Intellectuals and the Problem of their Publics: An Account of the 2015 S-USIH Conference

S-USIH Pic Erstwhile editors Beau Driver and Graeme A. Pente offer a recap of their experience attending the 2015 conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History in Washington, D.C., October 15-18, 2015.

Last weekend, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) held its seventh annual conference in Washington, D.C. By all accounts, it was the largest to date in terms of panels and participants. For the organizers, this interest testified to the growing health and recovery of the field. The conference theme, drawing from one of US intellectual historians’ favorites (John Dewey), centered on “Problems and their Publics.” With the keynote address, a plenary session retrospective on Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987), and perhaps our own subjective position, the conference’s talk quickly became more about “Intellectuals and their Publics.” For many of us, the most pressing problem seems to be the place of intellectuals (our place) in relation to publics (society). This nagging question permeated the conference, perhaps belying the rosy optimism of our field’s recovery.

We do not say this to discredit the achievements and renovation of historians in the field, about which the organizers were so excited. Historians are doing innovative work in intellectual history. The S-USIH awarded its annual book prize to Ruben Flores’s Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States (2014). In it, Flores examines how Mexican reformers embraced Deweyan pragmatism and views on education and how these reforms in turn crossed back over the border to influence desegregation and Civil Rights battles in the United States. Flores incorporates elements of what many intellectual historians have been encouraging for decades: a truly transnational perspective, an exploration of how national contexts shape the implementation of ideas, and a study of how ideas function in practice.

However, despite such considerable accomplishments, the question remains: how do we get our work to a broader audience? To what degree is our work rendered ineffective by its isolation to a room full of the self-congratulating converted? We were disappointed that the organizers did not include a session on teaching intellectual history. To our minds, the intellectual (at least, the university-bound one) has a readymade public in her students, captive as they may be. The generally abstract nature of intellectual history is particularly challenging for students to engage. A session on how to connect more effectively with our first public would not have gone amiss.

The retrospective on Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals reminded us of this truncated nature of the university-bound historian’s public. In 1987, Jacoby bemoaned the general trend of intellectuals abandoning their public roles for the security and comfort of the university, marking a turn from critical engagement toward careerism and the pursuit of status. This turn narrowed the cultural resonance and social impact of intellectuals (epitomized for Jacoby by figures like Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and John Kenneth Galbraith) into disciplines marked by their own jargons and canonical literature. In other words, we have hobbled ourselves. The roles we fulfill and the limited impact we have are of our own making.

In his keynote address “Publics that Don’t Exist and the Intellectuals Who Write for Them,” political theorist Corey Robin contended that intellectuals should not wait for publics that face problems but instead should seek to call their publics into being. We need a public with which to critically engage and people need to grapple with the implications of our work—they just don’t know it yet. To Robin, capital’s infiltration of the academy no longer allows the university to act as a safe haven in which intellectuals may pursue knowledge, perhaps pushing them at last to change the public.

For us graduate students, this question of the intellectual’s disappearing role and the anxiety of being shut out of the university are all too familiar. But as Robin suggested, this constriction need not be crippling but in fact liberating. We have the opportunity to seek our own publics and novel ways to engage them, ways that may ultimately be more effective at propelling the change we want to see than those available to us in the comfort of the university. Ultimately, embracing or rejecting this change revolves around our goals. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we are seeking to do: Do we seek to engage and change the public and its discourse? Or are we just seeking job security and bourgeois comfort?

A few of the panelists offered an answer to the question of our role in effecting change. In the opening plenary session, representatives from Dissent, Raritan, The New Inquiry, The American Conservative, and Jacobin met to discuss “Little Magazines: Past, Present, Future” and to some degree place the scholar in the role of arbiter of change. For the uninitiated, the term “little magazine” often refers to the type of small-circulation publication that blurs the line between popular commentary and scholarly discourse or that offers a platform for the avant-garde of literature, politics, or cultural criticism to publish their work. Magazines like Jacobin and Dissent operate as an outlet for many scholars, from a variety of backgrounds, to discuss hot-button issues or to place current events in the context of a more serious analysis than one might get from popular news outlets and to engage a broader audience. In this way, these “little magazines” operate in a liminal space that allows scholars to expound on issues without the constraints of a peer-review board or a strict need to be academic in their approach. Raritan editor T.J. Jackson Lears described the role of these publications in this way, “’little magazines’ are a crucial alternative to academic journals and mass culture.” While the “public” that these magazines seek to engage is relatively limited, the panelists made no bones about their motivations. As Dissent’s David Marcus said, “The role of Dissent is assessing politics in the field of culture.” Further, Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara discussed the desire to have his magazine serve as a place for readers to explore socialist perspectives on current events in the hopes that these left-leaning ideas find a broader audience.

The S-USIH was also able to make itself available to a larger audience through the use of “#USIH2015.” A dedicated few “twitterstorians” broadcast 140-character commentary to anyone following the hash tag, which meant that many who could not attend were able to follow the “blow-by-blow” of the major panels and discussions (additionally, Twitter users out there can still access this commentary via a quick search for #USIH2015 on Twitter). Unfortunately, no panels at the conference dealt directly with the role of social media in constructing publics in spaces other than the physical. While social media was a topic in a variety of discussions, the lack of a panel—indeed, panels—dedicated to these particular publics is a glaring omission in our opinion, as it is becoming more apparent that Twitter and Facebook have irrevocably changed the meaning of “publics” as well as the access afforded to the layperson. It is up to us to explore and to decide what role the intellectual will play in these new forms of the public.

For more on The Society for United States Intellectual History, its blog, and next year’s conference, please visit s-usih.org.

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One thought on “Intellectuals and the Problem of their Publics: An Account of the 2015 S-USIH Conference

  1. Pingback: Conference Recap: One Perspective | s-usih.org

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