Table of Contents

Introduction

There is a growing conversation about the value and responsibility of intellectual production today. Questions about access and voice grounded in socio-economic inequality continue to undermine the egalitarian aspirations of the democratic public sphere. A new, more critical appraisal is also developing around the question of economic inequality more generally. This debate—encompassing questions of voice, compensation, modes of production, and value—is ongoing. As Pierre Bourdieu said, “A central property of the intellectual field [is], namely, that it is the site of struggles over who does and does not belong to it.”1

A rich history on the topic of intellectual production is certainly available. Unfortunately, this history is too often marked by the very failures in question today. While appreciating the intellectual publications of the past like Dissent and The Partisan Review, the editors believe that what was valuable in such writing from the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced. Unfortunately, their elitism, factionalism, and pretentious nature is too easily recreated, even by the most well-intentioned. Therefore we can only count such publications as one influence among many and not a model for own work. How a mode of production—i.e. writing for small magazines—might both emulate and break from these examples is not yet clear, as some recent debates (cited below) demonstrate.

What follows is more like a miscellany than a bibliography or review of the literature. In other words, it is not comprehensive and is not meant to be. The criteria of selection is more or less based on what we happen to read, and consequently this miscellany represents the context of our journal or where we see it fitting into the conversations and publications we read today. It also may speak to the patterns, or lack thereof, of content consumption that go along with the digital age.

The Kristof Kerfluffle

A few months after we made the decision to focus on intellectuals and began writing and researching, Nicholas Kristof, apparently needing a quick column, rehashed the lament for the public intellectual lost to specialized world of the university. There was a flood of responses. We were afraid our first issue might become another drop in the ocean of outrage. Luckily, the Internet has a short memory. Also, luckily, Contrivers’ goals do not include timeliness. After sifting through numerous responses, it also became apparent that many were just using the topic to generate content and attention for their own blogs, websites, opinions, etc. Not only is outrage abundant, but most is of a cheap, cynical quality.

Corey Robin offered a broad-ranging, intelligent, and sincere response for Al Jazeera America. This was a follow-up to a post on his blog. Robin rightly points out the numerous places one can find intellectuals writing for a broad audience, and he locates his discussion of intellectual writing in the context of the labor market in academia and the publishing world.

More specifically, Kristof explicitly calls out the discipline of Political Science. In this case, the criticism is not unknown: the discipline has a well-earned identity crisis where professors truly want to be relevant in the political sphere. After all, many became academics out of an interest in the more vulgar, everyday politics that Kristof engages from the pages of the NY Times. It is interesting, however, that in order to argue that Political Science has abdicated responsibility in the public sphere, Kristof chose to rely on several well-known scholars to make this point for him. An argument can be made that it is not the university which has left the public, but the public which has left nuance and depth behind.

More troubling is that Kristof has ignored the history of intellectual intervention. First, he ignores perhaps the single dominant trend in journalism today: the rise of technocratic journalism by savvy writers dedicated to translating the rarified world of statistical social science into the mainstream. Call it the Moneyball effect. This dynamic can be seen at sites like 538, Slate, and now Vox, and it constitutes perhaps the single most important change to the media landscape. In addition, this trend has transformed old media through the creation of The Upshot at The NY Times and whatever survives of Wonkbook at The Washington Post. And journalists at these sites, unlike professors, have a financial interest in reaching a broad public. Certainly, online journalism is also influenced by less edifying sources such as Politico, Buzzfeed, or Gawker. But it is precisely the confluence of vulgarity and high-mindedness—of everything read through the lens of Game of Thrones, to name one of the cultural touchstone of the moment—that challenges Kristof’s point that there is a gap to be filled.

Second, Kristof speaks as if Political Science specifically is absent from the public stage. Eric Voeten wrote the disciplinary defense, significantly at The Monkey Cage, a social science blog published under the auspices of The Washington Post. Perhaps the discipline lacks the popular organs or enthusiasm among the public, but it is, again, bizarrely myopic to think that political scientists are silent. Laura Tanenbaum made the point that all academics are, or should be, teachers and therefore exert their influence tangentially. This is both obvious and anodyne. The more relevant observation is to say that within the elite universities there is a revolving door between the federal administration and tenured professors. With that kind of access, it is unnecessary for scholars to influence the public, they already sit in the center of political power. Michael McFaul, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Jacob Hacker, and Joseph Stiglitz are four, ready-at-hand examples. In a very different mode, a close relationship has developed between the administration of the war on terror, both through CIA funded research and direct participation. Far from calling for a tighter relationship between politics and social scientists, we should instead be thinking more critically about the influence already wielded.2

