How to Be an Intellectual in the Age of TV The Lessons of Gore Vidal
By Marcie Frank
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-3640-2
Chapter One The Print Intellectual
It may seem strange to us that the paradigmatic intellectual was once so literary. It takes an effort to recall that the novelist sat at the top of this heap, especially considering that, for the most part, being a novelist today does not qualify you as a consultant on much of anything. But scientists like C. P. Snow, philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, and literary critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling all wrote novels. Commenting on the fate of the novelist in the age of the screen in Screening History, the book that delighted Arthur Schlesinger, Vidal remarked:
Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me but of a category to which I once belonged that no longer exists. I am still here but my category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. How can a novelist be famous, no matter how well known he may be personally to the press, when the novel itself is of no consequence to the civilized,much less to the generality? (2-3)
Vidal has exploited electronic forms of publicity, from tape recorders to televisions, both to stay famous and to address the divergence of the categories literary author and intellectual. Even though he considered himself first and foremost a novelist, he realized "in the black winter of 1953 ... that the novel as a popular art form had come to a full halt, [that] the most colourful [of his fellow serious novelists] was writing unsuccessful musical comedies, the most talented had virtuously contrived to die, others had dropped from view, finding dim employment in anonymous journalism or in the academy, the cleverest ones ha[ving] married rich wives." Under these conditions, Vidal committed himself to writing for the camera.
Those of Vidal's literary contemporaries not struggling to uphold the primacy of print at all costs made forays similar to his into the newer media. Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Jacqueline Susann, and Susan Sontag not only made television appearances on talk shows; they also wrote for the screen. Mailer and Sontag even ventured to direct their own films. None, however, has more ably negotiated the shift from print to screen than Vidal, even though some of these contemporaries have been held in higher literary regard. His success stems, in part, from his always appearing in print and on-screen in the most thinly disguised versions of his always recognizable self. Yet Vidal's embrace of the media of celebrity has not vitiated his political credibility; it would be difficult to come up with another example of a current writer with as much.
A brief comparison here is instructive. When Sontag went to Sarajevo in 1993, she directed a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Exerting her political commitments in the name of culture, she went, in other words, primarily as a literary or cultural figure. Her mode of political engagement was based on an older, print-based model of the intellectual, one familiar from the days of the Partisan Review, where in 1963 she had initially published Notes on Camp, her springboard into the public eye. Indeed, Sontag might have been the last of the breed whose print orientation permitted a double commitment both to cultural elitism (traditional standards, avant-gardism, and a celebration of high modernism) and to leftist politics.
Recent critiques of Sontag's political engagements as a writer-intellectual by Bruce Robbins, Carl Rollyson, and Lisa Paddock vent a fair amount of hostility toward her without registering the source of disappointment in the fact that the position of the writer-intellectual is no longer sustainable in the media age. Edward Said, for example, places Sontag in the company of the men whom Russell Jacoby dubbed "the last intellectuals," all a decade or more older than she, including Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, William Barrett, and Lionel Trilling. Vidal is closer in age to this group than Sontag was, but simply to imagine him in this list is immediately to register the lack of fit: his groomed elegance is completely at odds with the rumpled tweedy look of those academic types who, moreover, disdain appeals to a televisual public. The gender difference displays itself in the difference between Vidal's flair, which would seem to be the very thing that disqualifies him as an intellectual, and Sontag's glam seriousness, which counted in her favor. But Vidal has been disqualified equally from the ranks of the pop intellectual by broadcasting issues of sexuality beyond the stylistic range of embodiment offered by Mailer's machismo, Capote's camp effeminacy, and Susann's drag queeniness.
Accounts of the decline of the public intellectual want to neutralize questions of style, but they remain in their thrall. Much as they bemoan the disappearance of a general mode of address, one that transcends style even though it is epitomized by print, and by the novel at that, they find causes for this disappearance in the university or television. They remain blithely unaware of the circularity of their own logic: the assumption that the venue for the intellectual must be print determines that the shift from print to screen has signaled the intellectual's demise. Their hostility to screen modes of publicity, particularly television, and to celebrity more generally, has made it difficult for them to recognize the persistence of intellectual possibilities in a career like Vidal's.
Vidal specified what he could achieve with TV writing in 1956:
With patience and ingenuity there is nothing that the imaginative writer cannot say to the innocent millions. [Television drama] is particularly satisfying for any writer with a polemical bent; and I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise. (United States, 1158)
What he has understood about solving the world's problems is intimately connected with what he has learned about screen cultures-both film and TV screens-especially about their relations to print cultures. His use of the screen to transmit his views can make it appear that he has abandoned print and the novel, but this is not the case. Vidal's treatment of the decline of the novel reminds us that the general mode of address may simply have shifted from print to electronic venues. It is worth reconsidering both the narratives of the decline of the intellectual and the narratives of the decline of the novel in the light of his career.
The Decline of the Intellectual?
On August 1, 1999, the New York Times Education Supplement reported the formation of "Public Intellectuals," a new Ph.D. program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. This program, which "combines interdisciplinary humanities studies with practical training in the art of the public persona," would seem to suggest that the best the university can do these days is to offer its graduates supplemental training in negotiating market conditions, a mission that horrifies some academics but has been embraced by others. Teresa Brennan, who designed the curriculum, is cited in the article's final paragraph: "At the very least, the successful doctorates will lead 'a much more satisfying life than they would have as frustrated professor[s]'". (7) Brennan's program promises to alleviate the frustration that, in an update of the old maxim, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," she construes as the norm of professorial existence. But this frustration might be better understood as symptomatic of the uncertainty about the place and function of the university since the later 1980s.
