A brief preface:
While I was mainly inspired to write this post by Sina Queyras – specifically Unleashed, and the blog lemonhound from which the collection is mined – this post is intended to work in tandem with my last post, “Public Expectations of the Intellectual.” So, if you haven’t read that, click here.
You don’t have to read these in order. Mainly, I intend these posts – and hopefully other future posts – to serve as a series centred on a set of connected issues surrounding public intellectuals.
In the last post, I mentioned we, as a public, set expectations on how we believe an intellectual should present their arguments, and in a way themselves, in terms of how we expect a certain level of conduct from those we deem intellectuals. Reconsidering the role the public plays, how is it we expect the intellectual to speak to us? We place a value on the manner of conduct an intellectual displays; don’t we also place value or authority on specific modes of discourse themselves? For instance, the public lecture, the book (fiction v. non-fiction; self-published v. professionally published; et cetera), the blog – all these methods through which the intellectual engages their public are assigned a different weight according to how we determine their value.
But why? If an intellectual engages in conversation with their public, what does the form matter? In an age when the general public are, sadly, becoming more resistant to print culture, it’s strange we continue placing a value on the literal form of writing. Why is a novel suddenly a novel because it’s printed and bound? Is there any true distinction remaining between physical and electronic book, other than the actual physicality of the object itself? If not, why, then, is there a willingness on the public’s part to give a physical book more authority than the eBook, or, in the case of Queyras, the blog?
Queyras’s Unleashed is a compilation of certain blog posts which appeared on lemonhound. This in itself is curious. It seems that, in part, Queyras is attempting to legitimise her intellectual property by transposing previous blog posts into book form; similar to how, in our Public Intellectuals in Canada course, we’ve worked on turning our own blog posts into slightly more formal or academic talks for our seminars.
However, this doesn’t necessarily give Queyras more legitimacy. It likely says more about her public than it does the quality of her intellect that people would value her work more simply by virtue of its exclusivity appearing in an actual book as opposed to a website. Some might call legitimacy into question even further by assigning less value to Queyras’s blog simply for the fact it appears on a free host site, blogspot.ca, instead of a paid-for .com domain. In turn, this implicates a socioeconomic dynamic in the way certain sections of the public place value on the source of intellectual work.
All this leads me to believe our society’s system of value in regards to where the work of intellectuals appears is not run on egalitarianism. It is rather a system that’s been – like most everything in postmodern society – perverted by capitalism. The intellectual is then transformed into a living commodity, where they treat their work itself as any other economic transaction. In an ideal world, it would function so that intellect/the intellectual’s work is equal to capital. In contrast, it appears more that there exists a gatekeeper at the gates of intellectualism, and the key just to gain the privilege of having one’s work taken seriously becomes capital.
All this amounts to a simple and damaging implication: those without money, no matter the quality of intellect, cannot be intellectuals, or, more crudely, anyone without capital isn’t deserving of attention. This exposes a hierarchy of class within the structures of public intellectualism. The Marxist in me worries capitalism hasn’t merely commodified intellectual property, it has literally shaped our judgement and the very process by which the public determines what is/is not intellectualism. It’s one thing to have to treat intellectual property on the same economic level as groceries or electricity. It’s an entirely more tragic thing to have thought and judgement itself manipulated by the economic structure of a capitalist system.
Of course this does not extend to every last member of the public. We all have the individual choice to assign intellectual authority to a blog post, should we see fit, or to place authority on perceived professional outlets such as the book. Although again, my Marxism is showing. I realise, despite many of us and our best intentions on judging intellectualism solely by the merit of an intellectual’s work, the whole of the capitalist system runs on power; not just money.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter that not every person comprising the public buys into this capitalist system of value we’ve allowed to creep into our considerations of intellectualism, so long as those wielding power at the top of the hierarchy – in this case, owners of the modes of production are the publishers, but really anybody with money or influence – decide to keep the system in place. The only thing we, the public can do, is intentionally subvert the traditional modes of considering intellectualism, and concentrate our placement of value on the merit of intellectual work rather than from where that work emerges.