A Brief Historical Excursus

Kristof’s op-ed illustrates a broader tendency towards historical ignorance in our discussions about intellectual production, especially recently. In the years following the 9/11 terror attacks, there was a growing consensus that terrorism should be met by an unflinching, confident international liberalism. Paul Berman’s Terror And Liberalism is exemplary of this genre.3 Published in 2004, it called for a robust, militaristic liberalism that harkened back to the resistance to Fascism and Communism. Where “liberalism” had come to mean respect for cultural difference, Berman’s argument seemed to substantially limit multicultural tolerance and prepare the American Left for the use of military force, especially in the Middle East. I doubt Berman would countenance the excesses of US counter-terrorism apparatus, with its torture, drone strikes, and thoughtless disregard for human life, but his book was a rallying point for liberals and created intellectual conditions that legitimated the use of force after 9/11. This is a lapse of judgment, in hindsight, as egregious as any committed by Sartre or Heidegger. Berman, to remind you, is a tenured professor and oft-published author in the pages of several influential intellectual journals. His specific area of interest is the history of intellectuals.

Berman’s muscular liberalism was not sui generis. We have not yet fully adjudicated the years between 1989 and 2001, the short, hopeful twilight of the twentieth century between communism and terror. Those were the ingenuous days of globalization, when economic optimism silenced all but the most pollyannaish of critics. By 2001, neoliberalism, understood as the global regime of democracy, human rights, and unregulated capitalism, was hegemonic. The end of communism did not, as the end of Fascism had, require a moral accounting of Western history. Thus today we lack the nuanced narratives that help ground ideology, neoliberal or otherwise, in concrete social and economic developments. French historian François Furet wove the intellectual histories of Communism and Fascism together as mutually reinforcing and legitimating ideologies in his masterful history of the short twentieth century.4 Can we not tell a similar story about the short liberal interregnum—that it is entwined tightly with its rhetorical other, terror?7 Regardless of the story told, there is a social context to intellectual production as ideology, and also of moral culpability in the post-9/11 world, that Kristof and others blithely ignore when calling for more of the same.

Journals of Note

When we investigated our intellectual antecedents, we found a remarkable continuity of purpose. This section of our miscellany does not contain a rigorous intellectual history, even of the United States. Too many forces interact for us to claim any rigor for our analysis. Instead, it is merely a reading of several texts, often author-less, that express a purpose, justify a project, and diagnose modern society. That the symptoms adduced in support of the production of sentences, an industry where supply surely outstrips demand, are so persistent over the twentieth century should give us pause—those of us, that is, who view writing, editing, and publishing as politically effective tasks.

Partisan Review was a fixture of the intellectual landscape from its inception in 1934, publishing literature, reviews, poetry, and criticism. Its aim was avowedly political. Its closure in 2003 left a hole in the public sphere that has not yet been fully filled. Boston University has made the full archive available online, which is a boon for intellectual historians. Here is the opening paragraph of Partisan Review’s 1934 editorial statement, which is an interesting historical document, redolent with shades of Arthur Koestler’s pink decade.

Partisan Review appears at a time when American literature is undergoing profound changes. The economic and political crisis of capitalism, the growth of the revolutionary movement the world over, and the successful building of socialism in the Soviet Union have deeply affected American life, thought, and art. They have had far-reaching effects not only upon the political activities of writers and artists, but upon their writing and thinking as well. For the past four years the movement to create a revolutionary art, which for a decade was confined to a small group, has spread throughout the United States.

The editors boldly claimed for art a centrality to the struggle against capitalism and published in the early years more short pieces of fiction than theory. Art was the vehicle by which the revolutionary consciousness percolated through “a small group” into the wider American discussion. They might have imagined themselves as a sort of intellectual vanguard. In this, Partisan Review participated in the transformation from political Marxism into cultural Marxism, both as a gentle form of propaganda and, after the Second World War, as a critique of growing consumerism.

Dissent was founded in 1954 by a circle of New York intellectuals. Though its influence has waxed and waned over the years, it is still published today. Recently, a younger cohort of writers engaged with the labor movement had augmented the traditional voice of the journal. The journal was, and is, somewhere on the social democratic left, situated uneasily between liberal capitalism and Stalinist communism.

