The very idea of a public intellectual is something that has remained always mysterious and almost elusive in the modern society. There does not seem to be ready made definition for describing somebody as worthy of being called a public intellectual, because perhaps, there could not be or should not be---public intellectuals appear to be beyond definitions. It appears that a public intellectual is generally defined by what is 'not', what does he or she not stand for.
At the present crossroads that the Indian public life appears to be--appearing to look forward but somewhere slipping back too-- the need of a public intellectual appears to be the most urgent now. Do we have one, can we hope to have one? Such issues we seem to grapple endlessly especially in the times of social media, internet and 24x7 TV, though not so urgently and prominently.
Here is an excerpt of a conversation between two leading public intellectuals--Edward W. Said (ES) and Tariq Ali (TA)-- as well as major activists, who seem to take up the issue with a self-critical approach, which may appear instructive for us. Edward Said's insightful views on The Idea of Public Intellectual, Left Public Intellectual vs. Right Public Intellectual, Television Public Intellectual, Dissenting Public Intellectual etc are indeed worth a read.--Kumar Vikram
ON PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS AND POLITICS
TA: But it is an irony, is it not, Edward, that Marxism as a mass political current is, I wouldn't say wiped out, but let's say in very heavy retreat, yet it exists, it functions, it's become an academic discipline.
ES: It's only an academic discipline, in this country. There isn't a Marxist movement.
|Edward W. Said|
Photo Courtesy: http://www.izdiham.com/edward-w-said-yersiz-yurtsuz/
ES: Not even an intellectual Marxist movement. There are people who call themselves Marxists, and who are completely removed from the practice of everyday life, in which political struggle, in which political writing, in which political solidarity, are essential. They're just not part of it. There are very brilliant Marxists who are academics, like Fred [ric] Jameson, who is a great, great critic and theorist, but he is really not in the political world, and it's in that world that I find myself without too many allies.
TA: But this is a supreme irony, is it not, that Marx, who himself was very engaged politically, has followers who are totally aloof from all that?
ES: Exactly, exactly.
Photo Courtesy: http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Tariq+Ali
TA: In one of your recent books, the book on music, you'have written: 'No social system, no historical vision, no theoretical totalization, no matter how powerful, can exhaust all the alternatives or practices that exist within its domain. There is always the possibility to transgress.' Now you have written this about music, but it applies to virtually everything, doesn't it?
ES: Yes, because I mean it really as a social fact. That there's always an opportunity, no matter how one feels oneself up against the wall with no alternative but to submit--which is usually what its all about in the end--there's a always an opportunity to do something else. There's always an opportunity to formulate an alternative, and not either to remain silent or to capitulate. I think it's the most important social precept for me, and in a certain sense it governs my understanding of politics. Because if politics is simply as it's supposed to be according to neo-realism and pragmatism and all the other schools that rule the day, if politics is simply the art of the possible and the art of the conclusive and the art of the compromise, I think it's the role of the intellectual always to be asserting the alternative.
TA: In your Reith lectures for the BBC you stressed this fact, about the role of public intellectuals, and one critic said, this may be true, but why does he forget that public intellectuals can often belong to the right as well as the left?
ES: Yes, of course. There's no question about that. My sympathies are on the left and I'm more interested in the view of the world, as it were, so formulated by what I would consider to be progressive and left intellectuals, but it's certainly the case that historically people like Wyndham Lewis, for example, or T. S Eliot, who are right wing intellectuals, formulated and took as their vocation exactly that precept. I don't think it's limited to those of the left--it happens to be my interest, and my predilection and my sympathy, but it's absolutely true of both left and right.
|T. S. Eliot|
Photo Courtesy: https://www.citelighter.com/literature/writers/
TA: But isn't it the case now that increasingly the public intellectual is a figure who seems to be disappearing?
ES: No, not disappearing at all! I mean, disappearing in my sense, perhaps. But it seems to me the world is full of, not so much intellectuals, but I call them experts and professionals--and that is, I think, a great threat to intellectual freedom and intellectual performance---the extraordinary pressure placed on them to commodify their skills or expertise in a given field like foreign policy. Or foreign policy about Africa or foreign policy about India, or foreign policy about Latin America, right? And by virtue of that, who then belong to a community of experts whose whole role is selling their wares to establishment.
Photo Courtesy: http://www.occupy.com
That the principal goal in mind is not to tell the truth, or to say what the alternate to the present impasse is, but rather to maintain the status quo, to satisfy the customer, to really be a creature of the clientele, rather than of the cause or idea that one as an intellectual ought be serving or at least representing. So it's not a qusetion of public intellectuals disappearing---I mean, Kissinger is on television all the time, Brezinsky is on television all the time, Paul Johnson is on television all the time, these are public intellectuals who talk the language of the market-place, who represent the ideas of power that rule the world in which we live.
TA: But intellectuals in the tradition of Sartre and Bertrand Russell--
Photo Courtesy: http://www.the-philosophy.com
ES: Exactly, it's the dissenting intellectual that I think is disappearing, largely because the system neither wants nor can in the end accommodate this person. And that's why someone like Genet is so important to me, Genet as a non-compromiser--I mean, that's an impossible sort of position to maintain. Chomsky is similar. Somebody who is simply unpalatable for the very fact that what he or she says or represents is simply too much for the ongoing system and therefore is rejected.
Photo Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org
Courtesy: Tariq Ali; Conversations with Edward Said; Seagull Books 2006, ISBN 1 9054 2 204 0 (PP 107-111)
About Edward W. Said:
in full , sometimes (born , —died , , New York, U.S.), Palestinian American academic, political activist, and literary critic who examined in light of social and cultural politics and was an outspoken proponent of the political rights of the Palestinian people and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
His books about the Middle East include ambivalence he felt over living in both the Western and Eastern traditions. (1979), (1981), (1988; coedited with Christopher Hitchens), (1994), and (1995). Among his other notable books are (1983), (1988), (1991), and (1993). His autobiography, (1999), reflects the