On Public Intellectualism in the UK

This feature in today’s The Observer newspaper on Britain’s relationship to ‘public intellectualism’ is at times illuminating, and at times frustrating in the most productive of ways. Indeed, some of my frustration with it connects directly to a theme that ST has explored on this website recently: ‘impact’. In short, it is notable just how much the notion of ‘impact’ has come to frame a certain understanding of public intellectualism in this country, ie. the UK.

As the author, Professor John Naughton from The Open University (UK), stresses upon reflecting on the problems encountered in his own attempt to draw a list of ‘300 public intellectuals’: “Compiling it [the list] makes one realise how difficult it is to make an assessment of the impact that any particular individual has on the public consciousness”. My worry is that in our political present this is an increasingly ‘logical’ formulation of public intellectualism as merely ‘impact-fullness’ (if that’s not a word it soon will be in the UK!). Indeed, the formulation pre-supposes ‘impact’ as the basis for evaluating the product of academic labour’s legitimate transfer to the public domain. What about critique, the ability of and injunction for leftist academic labour to convene critical public domains that ‘speak truth to power’? What about dissident thought in which no socially, economically or culturally measurable ‘impact’ inheres? That is to say, the kind of public intellectualism proffered by the scholar who is a “scoffer whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments and corporations.” This is Naughton quoting one of Said’s many articulations of the task of public intellectualism. However, it is woefully symptomatic that he then emphasises that this definition is not “sharp enough to be very useful; any ranter with a megaphone and a mastery of rhetoric could qualify.” [As an aside, when I read this I immediately thought of Niall Ferguson!]

Reading Naughton’s essay against the grain, I think its fair to say that ‘impact’ itself is no rupture with prevailing understandings that the relationship between Britain’s academic labour force and ‘the public’ should be merely utilitarian, merely instrumental, in short profitable. At the same time, (and this is far more speculative) it seems to me that this idea of economistically and Culturally (note the capital ‘C’) utilitarian academic thought is what gives us both the too instrumental and too conservative strains of public intellectualism so abundant in the UK today. There is, I fear, an ever-diminishing space for academicians who want to push back against the creeping tide of conservative logic saturating society, culture, and economy.

My hope is that right now, in the too draconian ‘age of austerity’ and the ideological and fiscal conservatism sweeping the UK, public intellectualism might more loudly critique the episteme, speak truth to power, in proudly non-utilitarian ways. Now surely is the time to rant, to assert space for a non-impactful, dissident form of public intellectualism in the UK.

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Tariq Jazeel