Its founding editorial statement (PDF) is a remarkable document simultaneously announcing the need for organized intellectual intervention yet eschewing any specific prescriptions. Their “dissent” rejected “the bleak atmosphere of conformism that pervade[d] the political and intellectual life of the United States.” The statement also reflected an uncertainty about intellectual production: “But DISSENT would be meaningless,” they write, “if in dissenting it did not also affirm.” What exactly would be affirmed, however, is unclear, since Dissent would “not have any editorial position or statements.” While individuals writers go farther, the nameless editors limited themselves to the critique of culture.

C. Wright Mills’ essay “Letter to the New Left” echoed several of the themes discussed in this issue. He agreed with both Karl Mannheim and Pierre Bourdieu when he wrote that “the problem of the intelligentsia is an extremely complicated set of problems on which rather little factual work has been done.” In other words, the discussion about intellectuals agrees with remarkable continuity that we lack a firm understanding of who intellectuals are and what they do. He denounced the false objectivism of “the-end-of-ideology” and cannily diagnosed the ideological underpinnings of the anti-communist liberalism.5 What he provided was a clearer affirmative agenda to balance Dissent’s agnosticism:

The Right, among other things, means—what you are doing, celebrating society as it is, a going concern. Left means, or ought to mean, just the opposite. It means: structural criticism and reportage and theories of society, which at some point or another are focused politically as demands and programs. These criticisms, demands, theories, programs are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilization—above all, reason and freedom and justice. To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programs. And it means all this inside every country of the world.

Mills’ Letter was published in 1960 in the New Left Review, perhaps the closest thing to a journal of record for the scholarly Left. Several things are of interest in this passage. No mention is made of a struggle over the intellectual terrain of America. Instead, Mills suggests that social science—“theories of society”—provide the positive content of criticism. In this, Mills both returns the Left to the sociological heritage of Marx and Weber, but also points towards a generation of post-war academic social science. At the same time, Mills places social science within the tradition of the Enlightenment dream of emancipation through self-knowledge.

The intellectual history of the Left is far more complex than the three moments outlined here. But it is a history marked by continual questions about the purpose and efficacy of progressive intellectual work. Every journal has faced the question: in what does intellectual work consist? Our inability to answer a question posed since Marx is telling. Intellectuals’ own uncertainty reflected in the statements of purpose meant ostensibly to justify their existence and value. It is also true that intellectuals have preferred cultural analysis over political organizing. Indeed the weakness must be located in American culture and its emancipatory potential, otherwise the weapon of change would not be intellectual work. Finally, it is a history that foreshadows the turn to critical social science—performed elsewhere by poststructuralism, the post-1955 generation of critical theorists, etc.

Ultimately, however, Mills turn to social science is not wholly convincing either. The postmodern critique of the enlightenment, humanism, and science still remains powerful enough to destabilize the sort of normativity announced so casually by Mills. Thus, it appears that intellectual production will continue to be marked by the hesitation and uncertainly evinced by its predecessors. We are again thrust back upon dissent instead of affirmation.

In the latest issue of Jacobin, the editors write in a piece on “building a radical civil society”:

[W]hat is the political role of socialists in the United States? How should we meet this moment to break out of the strategic impasse that we, some immediate triumphs notwithstanding, seem to be trapped in?

The quote underscores the continuity of discourse on the intellectual Left.

Some Comments on Geography

We wish to remark especially on one final characteristic of intellectual life in America. Intellectual production is a product of a particular time and space, of a milieu. In spite of the Internet, proximity matters. With some notable exceptions, the flavor of American intellectual discourse is determined in New York. When the editors of Partisan Review wrote of the small group influencing the national culture, they were affirming an apparent truth: that the center of American culture, and of the Left, resides in New York City. It is worth asking how the centrality of New York, especially to the self-identity of participants, affects the intellectual scene today.

Both Partisan Review and Dissent were associated with the rise of the New Left and the radical politics of the 1960’s. The history of the New Left is well-documented. Several prominent scholar-radicals published in the pages of New York’s journals, among them C. Wright Mills, Todd Gitlin, and Michael Harrington, part of a generation of writers who moved from the public sphere to university classrooms. With few exceptions, this generation remains in control of editorial boards at the major intellectual publications.

