people who have read The New Yorker for years. The growth in these magazines isn’t a sign of the growth of public engagement, but instead an indication that as universities are strangled by conservative policies the ivory tower has moved to magazines and other popular publications.
Who is the demographic of these magazines? Who are the subscribers? And can a circulation of 5,000 really stand up as “public?” The barrier to entry for magazines and even blogs is now lower than ever, allowing more and more people to write and be read. But the idea that academics are now reaching some mythological public by swapping peer review for liberal magazines is flawed. The “public” isn’t reading these magazines or any magazines. They are watching cable news and consuming clickbait headlines-to engage with these audiences academics need to do more than move the location of their intellectual silos.
To be fair, these magazines are more equitable than journals and academic conferences. Subscriptions are often low-cost and most of them do not operate a paywall. Jacobin, Dissent, and other magazines accept pitches from unknown writers (although I am still waiting in vain). But even so, who is their audience? Who knows about these publications or is willing to submit? People with educational privilege, if not other kinds of privilege.
The construct of the public intellectual has allowed academics to claim an engagement and commitment to the needs of the public, when in actuality they are moving academic debates to a different location, a new ivory tower.