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a chapter excerpt from


David Colosi


the fate and debate of the public intellectual


1.0 Intro: A European Intellectual in Uncle Sam's Court
1.1 Popping: The Questions
1.2 Is There a Problem, America?
1.3 What and Who is a Public Intellectual?
2.0 Studies in Decline: Through European Eyes

2.1 Studies in Decline: Through American Eyes
2.2 Studies in Decline: Comparative Data Analysis
3.0 On the Shoulders of Giants
3.1 Integrated intellectuals
3.2 Europeans, By Example
4.0 The Intellectual as Entertainer

continued from previous section



Since much of this debate is predicated on the assumption that our European observers are correct in their assessment that American intellectuals are absent from the popular press, we should take a moment to examine the statistics more closely.  Richard A. Posner, in Public Intellectuals:  A Study in Decline, took on this project as a sociological experiment in 2001.  His research shows that, in opposition to Eco's and Wacquant's theories, there are American academic intellectuals in the popular press.  His particular take on it, though, adds that they are toting opinions of poor quality.  

Posner’s empirical evidence (documented in tables in chapter 5)[Posner, 194-220] rates public intellectuals in a top 100 format according to the number of Web hits their names produced in media mentions and scholarly citations from 1995-2000.  Since Posner tells us his interest is academic public intellectuals we can question why he considers individuals like Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (in the one and two spot for media mentions) as such over their status as politicians.  Almost half of the others are novelists or others most known by their creative works.  (The larger public scope of the novel and politics in the media and on the internet compared to that of academic theory might suggest why these individuals attracted more mentions).  As Posner notes in other tables, some of the names on the lists are academic intellectuals and others are not.  Other public intellectuals of note include:  Toni Morrison 13, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 55, Stephen J. Gould 56, Sartre 64, Andrew Ross 68, Richard Posner 70, and Noam Chomsky 91.  Eco misses inclusion by 7 points, putting him at 101.  (In the 2005 prospect list, he takes the number 2 spot after Chomsky, and he is nominated for the 2008 list).  Although incomplete, and contestable (as it proved to be in 2001), Posner justified his list as the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.[Posner, 12]3

Topping the public intellectuals chart for number of scholarly citations was Michel Foucault at number one with 13,238, almost twice as many as Pierre Bourdieu in the number two spot with 7,472.  Others of note:  Habermas 3, Derrida 4, Chomsky 5, Gould 9, Posner 10, Barthes 13, Rorty 16, Said 22, Adorno 24, J. Butler 27, Levi-Strauss 30, Sartre 33, Eco 44, Bhabba 49, S. Fish 67, C. West 78, Gates Jr. 85.  This list is more relevant to the type of intellectual this essay, and apparently Posner’s book too, looks into.

The scholarly-citation Top 100 reflects the more esoteric field of academia, while the media-mentions Top 100 enters deeper into the public sphere.  From the public sphere, Posner explains that he leaves out figures like Michael Jordan (108,000 media mentions), Tony Blair (138,000), Marilyn Monroe (33,000), and Colin Powell (20,000 (pre-year 2001)), and therefore points out the modesty of celebrity public intellectuals by noting that only three in his sample have more than 10,000 media mentions (Kissinger being the highest).[Ibid, 174]

The question of who to input as an intellectual aside, Posner’s data suggests, contrary to Eco’s implication, that there are American intellectuals speaking publicly outside of their professions.  Individuals such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Stephen Jay Gould make this point.  I wonder if these are examples of the American intellectuals Eco had in mind.  Since Eco leaves “American intellectual” and “European intellectual” anonymous, the blanks are left for interpellation.  (Notice the European reference).




