We Are All Hopelessly Out Of Touch With Society, again

by zunguzungu

That academics, particularly in English departments, are Hopelessly Out Of Touch With Society is an incredibly common sentiment these days, it seems. William Deresiewicz wrote a piece in the Nation the other day that barely even needed to mention the fact; that sentiment was the unspoken basic premise that underpinned the entire piece, but it is so take-able for granted that he just took it for granted that you understood what was prompting his interest. I though the piece was pretty bad, for multiple reasons (and you can read over here or here should you be interested in how, or links to other takedowns of the piece). But that’s not what’s interesting to me right now.

I was reading Adolph Reed’s book on DuBois and Fabianism, and in order to talk about how DuBois constitutes his vocation as an intellectual, Reed has to first talk about the context in which what it meant to be an intellectual was changing in the late nineteenth century. Noting that DuBois was born and grew up in “the early years of the development of industrial capitalism as the dominant cultural force in the United States and much of Europe,” he makes the argument (or points to other scholars making it) that the rise of managerial capitalism what it meant to be an intellectual became more and more a function of what it meant to be a manager, a person who directs and commands precisely by virtue of being set apart from the common laborers. Just as the death knell of the artisan economy and the dominance of industrial rationalization and integration means that the laborer and manager structure of industry becomes more and more central to how society is conceptualized (this is what he means by “industrial capitalism as the dominant cultural force” in the US), so too does the intellectual understand himself or herself as less and less of a representative of society, and more and more of a manager of it, a social engineer whose job (exactly because the intellectual is separate from society) is to regulate and control society.

In such a context, in other words, being “Hopelessly Out Of Touch With Society” is a virtue. Precisely because someone like DuBois is out of touch with the black community in Philadelphia, for example, he could be commissioned to write the pioneering The Philadelphia Negro, a sociological treatise on the social problems of the black population of Philadelphia’s seventh ward. He could be trusted to take a scientific (and objective) approach to such problems precisely because his job wasn’t to represent the black community, or advocate for them, but to distance himself from them and, on that basis, re-engineer their society. Being out of touch, in other words, was the very precondition for being an intellectual.

So it makes me wonder. Is the fact that being Hopelessly Out Of Touch With Society is now a bad thing–so obviously a bad thing that Deresiewicz doesn’t even need to explain why it is–a function of how the basis of authority in our current form of capitalism has shifted? In this era of late industrial capitalism and post-fordism, etc, etc, so much depends on how people regulate themselves, and things like managers and social engineers are increasingly put aside in favor of self-regulating and unregulated systems. That’s what neo-liberalism is, right? In which case, trying to find new ways to be relevant seems like a pretty hopeless endeavor and we should have all gone to business school a long time ago (that and found rich parents from which to inherit from). But I guess we already knew that anyway, too. But no obvious solution as to how we can save the intellectual really presents itself, which may account for the banal incoherence of the Deresiewicz piece: dodo birds only survive in their own most irrational dreams.