Danilo Aprigliano

Intellectuals annihilated by the power of the media?

The following article is my translation of Are intellectuals longing for the puissance of the media? from the blog La République des livres by Pierre Assouline.

So what is an intellectual? This question seems like nothing; it is a real problem regarding the concept and its degradation. Now that the time for astonishment at the incongruity of the question, the answer seems so obvious, has passed, there is nothing better to enliven a debate or revive a discussion than to ask it. Misunderstandings and arguments will be guaranteed right from the premises: some will undertake to define the adjective, others the noun. What are the intellectuals passing by? (17 euros, 110 pages of text) is just right to guide us through the labyrinth of interpretations. The author, Enzo Traverso, is an Italian historian (Gavi, 1957) who taught political thought at the University of Picardy before being appointed professor at Cornell University (NY), he devoted his research to the phenomenon of totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, contemporary violence and the European civil war. His essay is of exemplary clarity, due to its form: a conversation with Régis Meyran.

Enzo Traverso chose to start not from a book or even from a thought but from a photograph from the French Press Agency from 2000. We see a Palestinian intellectual, Edward Saïd (Jerusalem, 1935 – NY, 2003), then a professor of Literature compare to Columbia, throwing stones at an Israeli checkpoint on the border with Lebanon. A gesture of protest that is careful not to credit itself with any heroism, but rather seems to be the revelation of something way of putting yourself. Nothing discrediting in this observation, so much so that Traverso, remembering what musicology owes to Said (see his essay On the late style just appeared in Actes Sud), uses it to make him an intellectual of dissonance and counterpoint, who plays contrast against harmony. For the French, but not only for them, everything starts fromDreyfus affair. On the one hand, the J'accuse of Zola inAuroras of Clemenceau; on the other, the countryside of l'Action française against decadent, cosmopolitan, cerebral, abstract spirits, sublimated by Maurice Barrès in Les Déracinés. It is true that the intellectual belongs to the tradition of the Enlightenment which was so strongly fought for - and with what perseverance! – by the nationalists.

Incidentally – Traverso sets the record straight – the way in which French intellectuals sometimes interpreted German thinkers before exploiting them has something to do with it. Think of Heidegger, of course; he thinks above all of Nietsche, of whom Michel Onfray, following Gilles Deleuze, wanted to make libertarian use while he was a reactionary, or rather more: "a great conservative critic of modernity". For his part, Enzo Traverso prevents, in the writing of history, a tendency towards post-ideological ambition which he considers nefarious: the humanitarianism from which some would like us to analyze the Second World War (Resistance in Italy, Spanish Civil War, resistance and collaboration in France, etc.) exclusively through the prism of human rights.

How, then, to define this intellectual whose statute has seen difficulties and for whom Sartre's formula ("he who meddles with what does not concern him") is no longer sufficient, if it ever was? In an upcoming essay on the history of Italian intellectuals (15 March in Belles Lettres), Frédéric Attal has chosen to specify in the subtitle: "Prophets, philosophers and experts". And to think it's Italy... In the latest issue of Debat (n. 173, January-February 2013), Sylvie Laurent debunks the myth according to which the left-wing intellectual has disappeared in the United States; he is beautiful and alive, even if transformed, and always ready to carry out his mission as he had defined it... Edward Saïd: "the intellectual is he who, against the current in the spirit of the times, clarifies the conditions of exercise of a sometimes invisible power." And to say that it is America… Michel Foucault had once brought his stone to the conceptual edifice by proposing this distinction:

– the specific intellectual, often an academic, who intervenes in the affairs of the city by virtue of his knowledge;

– the universal intellectual who analyzes and judges based on humanist values.

That's how it was in the 70s. Since then, the data has never been the same. Since we distinguish…

– on the one hand, the Platonic philosopher or philosopher-king of the ideal city (frightening);

– on the other, the prince's advisor or the court philosopher (docile);

– between the two, the intellectual critical of power (without great visibility);

The prince's advisor, who dominates in our times, Traverso renames him expert: someone who is not committed to defending values but to putting his skills into practice, highlighting a presumed neutrality. The case of Traverso and Saïd itself illustrates this: the intellectual is no longer a writer or a journalist, but an academic, even if he has been dispossessed of his home by the experts. It is immediately clear that the intellectual of the third type, critical of power, is the one who has the author's favor; but its social status is so precarious that it has become difficult to evaluate. He prefers him to the specific intellectual as Foucault exalted him because, even if he wants to be a critical expert, forty years have passed since then and the expert rather resembles a government technician, a function that is known to annihilate every critical spirit.

Does this evolution explain what could be called the absence, disappearance, death or, with a little more optimism, the eclipse of intellectuals from what remains of the debate of ideas? Traverso attempts an explanation by speaking of "their annihilation by the power of the media" which have confiscated the intellectual debate; as in the case of the recent controversy around Freud launched by Michel Onfray and his publishing house with a perfect mastery of communication tools. Not really his genre, in short. The intellectual would rather be a specific and critical researcher. This only? And where then does he place Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Rosanvallon, Jean-Claude Milner, Alain Finkielkraut and others? In the sub-category Variety? So the names, the names! The author quotes many philosophers (Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Nancy Fraser, Toni Negri, Slavoj Zizek), a historian (Perry Anderson), a geographer (David Harvey), a sociologist (Philippe Corcuff), a writer ( Tariq Ali), theorists (Homi Bhabha, GC Spivak), of whom perhaps we do not know that they are all strangers to the ruthless universe of the media, for the most part relegated to the extreme left (really, if you look closely, not specific researchers and critics?), while recognizing: “the rift between critical intellectuals and social movements remains considerable”. There is also the euphemism of saying how the gap that separates them seems, in many fields, insurmountable. It is first of all up to the coming generation to invent or, at least, propose new utopias; yet it seems paralyzed, and this translates into a strange weakness of the protest that the excesses of the time should, on the contrary, stimulate.

“It (the paralysis) tends to unite the historical defeat of the revolutions of the twentieth century and the advent of an entirely historical crisis of capitalism, which deprives a generation of a future. The most sensitive to the injustices of society are the young precarious workers who have gone through university and have access to culture. The conditions for a social explosion are all met, but there is no wick to set fire to the powder."

You understand that there is no longer a waiting horizon for what should be a concern for everyone and not just some.