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December 28th, 2003

Elaine Showalter is, as far as I can tell, the US equivalent of Germaine Greer, so it would be foolish to take anything she says too seriously. Still, I was struck by this observation, in passing, in a piece claiming that the notion of “public intellectual” has passed its sell-by date (a typical metaphor for this shopaholic feminist)

Anybody can complain, blog and find fault; the real intellectual might try to solve problems.

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  1. Factory
    December 28th, 2003 at 23:30 | #1

    Hmm falling into pointless debates is far more likely in the plogosphere.. But it might be different in the greater blogosphere.

  2. Wacko Jacko
    December 29th, 2003 at 10:05 | #2

    “Elaine Showalter is, as far as I can tell, the US equivalent of Germaine Greer, so it would be foolish to take anything she says too seriously.”

    You can’t be serious. Showalter is a distinguished Professor of English at Princeton.

    Greer isn’t a distinguished anything.

  3. fair go
    December 29th, 2003 at 11:05 | #3

    Germaine Greer is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University.

    She was also honoured at the 150 anniversary at Melbourne University http://www.unimelb.edu.au/150/communityopenweekend/Honorary/Greer.htm

    The Female Eunuch was published over 30 years ago in 1970, and despite its flaws is an important work.

    I think it is foolish to dismiss everything that she says – particularly if you only listen to the hype around it. Next you will be believing only what you hear in the media.

  4. Geoff Honnor
    December 29th, 2003 at 11:28 | #4

    And it’s worth pointing out that unlike Professor Greer, Professor Showalter has not, thus far, seen fit to pose nude (except for her glasses) as a 60th birthday commemoration. This might be due to the fact that Professor Showalter is only 58. Alternatively, it may be that Professor Showalter feels no compelling need so to do. Let’s hope so….

  5. December 29th, 2003 at 12:33 | #5

    Yes, but Germs doesn’t use the shopping metaphor. I’d rather a naked thinker than a huckster of ideas.

  6. December 29th, 2003 at 15:13 | #6

    Public intellectuals have been a bit of a problem over the past century or so. Originally, public intellectuals, from Plato to Mill, made themselves masters of the best thinking of the day.

    These days, most of intellectuals are blissfully ignorant of the most powerful force shaping our cultural consciousness and social destiny: the theories of science and the practice of technology.

    Until the Great Schism is healed there is little hope that intellectuals of any kind, public or private, will make a useful contribution to civil debate.

    There is something of a renaissance of public intellectualism over at the Edge, where the Third Culture of Scientists-cum-Artist intellectuals are realigning the Two Cultures.

    Perhaps the literary culture will sit up and take notice of what is happeining in the real world when human-like computers start to write, paint and sculpt better than them.

    But by then it will have been too late.

  7. December 29th, 2003 at 17:04 | #7

    Then we are all doomed, Jack. No-one can cover it all, even though good people keep trying and do important work. Witness the chaos caused by extremely gifted and valorised people in one area straying into other territory – as seen, for instance, in the discussions on climate which surface on this very website.

    I suspect that the scientists, engineers and philosophers who understand the “theory of science and the practice of technology” actually think the world and our future is controlled by economists, and their degenerate half-cousins the managerialists.

    The whole notion of the polymathic intellectual probably went wrong once science and engineering started to become significantly counter-intuitive. There is a story about Niels Bohr replying to a friend’s apology about not understanding quantum mechanics by confessing that there were only about six people in the world who understood quantum mechanics and he was not sure he was one of them.

    As Brian Banisch might put it, once the vital knowledge of our society flowed out to the edges of different kinds of intelligence, so that very ffew people commanded a field of knowledge intuitively, then the world of ideas was doomed to fragmentation.

    Mind you, one of the great pleasures I know of is reading the fine writers who try to make general sense of specialist topics, like Lewis, Gleick and Gould. Unfortunately it is a trap for those vulnerable to religious stupidity, like Fritjof Capra. (which part of physics and Buddhism would you like to be an idiot in today, sir? Sorry, but a lot of nice people have been led astray..)

    I am not sure what you mean by “literary culture”. Surely the intelligentsia has now dissolved into so many fragments we can’t generalise? The old C.P. Snow idea of the Two Cultures was strongly bound by his own society and times anyway, with its castes, class mores and snobbery.

    Personally I think – and watch me be philosophically naive at this point – the common dialogue does not come from the disciplines themselves, but from a shared commitment to the idea of untrammelled thought and experimentation, above and beyond ideology and politics. Stuff just is, and it’s not at the service of anyone’s trash plan. And that is beyond any discussions of relativism. If we all got that clear, a lot of good things would happen and we could make a difference to our future. Ho ho.

  8. December 30th, 2003 at 09:41 | #8

    I am suggesting a complementary two-track method by which public intellectuals can regain their former glory:

    apprising themselves of the scientific method and at least keeping posted on the transformative potential of technology within at least one sci-tech discipline

    becoming specialists in generalisation, alerting themselves and readers to parallells and comparisons between scientific and artistic disciplines

    Pr Q is at least one public intellectual who is having a go at this type of activity. I am unaware of any others on the Australian scene (Blainey?, Flannery?) who have this competence.

    If public intellectuals do not get science, and/or go polymathic, then they will be as useless as tits on a bull.

  9. John
    December 30th, 2003 at 12:06 | #9

    Just to be clear, in saying “it would be foolish to take anything she says too seriously” I meant that and no more. In particular, I’m not saying that either Greer or Showalter should be ignored – this is self-evident since I’m linking to Showalter.

    Greer and (as far as I can tell) Showalter are given to provocations – the idea is to stir up interest and controversy rather than to present a carefully considered position.

  10. January 1st, 2004 at 18:24 | #10

    Really, there’s not much new here; that critique of intellectuals probably goes back to Athens. It’s just the medium that has changed.

  11. January 3rd, 2004 at 15:51 | #11

    Fortunately hemlock has been replaced by the sour bile of public indifference.

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