[Marxism] The New Intellectuals
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 15 06:42:31 MST 2016
(All about the leftist intellectuals we have grown to love and whose
backing for the Democratic Party will lead us to socialism--I guess.)
Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13 2016
The New Intellectuals
Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?
By Evan R. Goldstein
One night this spring, the New York Institute for the Humanities hosted
a gathering to discuss, as the title of the event put it, "new public
intellectuals." At the front of a crowded room, seated at a rectangular
table, were three paragons of this ascendant breed — Nikil Saval,
co-editor of n+1; Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation; and Jon
Baskin, co-editor of The Point. All are under 40, not pursuing careers
in academe, and integral to what the event’s organizers hailed as a
"renaissance in cultural journalism."
It is a notably upbeat claim, especially when compared with the
hand-wringing that typically accompanies talk of public intellectuals in
America, who seem always to be in the act of vanishing. The few who
remain pale in comparison to the near-mythic minds that roamed the
streets of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, when rents were cheap,
polemics were harsh, and politics were radical. Or so goes the
conventional wisdom. What happened? Intellectuals who couldn’t survive
as freelance writers — and as New York gentrified, who could? — became
professors. By the 1960s, few nonacademic intellectuals remained.
Careerism and specialization gradually opened up a gulf between
intellectuals and the public. The sturdy prose of Edmund Wilson and
Irving Howe gave way, by the mid-90s, to the knotted gender theorizing
of Judith Butler and the cult-studies musings of Andrew Ross.
If an intellectual renaissance is underway, the catalyst has been the
spate of little magazines that have appeared in the past decade or so:
Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, The
Point, Public Books. At the same time, older publications, like Dissent,
have been rejuvenated; dormant magazines, like The Baffler, have been
resurrected. James Livingston likens the present moment to the first few
decades of the last century, when magazines including The Dial, The New
Republic, and Modern Quarterly, reoriented intellectual life in America.
"Between 1900 and 1930, those little magazines defined the literary
canon and came up with all these ideas of how to reform the market "
says Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers University at New
Brunswick. "It was an incredible time of intellectual ferment. Our time
is similar in that everyone knows we have to do something radical."
Like their early-20th-century predecessors, today’s new public
intellectuals are almost uniformly on the left. They mostly came of age
in the ’80s and ’90s, a period marked by the post-Cold War triumph of
capitalism and a sense that the big questions had been settled. To the
extent that they share a political agenda, it is to challenge
neoliberalism. When the economy nearly collapsed, in 2008, they embraced
Marxist and structuralist critiques. In 2011 they rushed to the banner
of Occupy Wall Street. The two months that the Occupy encampment stood
in New York’s financial district represented one of the most hopeful and
significant experiences of their lifetimes — the first time that things
seemed up for grabs politically and intellectually.
Many of the new intellectuals are, or were until recently, graduate
students. They arrived on campus long after their professors and
professors’ professors had retreated from the public sphere, estranging
the academic left from the political left. Campus politics had
supplanted larger politics. Bruce Robbins, a professor of English at
Columbia University and a prominent combatant in the PC skirmishes of
the ’80s and ’90s, looks back on that era with regret. "I sometimes feel
like I threw away 10 years of my life fighting the culture wars," he
says. The new intellectuals, he adds, have ushered in a more substantive
conversation. Samuel Moyn, who was a graduate student in the ’90s and is
now a professor of law and history at Harvard University, describes his
generation as quiescent. "There was never a thought that we could or
should reach a broader public," he says, noting that graduate students
today make no such assumption. "This is a generation that refuses the
vocation of mere scholar."
In his 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby argued that the
generation of writers and critics who came to political consciousness in
the 1960s had been absorbed into the university and disappeared from
public life, precipitating "a withdrawal of intellectual energy from the
larger domain to a narrower discipline." For Jacoby, the implications
were dire. "The transmission belt of culture — the ineffable manner by
which an older generation passes along not simply its knowledge but its
dreams and hopes — is threatened," he wrote. "Younger intellectuals are
occupied and preoccupied by the demands of university careers. As
professional life thrives, public culture grows poorer and older."
Thirty years later, that process shows signs of reversing itself.