In pointing out that there are many public intellectuals in the media, and that the quality of their commentary is poor, we can compare Posner’s position to Eco’s and Wacquant’s.  Like Tom Wolfe who defined an intellectual as “a person knowledgable [sic] in one field who speaks out only in others,”[Vincent, 1] we can see Posner’s perspective as, in part, conservative too when he says that intellectuals who comment in the mass media outside of their field of expertise are on holiday:  “They have slipped the reigns that govern them in their scholarly work.”[Posner, 78]

Posner praises the benefits of the division of labor (which Eco criticizes), specialization, and expertise of academic intellectuals by saying, “specialization works its magic by breaking up its tasks into smaller and smaller components, enabling quicker learning, sharper focus, faster completion, and so, greater productivity.”[Ibid, 4]  He names the modern university with its division into disciplines, disciplines into fields, fields into subfields such that an intellectual can specialize in a minute historical strata, as a symbol of the division of intellectual labor.  While he praises expert status though, he acknowledges that the “depth of knowledge is purchased at the expense of breadth” and that the comfort afforded by the American modern university, more so than European universities, by way of the tenure contract, “makes an intellectual’s career a safe, comfortable one, which can breed aloofness and complacency.”[Ibid]  In this way he agrees with Wacquant’s and Jacoby’s characterization of the sheltered academic.

Posner is most critical of the academic intellectual who speaks outside of his/her area of expertise when s/he comments in medias res, or gives real-time commentary.  “The academic is accustomed to conducting research in depth, at his leisure, before formulating a conclusion.  He is a fish out of water when asked to opine on events that are unfolding before his eyes as he speaks.”[Ibid, 107]  Although Posner agrees with Eco’s thought that the American intellectual sees his role as an occupation, he questions Eco’s “democratic right” to comment outside of that area of expertise.  Posner doesn’t say intellectuals shouldn’t speak outside of their area of expertise, but by suggesting that when they do they often blunder, he recommends that they hold their tongues.  Or he suggests that they wait until they can comment in an unassailable way.[Ibid, 175]

Eco’s position allows room for fallibility by suggesting that when a piece is written for the mass media, in a moment of white heat, as opposed to when one is written for a book, it carries with it the self awareness that the gesture of expressing oneself politically or morally overrides the unassailability of what one has to say.  By Eco’s awareness that his L’Espresso pieces, for example, can be read, argued with, then forgotten, he acknowledges the nature of his comments.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. acknowledges this aspect of intellectual labor too when he says, in a conference from 1993 entitled, The Role of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack:  “Everything we do does not have to have a hand grenade effect to slay the dragon tomorrow.”[“Responsibility,” 4]  Gates sees the labor of the intellectual as performing a contributory role toward social transformation.  Posner seems to suggest that when intellectuals speak, as experts or not, they are responsible for the unassailable truth.

By framing responsibility this way, Posner denies intellectual fallibility and blocks the shift into citizen status.  He implies that the academic intellectual abuses his/her celebrity power when s/he expresses an unfounded opinion on areas outside his/her expertise, based on politics instead of facts.4  Cornel West recognizes himself as a celebrity, along with the others on his panel.  But he distinguishes the intellectual from the expert from the celebrity claiming that they are three different roles.[Ibid, 5]  In this way he agrees with Gates Jr.’s approach to contribution.  In the end though, the fact that an intellectual carries star power or expert status, also, does not hold him/her responsible for a reader who blindly accepts his/her opinions wholesale, relying on external credibility.  This position in relation to the reader, for Eco, is similar to the majority of his work on reader theory and interpretation which attempts to divorce what is being said from who is saying it.5  The responsibility of validating information is ultimately that of the reader/audience member.  Certainly the public intellectual is responsible for representing facts, but the reader shares responsibility for separating facts from rhetoric.

One wonders what is at stake for Posner too when he holds onto an ethics of experts and the unassailability of intellectuals.  One inherent assumption is that lay people, by putting all of their trust into the commentary of intellectuals, will not be critical of them or their words.  This position underestimates the reader.  Within the current trend of anti-intellectualism, discussed earlier, most lay people seem to be critical or skeptical of academics anyway, and therefore devalue what they have to say.  And those who revere academics as celebrities will be the ones who were educated by them, in universities or from books, and will therefore have learned, from them, the skills of critical thinking.  So what is he afraid of, especially as he notes the massive increase in educated Americans between the 1960-1998?[Posner, 43n7] Posner may need to be a little more accepting of adults who chew gum.