Though most people reading this will already be aware, a new wave of intellectual journals has arrived in the last decade. The differences are both generational and technological. n+1 was founded in 2004 still on the model of a print publication—they publish a physical issue three times a year—but have a far more developed digital presence than older journals. They have been followed more recently by Jacobin and The New Inquiry. All are a blend of old and new publishing paradigms with all the financial anxiety implied by the industry. As with their predecessors, culture is often the focus, delving into the American subconscious through movies, television, and music. It should be noted that all three are headquartered in New York. If the center has shifted, it is only from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

This is, by the way, the most damning criticism of this latest incarnation of the Left public sphere: it is far too homogenous, exclusive, and Ivy League. We discuss problems of access and voice below. Contrivers’ Review currently has two editors, both white males in their mid-thirties. We have little room to criticize diversity at the moment.

The effects of geography are illustrated in a recent New York Magazine profile of Benjamin Kunkel, an editor and contributor to n+1. The occasion of the profile is new book on economic and cultural Marxism, published by Jacobin’s new imprint at Verso, which has, it is fair to say, been favorably reviewed by nearly every important organ left of center. In the article, Kunkel holds court:

The other guests are mostly younger, and mostly associated with a younger and more stridently Marxist magazine called Jacobin… [They] are not his friends, exactly, but admirers and supporters, something like n+1’s stepchildren and part of a growing radical-intellectual caste…

Kunkel is not just a self-proclaimed Marxist intellectual, but a mentor to the new generation of Leftist intellectuals. This sort of pollination is a product of shared space and time and it matters when we evaluate public speech.

The Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) is one of the major publications that exists outside the New York fishbowl. There is an interesting dichotomy between a magazine like LARB and one like Jacobin. The latter is avowedly partisan, while the former is pitched to a broad audience of publicly minded readers. Neither model is intrinsically better than the other, but their generality allows LARB to indulge in an edifying eclecticism. This is cultural criticism, but of a nimble and self-conscious sort.

In terms of the topic presented in this issue of Contrivers’, LARB offered a series of essays on the academic movement to boycott Israeli institutions of higher learning. The participants included David Palumbo Liu, Cary Nelson, Noura Erkat, Russell Berman, Colin Dayan, and others. They were given free reign to write on the topic, and the issue of academic associations’ and academic intellectuals’ roles in politics naturally came to the fore. This is not the time or place to discuss an academic boycott of Israel institutions, but what was notable was how the debate emphasized concerns over the proper role of academics in society, boundaries between the “real” world and the academy that should or not be transgressed, what it means to have strong and clearly articulated political beliefs, a public forum for those beliefs, and a professional career that has on the surface nothing to do with those beliefs.

The Labor Market in Online Publishing

Writing as a journalist or intellectual essayist can no longer be considered apart from the labor market in digital publication. Writing for free or very little, whether as a hobby, political passion, or in service of the public good shapes the the labor market, often lowering the wages of those of those who write for a living. At the core, these are questions about the access and voice of class, race, gender groups.

Yasmin Nair articulated this dynamic in forceful terms, describing as scabs those academics and other writers who contribute freely to professional publications. While we don’t unequivocally agree with everything Nair argues in her three most recent pieces on this problem, we certainly agree that writing as “a labor of love” and/or a hobby enabled by a privileged position cannot be considered outside the economics of publishing today.

Evan Kindley critiqued Nair’s argument in a piece for Avidly, an affiliate site, of LARB. Kindley argues that small magazines and publications have always existed in part because they are labors of love, offering a venue for ideas and writing that would otherwise go without an audience. He acknowledges that now as in the past such labors are often made possible by relative positions of privilege, but that individuals and publications should not cease pursuing political and artistic ideals because the market they operate within is unjust.

Kindley cites Nair’s expression of frustration and anger with her experience writing for the Jacobin as part of her failure to understand why small publications have vitality not found elsewhere in media. Nair wrote a piece for that magazine that was initially accepted and moved through the editorial process, but the piece was rejected right before it was to be published for being “ultra-left” among other reasons. Nair referenced this incident in one of her pieces on the labor market and wrote about it explicitly in a piece for North Star. In short, for Nair the “vitality” of the politics and writing of small leftist publications is undercut by their hypocritical exploitation of the writers, and for Kindley the political, intellectual, and literary vitality is ensured by the fact that publishing unpaid work often enables an editor to take risks on “work that goes against the grain.” Nair responds to Kindley by arguing that work as a “labor of love” is a form of rhetoric that enables exploitation.

Jacobin published a piece by Miya Tokumitsu that dealt with this rhetoric, offering a fairly devastating take-down of the “Do What You Love” mantra. In Tokumitsu’s words:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from the obligations to all who labor whether or not they love.