Younger intellectuals don’t see the academy as a refuge. They see it as
an institution in crisis. They’ve never known a healthy academic job
market or a time when the humanities wasn’t in a defensive crouch.
But as academic life deteriorates, public culture grows richer and
younger. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at The Los Angeles Review of
Books and a visiting instructor at Claremont McKenna College, argued
last year in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, that
the hiring crisis has weakened incentives to produce peer-reviewed
scholarship. Intellectual energy that in a previous era went toward
filling a CV and trying to land a tenure-track job is now, for a small
but influential clique, being channeled toward public debate. "The
reward structure of academic life has quite obviously broken down," the
n+1 co-editor Nikil Saval, who is 33 and has a Ph.D. in English from
Stanford University, told the crowd at the New York Institute for the
Humanities. "A lot of graduate students are like, … why should I
participate in this? And they write for the places they want to."
And they’re finding an audience, aided by social media and the low
barriers to entry afforded by the internet. Jacobin, for instance, a
radical anticapitalist magazine that began in a George Washington
University dorm room in 2010, now has 20,000 print subscribers, nearly a
million monthly visitors to its website, and more than 80 reading
groups, from Chicago to Calgary to Copenhagen. That’s a big following
for a little socialist magazine.
The new intellectuals are "the biggest rebuttal to Jacoby’s argument,"
says Corey Robin, a political theorist at Brooklyn College who was
himself deeply influenced by reading The Last Intellectuals in graduate
school in the ’90s. "The entire premise of Jacoby’s narrative is a story
of corruption: Intellectuals get absorbed into academe, corrupted, and
lose their edge," Robin says. "We’re now at the other end of that tunnel."
U ntil recently, David Marcus spent most of his days holed up in a small
cubby atop Butler Library at Columbia University as a graduate student
in American history. His dissertation is on American political theory in
the 1950s. He taught a seminar of "Contemporary Civilization," a
Columbia core great-books course. On a cloudy afternoon in March, his
desk is crowded with a stack of student papers in need of grades. But
his morning was spent working on the editorial essay for the next issue
of Dissent, which he edits with Michael Kazin, a professor of history at
Marcus, who is 32, joined Dissent in 2006, a "glum and morbid" time at
the magazine. For one thing, it was getting old. Founded in 1954 by
Irving Howe and a circle of writers that included Norman Mailer, Meyer
Schapiro, and Lewis Coser — "When intellectuals can do nothing else,
they start a magazine," Howe wrote at the time — the average age at
editorial meetings had long since been well north of 50. "I don’t think
people in the Dissent orbit anticipated there being another generation,"
Over the past decade, however, the democratic-socialist magazine has
undergone something of a generational reset. The masthead now includes
several younger writers and scholars, including Tim Barker, Tressie
McMillan Cottom, Sarah Leonard, Jedediah Purdy, and Nick Serpe. When
Dissent celebrated its 60th anniversary at a gala dinner in Manhattan,
The New York Times marveled at the "notable contingent of people in
their 20s" in attendance.
Dissent’s circulation has never topped 10,000 (today it stands at
roughly 5,000). Still, it’s always been a respected incubator of talent,
a place where young, left-leaning intellectuals could begin to make a
name for themselves. Among those writers were Keith Gessen, Mark Greif,
and Benjamin Kunkel; in 2004, along with Marco Roth, Chad Harbach, and
Allison Lorentzen, they founded n+1, arguably the most celebrated of the
newish crop of little magazines. Appearing the year after Partisan
Review, the flagship journal of the postwar intellectuals, ceased its
69-year run, n+1 offered a blend of high literary seriousness and
political aspiration that was greeted as a changing of the guard, a
"generational struggle against laziness and cynicism," as A.O. Scott
wrote in The New York Times Magazine. Bruce Robbins, "instantly smitten"
by n+1, organized an event for its editors at Columbia. To his surprise,
hundreds of people showed up. "The young people knew right away
something significant was happening," he says. Within six months, the
first issue of n+1 had sold out.
