- The New Public Intellectual: Politics, Theory, and the Public Sphere eds. by Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Peter Hitchcock
In the United States, at least, the role, function, or even existence of the public intellectual seems to be an almost perennial topic among intellectuals, and one reason is undoubtedly that the mainstream public has never really had much interest in most intellectual conversations and has often had complete disdain for persons thought to be intellectuals. There has never been an equivalent of a Jean-Paul Sartre in the U.S., and various candidates for similar status among humanists—Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, or Cornell West, say—have never had the sort of influence over policymaking or popular culture that philosophers and activists in some other countries have enjoyed. In the twenty-first century, with its revolutions in mass media and technology, plus the restructuring of the relations of power and knowledge associated with neoliberalism, globalization, and postmodernism, one might argue that the role of the public intellectual is markedly different than in Sartre's epoch, and indeed that the public intellectual is all the more needed. The New Public Intellectual: Politics, Theory, and the Public Sphere, edited by Jeffrey Di Leo and Peter Hitchcock, sets out to address these issues, and the editors and contributors do an excellent job of articulating the [End Page 368] stakes, exploring the possibilities, exposing the challenges, and speculating about the future of what might be called the problem of the public intellectual today.
Di Leo and Hitchcock provide a lengthy, exploratory introduction ("Before the Beginning, After the End: Toward the New Public Intellectual") in which they ably register the sense of crisis with respect to both the intellectual's role in the public sphere and the more general social, political, and cultural problems facing critics in the present moment. They recognize that their goals in this volume are lofty: they do not attempt to define and elaborate the characteristics and functions of the new public intellectual so much as they wish to clear the ground for thinking about what this figure might look like. In the Introduction, as well as in the diverse viewpoints on display in the book's various essays, the issue is not so much to lament the absence of the public intellectual or to prescribe remedies for the situation as it is to imagine the ways in which intellectual engagement with the public can be reinvented for our time. The editors and contributors do an admirable job with this admittedly difficult task.
The volume's eleven essays, not counting the introduction, are distributed across three parts, and each part addresses key themes around which the problem of the public intellectual can be productively discussed. Thus Part I, "Neoliberalism, Education, and Commitment," begins with Henry A. Giroux's "Writing the Public Good Back into Education: Reclaiming the Role of the Public Intellectual," which surveys the way in which neoliberal ideology and policy have actively undermined the role of the academic intellectual; Giroux argues that the space of higher education needs to be constituted as a democratic public sphere, a zone for intellectual inquiry and advocacy. Sophia McClennen, who has spent much of her career attempting to bridge the ivory tower / public sphere divide through her engaged journalism, affirms that the prospect of an effective public intellectual tradition in the United States depends on mobilizing young people in "The Public Sphere Can Be Fun: Political Pedagogy in Neoliberal Times," and she finds in the popularity and incisive satire of The Colbert Report a useful example of political criticism in a wider public forum. Paul Allen Miller, a classicist, takes a somewhat different tack in "Teaching Literature, Teaching Commitment"; recognizing the unlikelihood (if not impossibility) of academic scholars making their work known to wide audiences of non-specialists, Miller contends that academics need to reach students precisely through their teaching and scholarship, thus influencing an audience that would probably not seek out the more overtly public productions...