This seems true whether one loves writing and publishing in the world of small online magazines like Kindley at Avidly, the editors at Jacobin, or one loves “inventing” iPhones like Steve Jobs who Tokumitsu cites in her essay. It’s true for this publication as well.

See also our editorial statement.

The Labor Market in the Academy

The United States is currently experiencing a crisis of confidence in higher education. Students are saddled with debt and it is less clear that graduates, even those employed, are better off in the long run than those that pass on college. Coupled with an anemic economy and its stagnant growth for middle class wealth, this generation is likely to be worse off than their parents.

What is less well recognized by the public is the real structural change in how universities provide education to undergraduates. This point is touched on by Rafael Khachaturian in his contribution to Contrivers’. Scholars once enjoyed a relatively smooth path from dissertation to a professorship and, eventually, to tenure. This job security underwrote much of the intellectual production during and after the 1960’s.

Today, driven by new pedagogical technologies, for-profit colleges, and dwindling public finances, modern universities and colleges rely on an army of adjunct instructors. This labor force has little job security and often struggles financially, especially if they were forced to take loans out. As one frustrated job-seeker, Patrick Iber, writes, “Yet of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market.” This is far from a new development, as Thomas H. Benson’s frank and damning discussion of graduate education in the Humanities makes clear: “The reality is that less than half of all doctorate holders—after nearly a decade of preparation, on average—will ever find tenure-track positions.” Obviously, adjuncts are far from the most vulnerable group in America. But their situation reveals yet another way in which the American dream has proven ephemeral and ideological.

Finally, in his deconstruction of the intellectual, Salar Mohandesi explores the relationship between the working and thinking classes. His thoughtful essay criticizes our uncomplicated deployment of a single intellectual class and asks what we think is happening when intellectuals enlighten the working class, as Kristof implicitly suggests.

But the question for us today is not how we can sup­port the strug­gles of the most “advanced work­ers,” or how we can best recruit them to our van­guard par­ties, but how we can link up with other strug­gles out­side the uni­ver­sity in a way that pre­serves the dis­tinct­ness, rec­og­nizes the strate­gic value, and respects the spe­cific needs of all these dif­fer­ent strug­gles, includ­ing our own.


  1. Loïc J.D. Wacquant, “For a Socio-Analysis of Intellectuals: On Homo Academicus.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 34 (1989): pp. 1-29. Available online (PDF). 

  2. Jeffrey C. Isaac. “Social science and liberal values in a time of war.” Perspectives on Politics 2, no. 03 (2004): 475-483. Available online but paywalled. 

  3. Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2004). 

  4. François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion (University of Chicago Press, 2000). 

  5. Hannah Arendt, who moved in similar circles in the New York intellectual scene, made a slightly different point about the vitriol of anti-communists during the McCarthy years. She wrote in 1953: “Like the Communists, the ex-Communists see the whole texture of our time in terms of one great dichotomy ending in a final battle.” Their worldview, she argued, was as ideological as Stalinism and at least as dangerous in its pursuit of its goal. Arendt was a member of a generation of exiled German intellectuals whose influence on American culture was profound. It included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht, Fritz Lang, “the father of the New Left” Herbert Marcuse, among others. Though many returned to Germany after 1950, some, like Marcuse and Arendt, stayed and taught the post-War generation. I have ignored this history for the most part. For more on this topic, see Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in Paradise (University of California Press, 1997) and David Jenemann, Adorno in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Arendt’s “The Ex-Communists” was originally published in Commonweal (1953) and has been republished in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 1994).  

  6. Perry Anderson, from his eulogy for Alexander Cockburn:

    Politically, on the other hand, the example Alexander set retains full force. The newest levies of the American left are in better shape, intellectually at any rate, than he may have realized. There, energy and imagination are not in short supply. It is enough to consider the three most impressive publications to emerge in the Bush–Obama era, n+1, Jacobin and Endnotes, each in its own register—respectively: cultural, social and economic—expressing a clear-cut rejection of the established order. Every generation has to find its own way to that break, be it by Kulturkritik, protest report, or value-theory. Striking, however, is the paradox of a common sensibility: what can be described as an apolitical anti-capitalism—deeply hostile to the system of capital, but largely mute before the embodiments of its power, and operations of its empire. CounterPunch makes no such nicety. In directing it with an inexpugnable refusal of any paltering or temporization, Alexander put politics in command. A Colossal Wreck stands as an inspiration to do likewise.

  7. On this topic, see Corey Robin, Fear (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror (Verso, 2006).