The influence of n+1 extends to the way it marketed and financed itself,
in part, by throwing parties. The first one took place at a school
gymnasium on the Lower East Side. "I walk in and there are like 800
people excited about this little magazine that was serious and direct
and unabashed about its elitism," recalls Jon Baskin. The basic business
model — a few committed people, not a lot of money (n+1 began with an
$8,000 investment from the founding editors) — seemed replicable. In
2009, Baskin, along with Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick, two fellow
graduate students at the Committee on Social Thought at the University
of Chicago, founded The Point, a journal of philosophy, culture, and
politics. (True to its University of Chicago roots, The Point is the
least left-wing of the new little magazines.)
“This is the generation that refuses the vocation of mere scholar.”
John Palattella, editor-at-large at The Nation and one of the
organizers of the event at the New York institute, sees the fusion of
intellectual commitment and entrepreneurial spirit as a trait unique to
this new crop of intellectuals. They start magazines but also book
imprints; they organize panels and are savvy marketers, promoters, and
utilizers of social media. No one personifies this phenomenon more than
Bhaskar Sunkara, the 26-year old founder of Jacobin, whom Vox recently
anointed "the best socialist capitalist you’ve ever seen."
"Jacobin has become the darling of the professoriate," says James
Livingston. "Bhaskar has recruited this younger generation of brilliant
thinkers and writers who won’t compromise on their politics, which is so
appealing in a world of splitting the difference." The magazine also
stands out for its colorful and sleek design (its first paid employee
was the creative director, Remeike Forbes). One glimpse at the cover and
it’s clear this isn’t your father’s intellectual quarterly.
The brash look evinces the distinct generational sensibility of younger
intellectuals, says Corey Robin. Its hallmarks are a lack of deference
to professional, scholarly, and intellectual expertise. "They’re
confrontational, argumentative, and don’t mind their manners," says
Robin, a contributing editor at Jacobin. "They’re not respectful in any
way — and that’s a good thing."
He contrasts this style with the polite and professional tenor of his
own generation. "When I went to graduate school, I was told that the
most important thing is to get a patron; it’s a feudal system, you need
a protector. But nobody believes their adviser can protect them anymore,
even at top programs. If in a feudal relationship the patron can’t
protect you, the whole relationship of obligation and deference really
Peter Frase enrolled at the City University of New York Graduate Center
with the goal of becoming a Marxist theorist. But he came to regard the
culture of academic Marxism as arcane and insular. "By the time I
started to draft journal articles and map out my dissertation, I became
frustrated by having to write articles no one else would read that had
to cite other articles no one else would read in order to satisfy peer
reviewers and engage in a process that seemed internally self-justified
to fill CVs and have an academic career but didn’t have much effect." He
found more satisfaction writing his blog, which reached readers around
One day he received an email from Sunkara. "I didn’t think Jacobin was
going to go anywhere," says Frase, who is 36, "but Bhaskar seemed like a
good kid." Frase contributed an essay about work ethic to the first
issue. "Love of work does not come easily to the proletariat," he wrote,
"and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for
the capitalist class." In Frase’s best-known essay, published in 2011,
he anticipated the end of capitalism and the emergence of new, more
equitable social arrangements. That article is the basis of Frase’s
first book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, just out from Jacobin’s
imprint at Verso. Seven years into his Ph.D. in sociology, Frase walked
"There is a lot of fear among young academics because they’re trying to
start careers and get jobs and so there can be a real reluctance to make
bold claims or to ruffle feathers, which is understandable," he says.
"Having a platform to make arguments outside of that context liberated
us from having to mind our manners."
While disappointment has long been the traditional disposition of
left-wing thinkers in America, the new intellectuals exhibit a measure
of hopefulness. "For the first sustained period in generations," begins
the editor’s note in a recent issue of n+1, "it’s an exciting time for
the American left." This optimism stretches back at least to September
17, 2011, when a group of activists set up an encampment in New York’s
Zuccotti Park. Similar protests soon spread across the country. The
little magazines coalesced around Occupy Wall Street, forming what they
called a "writers and artists affinity group," organizing conferences
and panel discussions and arguing about the aims of the burgeoning
movement. "Intellectually those few months were the best time of my
life," says Nikil Saval, the n+1 co-editor.
