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From PMLA, September 1997 issue, commissioned for roundtable on "Intellectuals"
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
To the Editor:
The assignment from PMLA was to write a 1000-word letter on "the notion of the intellectual in the twenty-first century"-- a letter that should be "double spaced and . . . avoid using the universal ungrounded 'we'."
That says it all, doesn't it? For what function can the intellectual have in a world that prescribes double-spacing but doesn't permit the use of the first-person plural? "We are aiming," wrote Antonio Gramsci in "The Problem of the School (1919), "to stimulate a mentality of construction, of comrades . . . . Today, after the positive experiences of our Russian comrades, it can and must be otherwise if we want to ensure that their experiences have not been in vain for us." This "us" is the new Italian intellectual class for which and to which Gramsci assumed that he was speaking. Or take Edmund Wilson, in his epilogue for To the Finland Station (1940): "Let us begin by asking ourselves what we mean, whether we really mean anything definite and fixed, when we casually use the word 'Marxism'." Here the dreaded "we" is used five times in a twenty-four word sentence." In his Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), the noted "New York intellectual" Lionel Trilling declares that "As readers, as participants in the conscious, formulating part of our life in society, we incline to the antagonistic position." And more recently, in The Senses of Walden, Stanley Cavell, addressing fellow thinkers, whether within the university or without, observes: "We ought no longer to be as sure as [Matthew] Arnold was that the great philosophical writer is one who builds a system. . .. We are more prepared to understand as philosophy a mode of thought that undertakes to bring philosophy to an end."
The loss of this "we" is the sign that there is no longer a generic intellectual class to which "you" or "I" or "one" might belong. The causes of this large-scale transformation are manifold: the end of the cold war and, with it, of an effective international Left, the dominance of money over the old class formations coupled with an often militant identity politics that creates smaller and smaller micro-units defining the individual's place, and the increasing commodification and media-ization of society, which prompts even a scholarly journal like PMLA to resort to sound-bytes like the one I am writing. But perhaps the greatest threat to the intellectual life is that of the institution, whether the university, the foundation, the professional organization, or the government arts agency, that supposedly fosters it.
In "The Intellectual Field: A World Apart" (1985), Pierre Bourdieu characterizes intellectuals as "a dominated fraction of the dominant class. They are dominant in so far as they hold the power and privileges conferred by the possession of cultural capital . . . but . . . dominated in their relations with those who hold political and economic power." Intellectuals "remain loyal to the bourgeois order," because it is, after all, the bourgeois order that confers upon them whatever power they have. What this means in practice, is that, in late twentieth-century culture, institutional intellectuals may profess any number of "radical" ideas but are curiously passive vis-à-vis the system itself--that is, the basic university structure with its conferral of advanced degrees, grading and certification of students, and "peer review" of scholarly materials for the purpose of tenure or promotion decisions. In adhering to "professional" norms, those who profess to be intellectuals are naturally reluctant to criticize the discipline they practice, reluctant to ask themselves, for example, why students who have never read Dante do need to "know" the Victorian novel, or why one needs to master a second language or a particular cultural theory. Such hard questions regularly take a back seat to procedural ones like "How can our department get more budget lines?" or "How can we convince the Provost we need a medievalist?" Note that when it comes to such practical questions, the first-person plural is very much alive.
Intellectuals, I would posit, cannot function without at least a degree of independence from this self-perpetuating power structure--a structure that merely replicates the larger system of economic and political power of which it is a part. Are intellectuals after Trilling, after Cavell, therefore becoming an obsolete species? As public voices, probably yes, for no sooner do late twentieth-century intellectuals enter the arena of TV talk shows or journalism than they find their discourse being trivialized and co-opted. But if "intellectual" refers to the invention of original, oppositional, and productive habits of thinking, then I would posit that intellectuals are alive and well-- primarily (and paradoxically) among a new breed of artists and poets on the boundaries. Indeed, when I try to apply the adjective "intellectual" to, say, the countless conference papers I have heard over the past decade, I immediately think of David Antin's "talk poem" on Wittgenstein, delivered at the West Coast Humanities Institute, of Charles Bernstein's rich and enigmatic "Blood on the Cutting Room Floor," presented at the 1984 Alabama Poetry Conference, and of Steve McCaffery's send-up of theory dogma in his "Nietzschean Pataphysics," "performed" at the annual ACLA convention in Georgia in 1995. Or I think of two particularly striking MLA lectures: Susan Howe's scholarly and passionate examination of Emily Dickinson's compositional habits and Joan Retallack's "G'L' A'N'C'E'S': A Poetic Essay into Space, Time, Motion," a complex verbal-visual meditation prompted by the single word "blue."
But don't artists and writers also occupy positions within the dominant class and thus find themselves subject to the same constraints as intellectuals? Bourdieu makes this case, but contemporary culture, at least in the U.S., puts so little premium on artistic accomplishment that poets and artists, especially those on the fringe or working in hybrid modes and genres, can afford to be much more exploratory than their over-specialized scholarly (and often scholastic) counterparts. For one thing, they are prompted to read theory or cultural history by nothing more than intellectual curiosity. More important, not having to pay lip service to the latest fashion, they can produce writings that might not contain a single reference to Judith Butler or Homi Bhabha. True, their essays are not likely to be accepted by PMLA, with its standardized format and its policy of anonymous submission, but in recent years these often unaffiliated poet-intellectuals have begun to be visible at MLA and related conventions. And current MLA job lists are actually advertising positions calling for a "poet-theorist" or "poet-critic."
Something is happening here which is not yet fully understood. How could those once antithetical categories, "Art" and "Intellect," come together? Why has "conceptual art" become so important to a younger generation? I don't have the answers to these difficult questions but it is my conviction that whatever intellectual renewal is in the offing will come from the radical poetic/art community --a community in which "I" replaces "anonymous" and addresses a "you" that is in sync or at least in sympathy. In other words, a newly constituted "we."