Via the ever-interesting Arts & Letters Daily comes this U.K. Guardian piece pooh-poohing public intellectuals. Frances Stoner Suander notes that London's Birbeck College is establishing a center (centre?) for public intellectuals, with the unintentional/intentional absurdist Slavoj Zizek as its international director, and that the center/re's first big project is a series of lectures (read: sermons) on the importance of the notoriously inscrutable Jacques Derrida.
By focusing on Derrida, whose work took impenetrability to dizzying heights, Birkbeck is clearly signalling that by 'public' it means elitism on a platform. It's hard to see how this arrangement can bring clarity to 'issues of current importance'.
More to the point, Suanders notes that when "public intellectuals" have actually engaged society in the past, they were often scarifying frights. Recounting the lunacy of the alternately uncritical and cynical embrace of Stalinism at the famous 1935 International Writers' Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris, she writes,
In an age of extremes, the middle ground disappears. The fatal compromise made by intellectuals in the Thirties was to abandon the search for an alternative, a 'neither/nor', and to sign up instead to the Manichaean 'either/or'. As a result, good intentions and real moral courage (of the kind that took many writers and artists into the trenches of the Spanish Civil War) were sacrificed to an impossible bargain. After the congress, [eventual East German state poet Bertholt] Brecht summed it up in words of acid irony: 'We have just saved culture. It took a total of four days, during which we decided that it's better to sacrifice everything than to let culture be destroyed. If necessary we are ready to sacrifice 10 or 20 million people to this end.'
Whole thing here.