“Edward Said’s position is too narrow,” Posner says in response to Representations of the Intellectual, “it implies that the only opposition worth putting up is to governments and corporations.”[Ibid, 30]  For Said, the intellectual’s role is “publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be coopted by governments or corporations.”[Ibid, 30; Said, 11]  Posner compares this to what he calls Said’s own politics, “which are far left” (which places Posner’s politics for us), and says that there are other dogmas besides governments and corporations which Said doesn’t acknowledge, like “religious dogma, social dogma (like neo-conservatism), and political dogma not limited to governing parties.”[Posner, 31]  One wonders if Posner got past page 11 where the majority of Representations deals with social and political dogmatic thought (over institutions) and the final section, “Gods that Always Fail,” which deals with religious dogma.

In agreement with Eco, in opposition to Posner, Said says, “I am moved by causes and ideas that I can actually choose to support because they conform to values and principles that I believe in.  I do not therefore consider myself bound by my professional training in ... American and European Literature.”[Said, 88]  In the same section, he sheds light on Posner’s implication that the facts can be represented by expertise, and in so doing concedes with West’s separation of intellectual labor from expertise labor. “For ‘expertise’ in the end has rather little, strictly speaking, to do with knowledge.”[Ibid, 79]  Said considers the “now extremely disputatious matter of objectivity, or accuracy, or facts,”[Ibid, 89] and sees truth as a construction by saying, “one hears endless talk about Judeo-Christian values, Afrocentric values, Muslim truths, Eastern truths, Western truths, each proving a complete program for excluding all the others.”[Ibid, 91] To see that truth is relatively constructed one need only remember after the destruction of the World Trade towers the questionable nature of truth as to which side God was on:  American Christians proclaimed “God Bless America” and Bin Laden’s Muslims claimed Allah to be on their side.

Posner, as an expert in Law, should understand how the truth is contestable and should know that even experts, including him, construct truths guided by their own dogmas of nationality, politics, and religion.  In keeping with his expertise in Law, in his book he collects facts as numbers.  He turns to science, or social science, for evidence in numerical data.  But when we begin to question the numbers in his table, as Posner’s critics have,6 we see them as imposters of empirical data, and as a screened defense for his conjectures, which precede them.

Posner’s position puts him against Noam Chomsky[Posner, 85-89] who Said uses to make this point about experts:  “...when (Chomsky) tries to represent U.S. foreign policy from an adversarial standpoint, the recognized experts on foreign policy try to prevent his speaking on the basis of his lack of certification as a foreign policy expert.”[Said, 80]  Experts are threatened to the extent that they bar a non-expert from speaking.  But on the contrary, one would think that an expert would want a non-expert to speak in order to reinforce his/her own expert status by way of having the opportunity to correct the half-truths of non-experts.  Posner's main tact in his book is correcting the half-truths of public intellectuals who have slipped from their reins.  In this way, he follows Said’s role for intellectuals of “speaking truth to power.”  If intellectuals take Posner’s advice and wait until they can present non-expert opinions in an unassailable way, Posner would have no material to practice his expertise against.  Truth is not an exact science, and in Law you must defend only one side regardless of truth.

