What's the Point of Books Like Mine? Composing, 06/05/2016

It really is a very good book.
I've been writing lately over at the Reply Collective about the future of the humanities. The non-fiction books about history, histories, society, societies, culture, cultures, philosophy, and philosophies. 

That's not a list of the disciplines. It’s a list of the traditions. When a someone who isn’t an academic professional picks up a book from the humanities, this is how she’d think of them. As books that describe a particular society’s history, culture, and ideas, or explorations among all those dimensions across many societies. 

A book people pick up when they want to learn about humanity and the world we’ve built, and are building (or wrecking, depending on how you look at it) as we speak. 

That’s how the academic disciplines have to think about themselves when we expand their practice out of the traditional university. Works of non-fiction, especially those with a more creative, experimental edge, can be marketed in a similar way that we market art. As food for the mind.

That’s ultimately how the humanities traditions have always considered themselves. The educators of humanity. That’s never really been how any humanities discipline has ever really been practiced. More often, they’ve been specialized studies carried out for an audience of fellow full-time researchers with academic posts. 

That’s how it’s been for the last two centuries. But the pretence of being humanity’s educators has always been there. And a pretence is just an ideal whose reception has grown into pure cynicism after a long time of hypocritical practice. The ideal is still there.

Reading Commonwealth at this particular time in my life is weirdly fitting. There’s a passage about the role of the public intellectual in society, or at least what Toni Negri says it should be. 

Maybe people used to treat university professors with
more prestige than they have now. Maybe faculty
really did once have control over their universities.
That feels like someone describing an alien world.
There are few things more pretentious than watching a professor write – usually in some more popular (that is, accessible) forum than a professional journal – about the decline of the public intellectual. I can’t help but be reminded of the absurdity of one of my favourite old Dave Foley monologues

So many amount to nothing but the whine of a privileged person about the decline in prestige their office receives. “People used to listen to me. I was important.” Well, you have to earn your importance in society. As a society grows more democratic, occupying a place in an institution, on its own, earns you less and less. 

How do you earn that as an intellectual? By being a thought leader. This is one of the few terms in contemporary business culture that I actually don’t need a layer of skepticism whenever I hear people talk about it. Because the ideal version of that idea is actually a very good one.

But it’s not a leader in the sense of being a vanguard, a rallying-point for the ignorant masses. Large numbers of people may make some pretty stupid decisions in their private and public lives. But that doesn’t mean that most people will always make stupid decisions. 

Everyone has the potential to be wise. That’s a fundamental concept for any democrat to get hold of. Not everybody may live up to that potential, for a lot of different reasons and causes. But that’s the ideal we need to hold on to as people to believe in democracy and believe in freedom. 

Individual freedom shouldn’t be defended in the absolute. Without the wisdom to use our freedom properly, we’ll just destroy our freedom by acting out of fear, spite, and resentfulness. 

We’ll get frightened by a terrorist attack and authorize an enormous security state that will press down on all our rights in the name of protecting us. We’ll go through economic hard times and blame ethnic minorities or migrant workers instead of getting down to the hard work of getting together to rebuild our communities and businesses.

A public intellectual is someone who helps her society wise up, get woke, and develop the ideas and concepts we need to overcome the problems we face. But they wouldn’t be a leader in the authoritarian sense. They’d be facilitators. The leaders of society’s brainstorming sessions. 

That’s the kind of writer – whether it’s my fiction, my philosophy, or my films – that I’d like to be. 

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