"For a long time, it seemed like there was no alternative to politics
as it existed," says Sarah Leonard, 28, a part-time faculty member at
New York University’s Gallatin School. "And so we kept on writing about
socialism and inequality because that was the right thing to do, not
because we thought our arguments were about to succeed. The optimism
that came from Occupy meant that lots of people had the same feelings as
us. Maybe we could succeed. Certainly these issues were live questions
and live ideas. It was a big emotional shift."
Leonard and Saval helped start a pop-up publication, Occupy!, an early
attempt to think through what was happening on the ground. The first
issue featured a message from the New Left elder statesman Mark Rudd, an
open letter to the police, firsthand accounts of protests in Atlanta,
Oakland, and Philadelphia, and an Occupy songbook (Woody Guthrie,
naturally, made the cut). Saval and his collaborators would transport
stacks of Occupy! to the encampment. "I remember going around with the
newspaper" — Saval adopts the voice of an early-20th-century New York
paperboy — "get your Occupy! gazettes here, free!"
Whatever optimism was born with Occupy has been reaffirmed by the rise
of Black Lives Matter and the surprising success of the Bernie Sanders
presidential campaign. "For perhaps the first time in Dissent’s 60-year
run," says David Marcus, "we are well positioned to the politics of the
moment." In the wake of Donald J. Trump’s election, that means a
politics of fierce opposition. “We have learned that the boundaries of
American politics are wider than any of us imagined. The danger is
greater, but so is the promise,” Timothy Shenk, a doctoral student in
history at Columbia University, writes on the Dissent website. “Our task
isn’t to cling to fragments of a shattered liberal order, gathering
shards before the barbarians arrive.”
Seth Ackerman, 38, a member of Jacobin’s editorial board and a doctoral
candidate in history at Cornell University, points to another lingering
effect of Occupy: a surge of interest in political economy. "Young
scholars whose previous work centered on Foucault or Barthes suddenly
want to write about derivatives or off-shore tax havens." He cites
historical precedent: "When you have a generation of intellectuals whose
class standing is jeopardized, it’s likely there will be some kind of
intellectual radicalization among young people."
That radicalization extends beyond the relatively remote archipelago of
little magazines. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center found that a
higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a more
favorable view of socialism than of capitalism, which may help explain
Sanders’s success in attracting young people to his presidential campaign.
The mood is captured in the introduction to The Future We Want: Radical
Ideas for the New Century (Metropolitan Books), a 2016 essay collection
and generational call to arms edited by Leonard and Sunkara. "We were
told that in the knowledge economy good jobs followed higher education;
there are few jobs, and we lock ourselves into miserable ones as quickly
as possible to feed the loan sharks," writes Leonard. "You don’t need a
college course to know when you’re getting screwed."
At least once a month for the past 30 years, a stranger asks Russell
Jacoby for advice. The advice-seeker is typically a grad student
desperate to become a public intellectual, to carry on in the tradition
of critic-essayists of old: Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright
Mills. The seeker wants affirmation from the author of The Last
"I never know what to say," Jacoby relates with a sigh. "I hate to
encourage them, because the economics are so daunting." He points out
that even a successful writer like Christopher Hitchens had to teach
part time at the New School. "Unless they have a rich partner or a rich
family, it’s going to be very tough to survive." He knows from
experience. Jacoby tried several stints as a freelance writer; none
proved sustainable. When The Last Intellectuals was published, he was an
unemployed 42-year-old journeyman academic and father of two who had
taught at seven universities in 12 years. For the past 20 years, he’s
had a position in the history department at the University of California
at Los Angeles on an annually renewed one-year contract. "I am what’s
called a professor in residence," Jacoby says. "Whatever that means."
Asked about the new crop of little magazines and the writers congregated
around them, he responds, "How do they manage?"
The answer: precariously. Employees at Jacobin — there are 10 — earn
salaries in the range of mid-$30,000s to low $40,000s. Saval takes no
salary as co-editor of n+1. He is the author of Cubed: The Secret
History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014) and writes about architecture
and design for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, among other places.