In interpreting along the lines of Said’s method, the role of the intellectual is to present and challenge the truth in the best way s/he knows how.  In doing so, one can welcome both the challenge from other intellectuals and the invitation to challenge assumed truths.  In saying this, I recognize that I, along with the others here, question and construct truths.  By construction I don’t mean to imply the active misrepresentation of facts.  This is what Said means, too, by advocating amateurism as opposed to expertise.  The amateur, for Said, is:  “... someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies.”[Ibid, 82-3]

In comparison to Waquant, Said, in his chapter “Amateurs and Professionals,” agrees in the distinction between the think-tank or institutional intellectual, and the independent intellectual.  Posner, on the other hand, is “inclined to... regard the think-tank public intellectual as basically interchangeable with the academic public intellectual.”[Posner, 35].  Wacquant and Posner, on the other hand, align themselves in the thought that the modern university system can serve as a shelter to academic or professional intellectuals, while Said offers a more positive view.  He cites historians like E.P. Thompson (English) and Hayden White (American) who have reshaped thought from inside the academy that grew to have widespread influence outside of it.[Said, 73]

Eco, Wacquant, and Posner meet on the point that “the professionalization of knowledge has made it more difficult for (American) intellectual freebooters to range across different fields.”[Posner, 54]  (At the same time, it doesn’t prevent them from doing so — Eco and Posner as examples — and Posner lists other successes in his tables).  Said comes at it from a different angle by opposing the notion that this is predominantly an American issue by considering professionalism not a pattern of culture but a state of mind.  Europeans and Americans alike are susceptible to the temptation.  The enemy is not other occupations but the acceptance that being an intellectual is “something you do for a living, between ... nine and five with one eye on the clock, and another cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior...”[Said, 74]  Self-censorship is the prime opponent of the intellectual.

“Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take.  You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.”[Ibid, 100-1]

One need not forget the lower stratum and the compromise made in order to impress a teacher or get a good grade.

Posner defines the occupational predicament in another way:  to be specialized in the academic sphere works against the intellectual’s acceptance in the public sphere.  The anti-intellectual public holds the academic, when s/he attempts to speak, at a cautious distance.  And, looking at it from the other direction, the “down to earth” language academics use in public and the tendency toward general knowledge works against them within specialized and academic circles.  Too much dumbing down leads to the idea introduced by Jean Bethke Elshtain that as one becomes more and more public s/he becomes less and less intellectual.[“Future,” 3]  Before literary criticism, philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology and history became academic specialties, Posner notes, they were more open to intelligent contributions from amateurs.[Posner, 54]  Eco, in mentioning the division of labor and politics as an occupation in America, suggests both Posner’s and Said’s angle on professionalization.  If the phenomenon of the expert or specialist is a recent one, then that of the public intellectual, bred from the professionalization of knowledge, is even more recent.


In order to relieve the load on the shoulders of the American intellectual, I will turn now to the part played by the American press and the American public.  One response to the division of labor in America, which affects the academic intellectual’s entrance into the public sphere, is a stricter definition of specialties that creates more competition.  In the labor sphere we can see a Doppelganger effect between two kinds of intellectuals:  the Art Historians and the Art Critics; the Literary Critics of academia and the Book reviewers of the press; the scientists and the writers for the Science Times; and maybe most clearly, police detectives and TV news consumer reporters. 

One case in point, every news channel in the United States has its own consumer investigation team — In New York City: WB11 - Help Me Howard; ABC7- 7 On Your Side; Fox5 - Problem Solvers and Shame on You with Arnold Diaz; NBC4 - Investigative Tipline; CBS2 - Special Assignment.  Citizens often call the news stations first for a variety of justified reasons (the possibility that calling the police first might jeopardize both the caller and the information, especially when it reflects negatively on the police), and sometimes questionable reasons (with the primary goal of seeking fifteen minutes of fame or the sale of information).  Videotapes of crimes have been known to end up in the hands of TV or newspaper offices before the police know they exist.  George Holliday’s video of the beating of Rodney King is one such example.  And by way of police radios and cellular technology, it is not uncommon for the press to know about an incident simultaneously as or before the police do.  Since the mass media has amassed its own college-educated experts/intellectuals, for the academic intellectual to sign on would mean the displacement of another worker.  This further suggests why only experts would be invited into the press as quote-suppliers to offer a specific view that an insider might not have.  Herbert Gans suggests another reason:  Journalists call him two or three times a week to deliver a quote to accompany their articles in order to legitimize the generalizations they have to make in order to meet their two-hour deadlines.[“Future,” 8]

Although these occupations deal within the same worlds, the way in which that world is explored, presented, received, and researched is quite different.  The transitions from one sphere to the next are not impossible and there are examples of movement, but what makes the move possible is an understanding and a demonstration of the codes which distinguish the jobs.



