Rumours of the ‘death of the intellectual’ have been circulating for years. But Richard Reeves, writing in the latest RSA Journal, thinks they're exaggerated. Rather, our great thinkers are coming under ever greater pressure to be all things to all people: the new intellectuals.
The real problem with the media, though, is not trivialisation but polemicisation. There is still plenty of space for intellectuals to opine; indeed, the increase in the size of publications and the expanding column inches of opinion have, if anything, made this market bigger. But the need to be provocative in order to secure a slot has increased.
The desire for a ‘strong line’, controversy and easily understood standpoints, even in the serious media, militates against thoughtful discussion. “There is a real fear of being distorted,” says Swift. “So sometimes you just don’t bother.” The pressure to strike a pose is almost irresistible. Polemics, postures and soundbites are what the media wants, and so a person or institution that wants a media profile has to deliver. Meanwhile the culture of academia, based on slowly produced, carefully peer-reviewed journals, is going in the opposite direction.
...The risk in these conditions is that barriers to entry are lowered, so that even if the prevalence and status of intellectuals remains unchanged, the quality of their product diminishes. ...But if we need to hold intellectuals to high standards, we should also lower our expectations – not about the quality of their work, but about the ability of any one person, however brilliant, to act as a one-stop solution for our problems.
TS Eliot suggested that: “It is perhaps too much to expect of any man to possess both specialised scientific power and wisdom.” In fact, it is too much to expect anyone to possess wisdom at all, especially with regard to some of our most intractable public issues. Climate change is an area of public concern requiring specialist knowledge in international law, business, macroeconomics, microeconomics, anthropology, psychology, meteorology and oceanography. Similar lists can be drawn up for international migration, intellectual property and pension reform. Being wise in all these areas is beyond the power of mortal individuals.
Some obvious paralells to blogging, it seems. But as the barriers to entry are so much lower, what does this predict for the average quality of blog posts?!