May 20, 2009

George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For?

George Scialabba's recently published collection of essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For? asks that and many other interesting questions: Why should we read Matthew Arnold in this day and age? Has the modern age increased human freedom? Is there any hope for the future? are just a few. For my money, it's worth its price for two brilliant and brilliantly sustained essays on Christopher Lasch, one of those new left figures I'd long ago consigned to the memory hole, along with culture critics like Robert Cristgau ("who he?") or "public intellectuals" like Greil Marcus ("who he?") and Marshall Berman (you get the point). Cristopher Lasch, the New Left (child of the Old Left with Oedipal hangups about its parents, hence a mixture of non-Stalinoid Marxism and Freud and sang...never mind)sixties guru. I was not ready to see Lasch revived; let him rest with Horkheimer and Marcuse, I said to myself. Or rather, I didn't say, since they were in my memory hole. Ever since Rennie Davis got religion, I've paid little attention to the heroes of the New Left, although I did, by accident, see one mythified in The Big Lebowski, with whose real-life model I was in school with back in the day...but I saw the movie because I like Jeff Bridges, unaware that it was a portrait of Jeff Dowd (q. v.). (I mean, talk about the culture of narcissism.)

It was therefore with an uninformed mindset, innocent only in the sense of ignorant, that I approached Scialabba's Laschings, two fine essays, and so it was a revelation to learn that Lasch had, in fact, produced the diagnosis of the age through which we have lived since he was a widely read guru. Uncomfortable with the totalitarian (shades of the Old Left) tendencies of the New Left in the sixties, Lasch added a dose of pre-Lenin socialism (cottage industry, preindustrial unalienated socialism) and rigorous Freudianism. The years that have passed since the heyday of the New Left are the years of Kernberg and Kohut, when "narcissism" was the most popular diagnosis in the consulting room.

One reason I was not interested in Lasch from the time of the publication of The Culture of Narcissism was that I'd had more than enough of narcissistic personalities in my life, or so I believed, and I didn't feel like reading about them. Maybe, had I read the book, and its successors The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, about which Scialabba writes in this collection, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble...but sometimes you just have to live through it. Lasch's basic thesis is that late capitalism led to a shift in the typical personality type from producer to consumer. Anyone who has heard someone defining freedom as freedom to shop, or who more recently has heard such comments as "Instead of buying whatever I want, in the current economy I'm pulling back to buying only what I actually need," (including gasoline at $3.50) knows that Lasch nailed that one.

It gets interesting however when he talks about the relationship of consumerism to narcissism (someone ought to genuflect briefly to Marshall Mcluhan here: "Narcissus as Narcosis") that it gets really good. Here is how Scialabba describes Lasch's analysis: "The Victorian/Viennese neurosis was localized and discrete; contemporary narcissism is systemic and diffuse. To simplify even more dramatically: the character of selfhood has changed, from a strong (often rigid) self, in secure possession of fundamental values but riddled (often crippled) with specific anxieties, to a weak, beleagured self, often full of charms and wiles, and capable, but only fitfully, of flights of idealism and imagination." But incapable, one might add, of sustained relationships, self-sacrifice, aim-inhibition, or any of the other Freudian prerequisites of the civilization with which the narcissist is merely discontented. The weak self, so much more fluid, easygoing, and "open" than the rigid bourgeois, is the ideal consumer: of goods, of substances, of other people, and from the standpoint of the corporate food trough, ideally passive. Moreover,the typical narcissist has no moral compass.

The book's two essays on Lasch are flawless. Other riches in it include a well-aimed dissent on the greatness of Sir Isaiah Berlin, and a sympathetic look at the anti-totalitarianism of Robert Conquest who wrote the most powerful books about Stalin and the Stalinist terror. (Conquest was once asked what his message was. He said, "I told you so, you fucking jerks!") Scialabba is a utopian of hope, so Conquest's wholesale dismissal of all leftist projects is too much for him, but he acknowledges the Lasching that "we can aim either at maximum economic efficiency (conventionally defined) or robust democracy, but not both." Granted that capitalism--indeed, modernity since the Enlightenment--has failed to move freedom much beyond freedom to shop, it remains only a hope that socialism might somehow move things in the right direction. I am of the belief that any social system dependent on technological progress and advanced industrial development cannot lead to any increase in freedom. The objection is not to technology per se, or to machines just because they're mechanical, although mechanization is part of the problem--the effect of industry and technology has been the growth of the modern corporation and the bureaucracies, internal and external, that implement and sustain it. However, freedom's not just another word for lots of things to choose.

Scialabba puts himself squarely on the side of Wilfred Sellars by agreeing with the latter's definition of philosophy: "The way things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term," and he is the best interpreter of Richard Rorty I have read other than Richard Rorty. He skewers recent Cristopher Hitchens, eulogizes Dwight MacDonald and Diana Trilling--who emerges as a much more nuanced thinker and writer than I had formerly supposed. I cannot myself see that Lionel Trilling was amything but a mediocrity, and since Louis Menand has failed to convince me otherwise, I hope Scialabba will take the time to explain what made him great. Among the "loyal" opposition who get exceptionally fair treatment in this book are, besides Conquest, Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, who might have been treated as mere propagandists, and Alan Bloom, who might have been treated as execrable, the way he treated rock and roll ("gutter music" he called it--I guess he didn't know how to spell "guitar"). Scialabba takes seriously, and carries out vigorously, the critic's obligation to state his opponents' arguments as well as they can be stated. He is a better man than I. The title essay, published twenty years ago, is a prescient diagnosis of the decline of the New York intellectual; it is so provocative and pointed that ever since reading it, every time I have seen the phrase "public intellectual" in print I've noticed that it is applied to someone who, a generation ago, would not have been eligible for that title--someone who works for the government, or represents a specific ideological slot, or has a more or less specialist academic post. It seems to me that at present we have only one eminent man who deserves to be called a public intellectual, Stanley Fish, who also gets coverage in Scialabba's book. Need I add that Scialabba's writing is exceptionally good, free of jargon, free of cant, often witty, richly informed, and consistent, formal but relaxed?

There is, unfortunately, no good answer to the question what intellectuals are good for, but one can be pretty certain that Scialabba doesn't believe that the answer is "Nothing."

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