In order to look at this movement across codes, we can find in Umberto Eco’s preface a more useful explanation as to how he reconciles his varied production across cultures.  Although Posner emphasizes the importance of expertise, and the problems of an intellectual commenting outside of that expertise, he spends less time recognizing that some individuals have made the very crossing of cultures their area of expertise.  The recent creation of the academic disciplines of Semiotics, Cultural Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, and Public Intellectuals illustrate another response to the phenomena of the division of labor in the United States.

Eco continues in his preface:

“At the academic level, I concern myself with the problems of language, communication, organization of the systems of signs that we use to describe the world and to tell it to one another.  The fact that what I do is called “semiotics” should not frighten anyone.” [Eco, Travels, xi]

Because Eco’s area of expertise includes crossing the borders of High Culture and Pop under the umbrella of Semiotics, he can more easily infiltrate both mass media and academic media.  Newspaper columns, novels, and theoretical texts published by university presses have specific formats, codes, and standards which he seeks to understand.  The movie version of The Name of the Rose should come as no surprise.  It is also not surprising that a newspaper or magazine would invite him to comment on anything he likes, politically, socially, or religiously, in a weekly column.  In crossing these borders, his expertise also includes putting his theory into practice.

As a semiotician, (and as the founder of the first academic department of Semiotics in any university), he opens himself up to a wide variety of subject matter.  The overarching structure of Semiotics can accommodate any information that is put into it.  In this way, he distinguishes himself from other European intellectuals who may be more linked to content specific information, like “the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Chartres that depict trades.”[Posner, 4]  And in doing so he weakens his claim that he is representative of all Europeans.

Posner says, “The scope for the public intellectual shrinks as more and more areas of knowledge are withdrawn from the amateur arena and become academized, and likewise the range of individuals from which the public intellectual is drawn shrinks.”[Ibid, 54]  In light of this, Posner would consider Eco’s department of Semiotics as ‘another one down the tubes’.  But one can see a more optimistic and integrated response to this division of labor: universities are developing academic programs which specialize in overarching structures which accommodate multiple disciplines or general knowledge.  Departments of Cultural Studies, Interdisciplinary Programs, and Ph.D. programs in departments of Public Intellectuals are cropping up in universities in America.  A few examples are the Draper Interdisciplinary Program in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University, the University of Chicago Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, and the Ph.D. program in Public Intellectuals at Florida Atlantic University.  These developments would lead one to believe, contrary to Posner, that the scope for the public intellectual widens as more areas of knowledge are withdrawn from the amateur arena and become academized.

Of course there are multiple contradictions inherent in this phenomenon.  The more one looks at it, the more möbius strip-like it becomes.  Gerald Graff, Director of the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, in an introduction to a 1997 conference entitled, Public Intellectuals and the Future of Graduate Study, offered this insight:  “Because of federal higher education cutbacks and the resulting fierce competition among centers of learning, many people now argue that the support of public intellectuals may be the only way for universities to gain enough prominence to prosper.”[“Media Hounds,” 1]  We might extrapolate from this that the currents in anti-intellectualism, the emergence of the think-tank, and the predominance of Pop over High culture in the United States, expressed by Wacquant, Eco, and Posner, have contributed to this state of affairs.  We wonder then if Graff, the University of Chicago, and Florida Atlantic University are buckling under governmental and social pressure and are therefore victims of the hegemony of capitalism which Wacquant criticizes.

