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Has the era in which intellectuals had sufficient respect and moral authority to intervene effectively in politics and influence public opinion finally come to an end? Is it possible to imagine today an Emile Zola who would publicly accuse the highest political and military authorities of injustices and crimes and be followed by large numbers of writers, artists, and academics and important segments of the general public, as was the case during the Dreyfus Affair in France over a century ago? Have the ends pursued by intellectuals of the past become totally irrelevant in an increasingly trans-national world dominated by technology? These are the kinds of questions this essay addresses as it discusses why in the last decades the decline in the status and influence of intellectuals and even their demise have so often been proclaimed, not just by conservative anti-intellectuals who equate intellectuals with subversive political ideas and movements, but also more surprisingly by intellectuals on the political left themselves.
Even if the figure and status of the intellectual have radically changed in recent decades, the essay also argues that the voices of intellectuals, even if today expressed in different forms and in different media than in the past, still have a crucial critical role to play. Through analyses of essays by Foucault, Lyotard, and Albert Camus, the essay argues for what could be called a minimalist form of ethics as the basis for the struggle against injustice, an ethics that is not rooted in an idea of universal humanity or derived from a religious or political ideal but which nevertheless demands, especially in “an age of terror” such as our own, that the obligation to “save bodies” (Camus) must come before politics, or in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, that politics must always come “after.”