Frase makes most of his living as a statistical analyst. Ackerman, who
is in the 10th year of his Ph.D. program, recently stumbled into a side
career as the French economist Thomas Piketty’s English-language
translator. He hopes the gig will float him long enough to finish his
dissertation. David Marcus made no money as co-editor of Dissent and
survived on his Columbia grad-school stipend and occasional freelance
writing. "I’m 32 years old and making $30,000 a year," he said in March.
"At some point I’ll need to find another form of remuneration for my
work." In September he was named literary editor of The Nation.
The relationship between financial hardship and intellectual vibrancy is
difficult to untangle. Still, most people see one. "The disappearance of
academic jobs in the humanities undoubtedly has accelerated the
resurgence" of little magazines by "denying so many talented young
intellectuals a secure professional niche and forcing them to improvise
alternatives," says Jackson Lears, a Rutgers cultural historian and
editor of the quarterly journal Raritan. How sustainable are those
alternatives? Not very, says Thomas Frank, founding editor of The
Baffler. Culture workers are caught in a paradox: It’s never been easier
to get published, and it’s never been harder to make a living. "This is
the end of the road for nonacademic cultural criticism."
It's never been easier to get published, and it's never been harder to
make a living.
In the meantime, little magazines continue to make inroads. Alyssa
Battistoni, a 30-year-old graduate student in political science at Yale
and a member of Jacobin’s editorial board, even worries that the new
public intellectualism is creating onerous expectations of young
scholars: "You should do public scholarship and writing on top of
everything else, even though it probably won’t count for your job
application or tenure file and might get you in trouble somewhere in the
meantime." Even if you meet those demands and avoid a reputation for
being difficult, the stipends, teaching assistant gigs, and fellowships
eventually run out — and, odds are, the job prospects, too. And as
generations of intellectuals have discovered, the romance of the
struggle tends to wane as you draw nearer to your 40s. Then what?
Aaron Bady has thought hard about that question. A 37-year-old
specialist in contemporary African literature with a Ph.D. from the
University of California at Berkeley, he spent five years on the job
market, including two years as a postdoc at the University of Texas at
Austin. He was a finalist for three tenure-track positions but never
received an offer. "My generation is not in danger of mistaking the
university for a refuge," he wrote this year in Boston Review. "Instead
we know it as a vocation stripped of its profession, a devalued form of
labor that we must nevertheless struggle to do." Bady says he never made
a decision to leave the academy; one day the checks simply stopped
coming. He suddenly had no institutional affiliation and no promising
leads. He’d become an ex-academic.
In 2012, Bady fell in with the anarchic orbit of editors at The New
Inquiry, which had begun a few years earlier as a kind of salon for
critical-theory-soaked Brooklynites. It’s the brainchild of Mary
Borkowski, Jennifer Bernstein, and Rachel Rosenfelt, friends from
Barnard College who graduated into the teeth of the recession in 2009.
"We had nowhere to go to do intellectual work," says Rosenfelt, now
associate director of the New School’s master’s program in creative
publishing and critical journalism. "Graduate school was a dead end.
Publishing and journalism was a sinking ship." The result was a "surplus
population of intelligent, interesting, and interested young people,"
many of them women, many of them increasingly radicalized by student debt.
Bady’s work for the magazine is eclectic, covering popular culture,
higher education, Kenyan politics, Donald Trump’s penis, the legality of
strip searches — that in an essay memorably titled "We Cannot Afford to
Protect the Anuses of the Condemned" — and much else. "The emptiness of
the name The New Inquiry means it can potentially embrace almost
anything," he says.
Bady now lives in Oakland, trying to scratch together a living as a
writer. He and his partner, also a former grad student, want to start a
family and worry about being able to afford it. He thinks a lot about
whether grad school was worth it, and about the meaning of intellectual
work. "If eight years ago I told my mother I’m going to leave graduate
school and become a freelancer, her response would have been, You can’t
afford to take such a risk if there is a safer option. But the more it
seems like there is no safe option, the less attractive any sort of
Bady falls silent. "If I’m going to struggle, I need to make it
worthwhile," he finally says. "I need to pursue the work I find most
Evan R. Goldstein is editor of The Chronicle Review.
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