In the end, Umberto Eco operates from a privileged position that he created, one that involves having the education, knowledge, and ability to understand and mimic codes.  Maybe it was European patterns of culture that allowed him to invent himself in this way, but one mustn’t forget the role played by the American Charles Saunders Peirce.  Eco, like most academic intellectuals who play with Pop, remains securely fixed in High Culture.  The movement is an earned luxury of a High Cultural position, and it is unidirectional.  The uneducated or illiterate in High culture and its strategies cannot as easily move in the other direction without appearing mostly naïve and ignorant (replying to a Jackson Pollock painting in a museum: “I could do that and stick it on the wall, too”).  Paul de Man can watch All in the Family and get the joke, but the viewer-equivalent of Archie Bunker cannot as easily pick up Semiology and Rhetoric and get De Man’s critique of Formalism.  The most the intellectual risks in analyzing Pop culture is exaggerating the obvious or completely deflating its immediate charm.  Yet, he or she still gets the joke.  While what the anti-intellectual, ignorant, or uneducated risks by choosing to not engage with the products of High culture is devaluing or completely missing the complexities.  Although all citizens in democratic countries have inalienable rights (to write novels or lick toads), in some circumstances the educated, wealthy, or popular have better access to those rights.  While the academic writer who crosses into the public sphere immediately stands to profit in the accumulation of financial and cultural capital, the reader encountering a critical interpretation of something they thought they understood stands to profit in the accumulation of knowledge, and if they are lucky, entertainment, too.  In the end, these profits have the potential to raise up, not only questions and answers, but also the status of everyone involved.



Passing the problem of the invisibility of the intellectual off to the Americans seems to deny the influence of modernization, globalization, and specialization of the world – of the Western world at least.  Edward Said comments on the situation in France after 1968 in relation to Regis Debray’s book Teachers, Writers, Celebrities:  The Intellectuals of Modern France.  Both describe the situation where between 1880-1930 Parisian intellectuals were united under the authority of the Sorbonne.  But then between 1930-1960 new publishing houses offered intellectuals a more hospitable roof over their heads and formed a “spiritual family” which included writers like Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus who superceded the professors as intellectuals because of their independence, free-ranging work, and credo of freedom.  But after 1968 intellectuals largely deserted these publishers and rushed to the mass media – as journalists, talk show guests and hosts, advisers, and managers.  French intellectuals became more public and at the same time projected their ideas to a broader audience.  With this change, viewers acquired more control and could determine through ratings who would stay and who would go.[Said, 66-7]  In this sense, corporate TV and the audience played a significant role in choosing its public intellectuals and in choosing its content.  (Just like viewers of American Idol do today).  This division between those who stayed in universities and those who filled in the space behind the TV screen was therefore not unique to America. 

“In the first place,” Said says, “it is wrong to be invidious about the university, or even about the United States.”  He counters the myth and Jacoby’s thesis that universities are secluded ivory towers where American intellectuals hide. 

“What Jacoby doesn’t talk about is that intellectual work in the twentieth century has been centrally concerned not just with public debate and elevated polemic…but also with criticism and disenchantment, with the exposure of false prophets and debunking of ancient traditions and hallowed names.”[Ibid, 72]  “Academic intellectuals…have totally reshaped thought about the writing of history, the stability of traditions, and the role of language in society… Their work has had wide diffusion beyond the academy, although it mostly was born and nurtured inside it.”[Ibid, 73] 

One could add to Said’s remarks that intellectuals within the university walls have significantly altered race, gender, and sexuality relations in the US by insisting on non-discriminatory university admission policies and encouraging the admission of students to whom the doors were closed only decades before.  And this internal intellectual labor will continue to impact the public sphere in multiple ways as each new graduate exits the campus.

