Speaking Power to Truth: Digital Discourse and the Public Intellectual ed. by Michael Keren and Richard Hawkins (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Keren and Richard Hawkins, eds. Speaking Power to Truth: Digital Discourse and the Public Intellectual. Athabasca University Press. viii, 208. $24.95

The most refreshing feature of this collection of reflections on the public intellectual is that it does not wax melancholy over a lost golden age. It has been common, since the 1980s at least, for scholars to lament the disappearance of the kinds of intellectuals who once addressed complex ideas within newspaper columns or broadcast media talk shows. For some, this kind of intellectual is a figure of relatively recent memory, best exemplified by the so-called New York Intellectuals of the 1950s, like Irving Kristol and Lionel Trilling, or successor figures of the likes of William F. Buckley and Susan Sontag. In our own time, the story goes, humanist intellectuals have retreated into theoretical thickets which resist translation to the non-academic world. At the same time, the tribunes of print and broadcast media have been colonized by a class of middle-brow pundits working in think tanks.

Speaking Truth to Power: Digital Discourse and the Public Intellectual presumes a world in which the growth of digital media has altered the terrain on which the intellectual/expert operates. In the present, the book's editors suggest, platforms for public intervention by intellectuals are marked by their abundance rather than their scarcity. As a result, intellectuals in the present-day confront two sorts of temptation. One of these is the lure of political power, manifest historically in the ascension of literary-intellectual figures like Benjamin Disraeli and Vaclav Havel to government office. The other temptation is that of money or the market. While the first of these temptations seems almost quaintly historical, the second is a focus of several of the essays collected here.

Speaking Truth to Power features essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines (like sociology and political science) at the qualitative end of the social sciences. In his opening chapter, Richard Hawkins enumerates the risks and benefits of public engagement by scientists. Present-day scientists, he suggests, live in a world in which the economic value of science [End Page 105] is more and more acknowledged, but in which high levels of specialization limit any scientist's ability to communicative publicly in an effective way. The uneasy public status of science is also the focus of Boaz Miller's chapter on the environmental activism of David Suzuki and Margaret Atwood. The former is a firm believer in science, while the latter dismisses claims to objectivity in the name of a standpoint account of knowledge. Issues such as climate change are thus clouded by a fundamental uncertainty about the usefulness of specialized expertise.

Eleanor Towley's article, on ''Public Intellectuals, Media Intellectuals, and Academic Intellectuals,'' deals with political commentators writing in newspapers. Her comparison of columns in elite newspapers in Canada and the United States uncovers differences which, while hardly surprising, are given statistical confirmation here. US public intellectuals, she finds, are more likely to speak in universalizing terms, failing to acknowledge the specificity of their American context even as they locate themselves quite precisely in terms of left-right divides. Canadian commentators will more often seek some sort of political balance and speak with the humility of the intellectual conscious of her place in the world.

Jacob G. Foster's contribution deals with digital media swarms and the collective intelligence of innumerable anonymous opinions. Foster distinguishes between an image of digital media discourse as mob-like, marked by the simple, infantile imperative to be noticed, and the ideal of a ''digital republic,'' in which distributed knowledge is worked over with creativity and a critical sense. Liz Pirnie extends these ideas in an essay on the socalled hacktivism of Anonymous, reaching back to Kierkegaard for the notion that the public intellectual of the future should be unrecognizable and anonymous. Karim-Aly Kassam, offering a program for the training of public intellectuals within academic contexts, suggests that it be guided by such fundamental principles as pluralism and relevance to sociopolitical context.

Two of the pieces here recount their authors' own encounters with the public sphere and enumerate the risks of this...