Jan 2005 – Introduced by: Nancy McDermott. Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi
The death of Susan Sontag early in 2005 happened to coincide with the first discussion of the New York Salon. It felt like the end of an era and made our discussion of the book, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone all the more apt. Her passing was a reminder of how few independent voices remain and the sniping, gossipy articles that appeared in the weeks following her death showed only too clearly how unaccustomed the commentators are to dealing with public intellectuals, preferring to dissect her personal idiosyncrasies rather than to engage with her ideas.
The diminishing numbers and quality of individual intellectuals is symptomatic of a broader climate in society. We live in a world ill at ease with big ideas in which knowledge is simply a means to the most narrow and technical ends. The artistic and intellectual is no longer celebrated as important in its own right, but merely tolerated insofar as it serves some social purpose, social inclusion, more often than not. The result is confusion about standards and a tendency to “dumb down” all forms of cultural and intellectual expression.
The poverty of intellectual life today was not so much at issue in our discussion as its origins. Some people believe that the decay of intellectual life is caused by pressure exerted by the public. To put it crudely, low brow culture is what the masses demand and it is through the market therefore, that Philistinism comes to dominate.
Furedi argues that “21st Century Philistinism” stems from the desperation of a ruling elite that has lost faith in its traditional values, particularly with the humanism of the Enlightenment. Unable to inspire itself or society with universal ideals, it seeks points of connection with other sections of the public by appealing to the lowest common denominator. The result is a downward spiraling of standards and a celebration of the banal. In the UK, this is clearly orchestrated through deliberate public policy initiatives. Something similar seems to take place in the US but much more informally, with unofficial advisory bodies for text book publishers, for instance.
The incoherence of the elite takes a terrible toll on society. Instead of celebrating progress and the human potential, intellectual life is organized around negating these ideals. Our collective humanity is diminished. Individuals are defined by their vulnerability, first and foremost or paradoxically, regarded as dangerous and destructive if they espouse big ideas or hold lofty ambitions. The sorry state of culture reflects these assumptions. Challenging the current climate requires experimentation, open-mindedness and a regard for the truth. Fortunately, it is a challenge we are ready to take up.
Overview by Nancy McDermott