It has become difficult to separate the debates over "the public intellectual" from the debates over the university and its curricula (particularly in the humanities) that have since come to be known as the culture wars. Paradoxically, the same cultural climate that produced attacks on "tenured radicals," prescriptions for cultural literacy, and the defunding of humanities research also prompted the attempt to resituate the intellectual work associated with the university more visibly in the public domain. These attempts to recuperate the public intellectual by academics and nonacademics alike are hampered, as the case of Vidal suggests, by an unwillingness to see the ways in which the university's relation to the public has been systematically reconfigured as part of a larger discursive transformation from print to electronic modes of publicity.
Richard Posner's recent Public Intellectuals gives a succinct, though strictly quantitative, account of the decline of the public intellectual. Posner argues that the marked increase over the past fifty years in the specialization of knowledge has contributed to the disappearance of a sufficiently educated general readership, a public with enough knowledge of history, economics, politics, literature, science, and law to distinguish good from bad "public intellectual goods," thus increasing the appetite for them. On the supply side, this specialization has contributed to the disappearance of independent intellectuals and their replacement by academically affiliated public intellectuals, though there is no necessary correlation between the caliber of the latter's scholarship and the quality of their work as public intellectuals. Posner thus clarifies an inverse ratio: more specialization correlates with more public intellectual goods produced by those less equipped by training for those less prepared to evaluate them. For Posner, then, university affiliation is a symptom rather than a cause of decline.
For Edward Said, by contrast, university affiliation is closer to a cause, and the remedy that he recommends, now that being an independent intellectual is no longer an option, is the cultivation of an amateurism that he describes as a requirement for intellectual productivity. On the flip side, Bruce Robbins portrays a natural fit between the professionalism of professors of literature and intellectual, political, or public engagement. Although they take opposite positions on the hospitality of the university toward intellectuals, neither Said nor Robbins fully acknowledges the links between the specialization of knowledge and the media shift. Their accounts can thus sound nostalgic for a print-based intellectual culture, a problem that Posner avoids. Though he also tells a story of the decline of the educated and competent citizen, Posner incorporates into his account electronic modes of publicity.
Posner retains the basic, somewhat circular definition of an intellectual as someone whom other intellectuals regard as such from a 1971 survey called "How and Where to Find [the] Intellectual Elite in the United States," though he expands the criteria used to measure intellectuals from frequency of publication in journals deemed elite by academics to include frequency of citation in the Lexis-Nexis database. This incorporation of electronic resources, whose citational criteria include "media mentions," however, reflects Posner's minimalist conception of culture, deriving from having the market as his primary conceptual tool. Though Lexis-Nexis processes transcripts of TV and radio news and information programming, it does not collect citations on sitcoms or dramatic programming. The episode of The Simpsons featuring George Plimpton, for example, goes unarchived. Posner's reliance on Lexis-Nexis thus suggests that his problematically narrow understanding of culture verges on a most simplistic formulation: culture as information goods.
If Robbins, in particular, too quickly equates culture and politics in his advocacy of professionalism as the remedy for decline in intellectual engagement, Posner's understanding of culture solely in terms of the market for information is too limited from a different direction. A note to Posner's discussion of George Orwell's 1984 observes, "Orwell wrote another great political satire, Animal Farm" (Public Intellectuals, 9 n. 16), making you wonder who could possibly be in his intended audience. Although Posner treats literary criticism as the preeminent genre for public intellectuals, neither of his two exemplary practitioners of the genre, Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, are literary critics. Perhaps Posner's strange sense of literature, its critics, and its readers bespeaks an investment, after all, in the print-based model of the intellectual as a hallmark of personal cultivation or taste. But his investment is tokenism rather than nostalgia, for he is more interested in the future than in the past-probably a good thing since his sense of the literary tradition is strikingly impoverished.
Because Posner sees public intellectuals only in terms of a market, the reason that he gives for their "decline" is the absence of controls on quality in this marketplace. Among the declinists, then, he thus stands apart from the claim that it is TV (as the epitome of market culture) that has eviscerated public discourse.
The title of Neil Postman's 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death nicely conveys the mortal consequences that Postman argues follow from the replacement of print by television as the predominant medium of our culture. Like Postman, Pierre Bourdieu holds TV accountable for the decline of public discourse in his 1996 On Television. Like Postman, he invokes Plato's location of the philosopher apart from the agora to describe true intellectual debate as that which is marked by its independence from the market. For Postman, Bourdieu, and others, the problem posed most acutely by TV is the future of intellectual and political discourse. But this purported decline contrasts TV's reliance on market values to a presumed detachment of the intellectual, or of print discourse, from the market. In these accounts, TV's market orientation retrospectively purifies print from the taint of the market. But print never was independent from the market. Print can come to look pure compared to TV by means of the same fantastic revisionary process at work in the 1980s, when the flooding of the drug market by crack cocaine made heroin more palatable to the middle classes.
Most accounts of the public intellectual invoke Michel Foucault's description of the "specific" as opposed to the "universal" intellectual. Whether they adhere to or critique Foucault's understanding of power, these invocations of the "specific" intellectual share with Foucault the sense that Enlightenment universalism is no longer viable. Enlightenment universalism and its codification of knowledge acquisition in the terms of humanism have been the main stakes in the debate between the defenders of the traditional university curriculum and the proponents of the university as a relevant political space. But it has not been adequately recognized by members of either camp that Foucault's contrast between the specific and the universal intellectual turns on the changed cultural status of the writer:
The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counter-posed to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the State or Capital-technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual's specific activity began to serve as the basis for politicisation, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark of the intellectual, has disappeared. The whole relentless theorisation of writing which we saw in the 1960s was doubtless only a swansong. Through it, the writer was fighting for the preservation of his political privilege; but the fact that it was precisely a matter of theory ... proves that the activity of the writer was no longer at the focus of things.
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