“As for the United States being especially guilty of denaturing intellectual life, one would have to dispute that,” Said continues, “since everywhere one looks today, even in France, the intellectual is no longer a Bohemian or a café-philosopher, but has become a quite different figure, representing many different kinds of concerns, making his or her representations in a very different, dramatically altered way.”[Ibid]  The intellectual is not isolated to Europe nor is he or she running wild as an independent.  The intellectual – and we might now be able to call him or her the “public intellectual” – is, as Said describes,

“an individual vocation, an energy, a stubborn force engaging as a committed and recognizable voice in language and in society with a whole slew of issues, all of them having to do in the end with a combination of enlightenment and emancipation or freedom.”[Ibid]

One American public intellectual, Cornel West, who like Eco who wrote a novel, made an R&B/Hip Hop CD and stirred up a controversy with the president of Harvard – apparently Harvard professors don’t have the right to do such things.7  West acknowledges that he, along with the others in the panel On The Responsibility of Intellectuals In the Age of Crack, are celebrities.  Rev. Eugene Rivers, the organizer of the event, asks how intellectuals can use their celebrity status to reach out to the community. bell hooks responded, “we are first and foremost examples of our lives.”  Since she writes, speaks, and teaches critical discourse in the university, she feels doing the same in the larger community is not outside of her intellectual responsibility.  hooks prescribes teaching critical literacy as one role for public intellectuals.  She further adds that if intellectuals can speak the truth of their lives, and not just the truth of their knowledge, they can, in essence, become their expertise and make genuine contact with their community. [“Responsibility,” 4]  Edward Said agrees with this position when he says, “However much intellectuals pretend that their representations are of higher things or ultimate values, morality begins with their activity in this secular world.”[Said, 120]  hooks discusses her involvement with her brother who is a crack addict, and West mentions having taught prisoners for twelve years.  We can see a distinct difference in this kind of reaching out and Eco’s going public with column pieces like “It is the Bean that Sets Pulses Racing,” and “How to Not to Use a Cellular Phone.”8  Eco, the European, can play the entertainer, just as West, hooks, Gates Jr., and Said can prove that lines of moral obligation and duty cut deeply for many Americans.  Ishmael Reed, Adrian Piper, and Hans Haacke are only a few other examples.  One wonders if Eco had these American intellectuals in mind in 1987 and 2008.



Over the years as Umberto Eco has gained more international popularity for crossing all public and private and academic and mainstream media, he has also gotten good at entertaining.  One wonders if Jean Bethke Elshtain’s assessment is playing itself out in Eco: the more and more public one gets, the less and less intellectual he becomes.  Eco’s appearance at the 92nd St. Y with Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa through Pen World Voices presented them all as entertainers – they were billed, afterall, as The Three Musketeers.  All three performed readings of their fictional works in their native languages (which limited their content expressions to the English speakers in the audience), and the discussion that followed with Leonard Lopate was not critical but was instead another feature in which the audience could enjoy the presence and good humor of three great writers.  Eco, Rushdie, and Llosa gave only sound bite responses to the questions Lopate asked and that’s all the audience in that setting may have tolerated.  At least that was the assumption made by the three writers and the moderator.  A book signing followed the event, which the audience came well prepared for – a chance to meet the celebrity face-to-face, hope to express a word of thanks, and walk away with an autograph.

Two nights later Eco appeared in the more academic setting of the art academy, Cooper Union, and delivered a lecture on “The Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death.”  The discussion with Adam Gopnik, contributor to the New Yorker, that followed continued the academic atmosphere with questions of a more critical nature.  Gopnik’s questions were appropriate for the setting, and (having personally seen Eco perform many times myself) were not the run-of-the-mill questions that Eco often gets.  Yet Eco’s responses were run-of-the-mill.  He pulled most of them directly from his previous books – particularly The Limits of Interpretation and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods – and only tangentially answered the questions.  His lecture itself was actually a retitled version of “On Some Functions of Literature” originally delivered in Mantua in 2000, now published in On Literature.  Either Eco assumed his audience had not read his books enough to know this text and these answers already, or he was still playing the role of the entertainer by reminding us of what we already knew and he thought we wanted. 

