Speaking of Legitimation Crises …


In a literary blog I like to follow called The Valve, a recent post asks why the world of public intellectuals is now dominated by scientists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker rather than by literary critics.

"The culture wars so damaged literature as a source of cultural authority that literary intellectuals lost the public stage. They were replaced by scientific popularizers such as Steven Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker – cf. literary agent John Brockman on the third culture. In this climate of opinion, it is not enough to return to evaluative criticism.

"My own dog in this fight is a general academic rehabilitation of normativity (so-called), and not just in literature, as well as a return to generalism, by which I mean “writing for a well-informed non-specialist audience” (and by which I do not mean “writing for stupid,uneducated people who will never really understand the sophisticated stuff we do.")

"This would involved the renunciation of the positivist dream of grounding everything on Science and Truth. It would be a less resolvable, more plural discourse. "

Perhaps it is appropriate that the question of why we don’t pay more attention to literary theorists would only occur to other literary theorists.  At the same time, it raises the question of why other professionals don’t attempt to grab for this particular ring of public legitimization.  Pundits on TV, not surprisingly, are pulled from the pool of people who decide early in their careers that rather than actually making policy, they want to talk about it.  Moreover, they have decided that rather than taking the somewhat more "legitimate" tack of going into print journalism, they want to do it in the most mediocre medium available — television.  It actually pays off, since in this case, to paraphrase Marshall MacLuhan, the medium is the messenger.

But my purpose here is not to shoot the messenger.  It is rather to wonder why other professionals don’t feel this entitlement to speak for others over matters concerning which they have no expertise.  Tech people certainly feel they have more insight into policy and long-term planning given their unique vantage point upon the ways technology transforms the workplace as well as our very sense of time.  Why don’t they chomp at the bit and demand that people pay more attention to them?  Doctors, more than any other profession, take for granted their God-like role in determining who lives and who dies based on their insurance coverage.  Should they not be afforded the opportunity to make oracular pronouncements about the health of the nation?  Lawyers recognize that the only truth is the truth they are able to argue before an appropriate audience.  Shall they be given the chance to argue before the citizenry?

Yet it is only the lit crit folk– those peculiar scholars who work in the butt cracks of philosophy — that feel an entitlement about making public declamations.  Moreover, they are in the unusual position of feeling that somehow this entitlement has been taken away from them.  How did this ever happen?

4 thoughts on “Speaking of Legitimation Crises …”

  1. I pretty much agree with you here, despite the fact that I am months away from entering the lit crit field myself (as a Germanist) and intend fully to reclaim my birthright to oraculate on whichever topic happens to pop into my mind – after, what else are blogs for, intelligent discussion?

    Seriously though, the only thing worse than the fact that literary critics believe that their social role is that of public sphere critic, (perhaps this is McLuhan’s real legacy – English prof as guru), is that the only academics who now taken seriously by the media by virtue of their profession to make these kinds of pronouncements are economists.

  2. Andrew,

    Congratulations on the change of status. I think economists have been wiley and careful about cultivating their oracular stance. You notice that they rarely stray from matters that relate directly to their field. Perhaps they will make a call about the economic costs of a war, but they don’t try to pass a moral judgment on it publicly. I think Greenspan may have done this to all of them.

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