The editor of Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press, 2007), Laurence Simmons has performed a huge service to both politics and the left in New Zealand by putting together his book about the decline of the life of ideas in this country. He argues that ‘Not all intellectuals are academics, and not all academics are intellectuals’ [Read more below]
What’s the point of his book?
The introductory chapter of Speaking Truth to Power provides the best answers in the book to the overall issues that it addresses. First, he sums up the book’s overall theme as being about ‘a depoliticisation of the role of intellectuals in social life’ (p.11). He’s also wanting to ask the questions of: ‘how healthy is our intellectual life and civic culture today?’ (p.2); and ‘What should be the proper relation between intellectuals and the public?’ (p.12). And his goals seem commendably pluralist:
It is the aim of this book to stir up the debates about knowledge and the new arenas for ideas, bringing together academics, journalists, writers, scientists, activists to look at where new ideas are coming from, who is their audience, and whether they match up to the new tasks facing New Zealand in the twenty-first century (p.10).
The general decline of ideas thesis is also nicely put forward in this section:
The space for challenging ideas is contracting: universities are resorting to market credentialism; the media devotes less time to serious issues; in an MMP world our government is less tolerant towards open debate. We are suffering from intellectual atrophy (Metro, July 2007).
Not all academics are intellectuals
So, what is a public intellectual? When most people think of intellectuals, they probably think of university academics. But Simmons is very clear that he firmly rejects that assumption – he says that ‘Not all intellectuals are academics, and not all academics are intellectuals’ (Metro, July 2007). And if anything, academics come under a huge attack in his book from just about every contributor. Simmons himself laments that ‘much crucial knowledge has circulated only in small, isolated (often academic) communities’ (p.7). His problem is therefore with much of academic insularity and irrelevance.
There’s a few other important points he makes about how he defines public intellectuals:
- ‘There are two necessary characteristics of a public intellectual: that the person’s work is engaged with substantive social questions; and that the person communicates with the public’ (Metro, July 2007).
- ‘people who provide a bridge between specialized areas of knowledge and the general public’ (p.10).
- those that are ‘prepared to intervene in the public sphere of politics’
- ‘thinkers who question the way things are and use their expertise to change and advance our society’ (p.6).
Significantly, Simmons also quotes Gramsci-influenced John Frow on how ‘intellectuals extend beyond those who belong to which might simply be called a “knowledge class”’:
By “intellectuals” I do not mean the “traditional” or “high” intelligentsia: the small elite of men and women of letters who act as public spokespersons for the “noble” disciplines of knowledge (philosophy, the arts, the social sciences, the higher natural sciences). Rather, following Gramsci, I mean all of those whose work is socially defined as being based upon the possession and exercise of knowledge, whether that knowledge be prestigious or routine, technical or speculative’ (p.3).
Simmons says that according to Edward Said, ‘an intellectual should stand outside of society and its institutions and actively disturb the status quo but a the same time address his or her concerns to as wide a public as possible’ (Simmons, p.4).
The public sphere
Beyond Gramsci, Simmons is also obviously deeply influenced by Jurgen Habermas and his theories about the public sphere. The Habermasian argument made throughout Speaking Truth to Power is that New Zealand lacks the necessary ‘public sphere’ in which ideas and debate might thrive. In his introduction, Simmons explains Habermas’ public sphere theories:
The field of action for the modern critical intellectual was what German philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas (1989) called the “public sphere” of democratic debate and political dialogue. During the Enlightenment and the eighteenth century public spheres emerged where individuals could discuss and debate issues of common concern. The institutions and spaces of the eighteenth-century democratic public sphere included newspapers, journals (that is, a press independent from state ownership and control), coffee houses where one read newspapers and engaged in political discussion, literary salons where ideas and criticism were produced, the public assembly as a site for public oratory (p.13).
It’s Simmons’ strong desire that a new public sphere is rebuilt in NZ. It should also be noted that Simmons is actually quite positive about the potentiality of a revitalization of public intellectualism:
With the rapid growth of the media in recent years, highly visable fora for public intellectual discussion (including that of non-academics) have multiplied: newspaper columns, talk-back radio, public access and interactive television, internet blogs and bulletin boards, among other sites (p.1).
And he backs this up by giving examples of how there are already some decent signs of public intellectualism:
a case for a sophisticated public culture already in existence or in potentia might be underscored by the number and range of books published and read here, the quality of programming on publicly funded media such as the Concert Programme, our participation in literary festivals, the high levels of patronage of cultural events, even the fact that a visiting “esoteric” French philosopher like Jacques Derrida can fill the Auckland Town Hall to overflowing for a two-hour public lecture (pp.7-8).
Simmons’ ideas about intellectualism and its decline aren’t necessarily original and new. But what he’s done is bring to New Zealand some of the debates and the ideas in discussion elsewhere, and brought our attention to these problems. Therefore, in his introduction Simmons discusses a number of other important modern thinkers on intellectualism. Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987) is obviously mentioned. Simmons paraphrases this:
Divorced from society and each other, they had now become absorbed by the academy. Consequently, in the place of the public intellectual, what we have now are “high-tech intellectuals, consultants and professors – anonymous souls who may be competent and more than competent, but who do not enrich public life” (p.8).
The Marxist sociologist Frank Furedi is also brought in to make some very important points about the nature of the modern left:
the dumbing down of public debate is eroding democracy. The blame, suggests Furedi, is to be laid at the feet of culturally minded intellectuals themselves who have betrayed the Enlightenment values that the Left once stood for: equality, civil rights and social improvement through public policy. Furedi’s explanation for this is that whereas the Left once spoke for universal values – rights, equality, peace – and the Right for local ones – custom, nation, authority – by the 1980s, these positions had changed. Neo-liberalism had embraced global values (free trade, open societies, individual rights) and the Left had turned to a celebration of local identity politics (pp.8-9).
According to Simmons, therefore the purpose of his book has been to ‘allow the voices of contemporary public intellectuals to be heard on the importance of intelligent civic contestation of ideas, and the reasons why they have stuck their necks above the parapets on issues of cultural and political concern in New Zealand at the present’ (p.11). He’s definitely achieved this.
Three ways to rejuvenate the public sphere in NZ
Since publishing Speaking Truth to Power, Simmons has put forward (in a Metro magazine think-piece) his suggestion of three ways for public intellectuals to change the intellectual desert in NZ:
- ‘Write and publish essays’
- ‘place greater responsibility on intellectuals within the academy to contribute to public debate’
- ‘embrace the new media. Weblogs are seen by some as a self-indulgent fad; to others they represent a rebirth of participatory democracy and a new form of journalism. Rather than focusing on the heroic figure of the intellectual, blogs shift emphasis to intellectual practices’ (Metro, July 2007). Simmons points out that this means that ‘engaging in public debates about matters of social and political importance is [therefore now] open to any [New Zealander]’ (Metro, July 2007). Well maybe not open to “anyone”, but essentially he’s correct. And so where are all the academic blogs and YouTube channels?