One example of an astute question that Gopnik asked which Eco could have offered more insight into had to do with the rise of the memoir in fiction and, in particular, the recent attention that literary hoaxes like James Frey, Laura Albert (aka JT Leroy), and Margaret B. Jones are getting in the American media.  As someone who had just delivered a lecture on the truth of fiction, and who had previously written multiple essays on fakes, forgeries, lies, and the force of falsity (in fact the first English publication of Travels in Hyperreality was titled Faith in Fakes) and written two fictional novels, Foucault’s Pendulum and Baudolino both of which evolve from literary hoaxes, Eco was well equipped to say more than he did.  His response, brief but true, was that all autobiography and memoir – all writing – is narrated and therefore fictionalized to a certain extent.  The audience could have handled more and, in this setting, I think, expected more.  Gopnik, for his part, could have detailed the American circumstance more to probe the intellectual for a deeper response.  But in the end this event too was also a stage set for entertainment even though it was in an academic institution and the format had all the trappings of a lecture.  One wonders if the only place left to engage with Eco the intellectual is either in a private experience with his books or in the intimacy of a classroom in an ivory tower.

Edward Said contrasted the entertainer role with the role of the intellectual in this way:  “Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good:  the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”[Said, 12]; then later, “The issue is whether that audience is there to be satisfied... or whether it is there to be challenged.”[Ibid, 83]  In the case of the 92nd St. Y, I would argue, the audience was there to be satisfied.  But in the case of Cooper Union, I suspect, the audience was more open to challenge.  Certainly Eco has proven to be both an intellectual and an entertainer.  If readers of How to Travel with a Salmon and Foucault’s Pendulum are entertained by his humor, this usually always comes by way of learning something.  The intellectual, or even the public intellectual, is not required to be humorless, but likewise, humor is not required to be strictly for entertainment purposes.  Eco is quite clear of his address to two levels of readers, the naive and the critical, and even at times when he might seem to be only entertaining, he continues to leave something provocative for both to chew on. 

The other question, not quite as astute as Gopnik’s but one that I, for one, also expected a more learned answer for, was Lopate’s about the different reception and expectation of writers and intellectuals in Europe and America.  Although an interpretation from the eyes of an outsider is not always the solution to an internal problem, and sometimes the response we get causes us to wince, clearly, in this case, Eco has the chops to do it more justice.  Here again – speaking only for myself – I expected more.  And I feel justified in this expectation because those who we nominate as our top public intellectuals, and especially those who proudly wave the flag of their European intellectual heritage at us, have a responsibility to give us more.


3On this page also Posner limits his scope to the study of the American context, leaving aside the comparative analysis to Europe, but he suggests a starting point:  European countries having a smaller, more homogeneous governing class and tend to give a more prominent role to public intellectuals.  For the tables see Posner, 194-220.

4“They (distinguished non-experts) were making political statements rather than presenting an expert opinion, but they werepretending that it was the latter.”[Posner, 113]

5 See Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader, The Limits of Interpretation, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, especially but not exclusively.

6 See Alterman, Eric.  “Judging the Wise Guys.”  The Nation, Stop the Presses, Jan. 28, 2002.; Grimes, William.  “Another Top 100:  This Time, It's Intellectuals.” The New York Times On the Web, Jan. 19, 2002; Perlstein, Rick. “Thinkers in Need of Publishers,” The New York Times On the Web, Jan.22, 2002:

7 See “Black Harvard Professors,”,,c1gb1307-1965,00.html

8 “It was the Bean that Set the Pulses Racing,” can be found translated by William Weaver at The Irish Times, Tuesday, April 30, 2002; “How Not to Use Cellular Phones” is in the collection, How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays.

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  • “Black Harvard Professors, President Work to Fix Racially Charged Problems.”, Jan. 4, 2002,,c3gb1322-1980,00.html (BET no longer posts this article but related articles can be found at NYTIMES April 13, 2002 , and NYTIMES January 27, 2002).
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