The Semipublic Intellectual

Introduction: The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual


“What are you doing?” This is a question familiar to academics who have spent time away from their official scholarly pursuits to write online. Whether it’s a blog post on research, a review essay about contemporary fiction, or even a tweet about a passionate political belief, this question of doing stalks every piece of writing we send into that expanding liminal space between scholarly and popular audiences. Is what you are doing scholarship, or are you moonlighting? Are you working toward tenure, or are you distracting yourself from that work? To whom are you writing these hybrid texts? Why? To write outside the academy is to be plagued by doubt, and the implications of these questions have led countless would-be bloggers, essayists, and tweeters to shut down their browsers. What, exactly, are you doing?

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Profession, Revise Thyself—Again


I have become fond of starting sentences with I am so old that . . . As in, I am so old that I remember when Michelob was considered a premium beer. And, I am so old that I remember when GLBTQ was just G and L; Q was considered a threat, B apostasy, and T pathological. And, finally, I am so old that it has been more than twenty years since I wrote an MLA paper declaring, “Profession, revise thyself,” partly as a response to Stanley Fish’s arguments about professional antiprofessionalism in “Profession Despise Thyself.” I delivered it at the 1992 MLA convention, in New York, and it eventually became the essay “Bite Size Theory: Popularizing Academic Criticism,” published in Social Text in 1993 and reprinted in my second book, Public Access, in 1994. Long, long ago.

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Everybody’s Authority


One day in 2012, while a presidential election campaign was in full swing, I wrote a blog post and hit “Publish.” The post was pretty niche, I thought—the ninth in a series of posts that I had been tagging “puerility,” all incipient ideas for a future project that would draw on childhood studies, the history of statistics, and poetics. With “puerility,” I sought to describe a ludic epistemological mode that draws its power from its very willingness to disclaim power and embrace provisionality—an ambivalence often figured through, and associated with, boyhood. My previous blogging on puerility had mused over the Google N-gram Viewer and the widespread propensity to describe it as a “fun” “toy,” the foulmouthed parody Twitter account @MayorEmanuel, and Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. The new post was about election predictions and a recent media flap around the statistician Nate Silver.

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In the Context of Infinite Contexts


Around the time I realized that I would be spending the better part of my twenties in graduate school, I saw an episode of The Simpsons that had an embarrassingly profound effect on me. The episode’s conceit was alluringly simple: What would happen if the city of Springfield was entrusted to its smartest citizens rather than to politicians or bureaucrats? Or, in the blunt diagnosis of Julius Hibbert, a Springfield physician (and one of the city’s smartest citizens), “Why do we live in a town where the smartest have no power and the stupidest run everything?” Why couldn’t things be different?

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Growing Up in Public: Academia, Journalism, And the New Public Intellectual


When I was in graduate school ten years ago, we were discouraged from writing book reviews. The professional rationales behind this advice were sound enough: book reviewing, whether for a scholarly journal or a mass-market publication, requires a considerable investment of time and a public statement of position. Neither venture was a risk that budding graduate students could afford: you don’t want to make enemies in your field too soon, especially inadvertently, and you don’t want to waste precious time forming an opinion before you’ve proved your entitlement to one, or so our professors’ argument ran. We were advised, sensibly enough, to focus on our coursework and our own progress as scholars.

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How to Talk about Books You Have Read


I don’t do much public writing, but each month I persuade others to do it in my role as the fiction editor in chief of Public Books, a twice-monthly online review that I cofounded with Caitlin Zaloom in 2012. On the first and fifteenth of each month, Public Books publishes six to eight essays about books, nonprint works, the media, the arts, and ideas, written mostly by academics but also by journalists, novelists, activists, and artists. In addition to traditional reviews, we publish roundtables, interviews, visual essays, and Public Picks, our annual lists of best books and films.

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Make Revolution Irresistible: The Role of the Cultural Worker in the Twenty-­First Century


I was introduced to the term public intellectual almost twenty years ago when I was an undergraduate in a literary course on African American music taught by the cultural critic Farah Jasmine Griffin. The class conversations began with readings of jazz and hip-hop artists as “organic intellectuals” in the sense developed by Antonio Gramsci. We quickly moved to the debates sparked by Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual (1993) and to the rise of the black public intellectual as demonstrated by the formation by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of an academic “dream team” in African American studies at Harvard, Cornel West’s publication of Race Matters (1994), and Robert Boynton’s March 1995 article in the Atlantic entitled “The New Intellectuals,” which added Toni Morrison, Stanley Crouch, Patricia Williams, Michael Eric Dyson, Derrick Bell, June Jordan, and many others to that category. By the time I arrived at Harvard in 1999, for graduate study in African American literature, the idea of the black public intellectual served as a backdrop and a blueprint for how my generation of scholars could live inside and beyond the campus walls. As beneficiaries of that era, my peers and I did not necessarily have to prove that our work belonged in the public; instead, we had to wrestle with newer questions of format and forum in the digital age.

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