Today's date:
Spring 2001

The Terminal Intellectual

Régis Debray
, one of France's most renowned "public intellectuals," was a top aide to François Mitterrand and is recalled famously as a pal of Che Guevara. This article was translated from the French by Eric Rauth.

Paris - The term "intellectual" dates back to the Dreyfus affair of 1898. In French until that time the term had been used as an adjective-except for Saint Simon's venturing it as a noun in his writings as early as 1822. Spawned by the encounter between rotary press and railroad, this creature was typically Parisian and a few years the Eiffel Tower's senior. Now, a hundred years later, this mediating figure is reaching the end of his career.

The prototype intellectual, say, Emile Zola, saw his reputation well established in public lectures at the university or in a series of great opuses in the library. This figure by the year 2000 has turned into the terminal-phase intellectual who is now photogenic and telegenic. One can think more serenely about this development by translating "the grandeur and decline of the intellectual" into "the rise and fall of a technological system."

The technological conditions under which ideas are circulated have changed, and changed the intellectual, over the century. It was already toward the beginning of the 1970's that the "videosphere" promoted to the first rank those professionals of image and spin, notably through committees organized with the purpose of lending support to candidates running for the presidency of the Republic, who emerged as more popular and legitimate mediatic figures than the professionals of the book. The "new intellectuals" that young filmmakers, old crooners and actors in their mature years became known as thus stole the limelight from the heroes of the former "graphosphere" based in print.

It was toward the end of the thirty Glorious Years period (1945-1975) that Europe witnessed the sudden emergence of a supermarketization of the intellectuals' stock-in-trade, that is, culture's open adoption of promotion and marketing methods. This was a time when the serious weekly publications of culture and politics became slick news magazines. The university system expanded its enrollments and exploded from the new pressures. The Humanities (Latin, Greek, languages, history) were increasingly marginalized. And the printed book slowly came in for demotion by the other vectors of mass dissemination (newspapers, radio, television, photography, films). Audiences were expanded and distribution and reception hastened.

For the new best-sellerdom and consumer surveys and tracking in the world of ideas the sky was the limit. The literati's hitherto autonomous walks of life were now hitched to the expectations of a mass public of cultural consumers.

DEFINING THE INTELLECTUAL | How to define the classification designated "intellectual"? It has nebulous edges, granted, yet recognizable identity. Let us call a professional intellectual the person who has an effect on other people through symbols (images, words, sounds) rather than through coercion or constraint. His or her symbolic action is exerted outside or beyond the traditional institutional precincts and enclaves-education, parliament and the honorific academies. And access to the means of mass diffusion of ideas and images distinguishes in this case "low" intelligentsia from "high" intelligentsia.

Let us draw a contrast using an old opposition of functions from European history. Starting in the period considered to be a first cultural renaissance during the later Middle Ages, the so-called "secular" clergy which taught in the cities had a separate role from the "regular" orders of monks whose observances were practiced in the countryside or monastery.

The man who spoke to his fellow man diverged from the man who spoke with God. The intellectual is a descendant of the first. The intellectual is set off from the writer or artist insofar as his main role or raison d'être is to influence opinion in his own times. This project of influencing people is what sets him apart from the thinker or philosopher (someone who seeks self-governance through reason) and from the scientist (someone who seeks the truth in material things).

During the Enlightenment the figures whom the twentieth century would re-christen "intellectuals" were known as philosophes and men of letters. At that time they filled a vacant space that corresponded to the hitherto non-representation of the "people." (The established intermediary authorities of public opinion such as the parliaments had faltered in making such representation their serious business). These intellectual mouthpieces turned to their advantage the widened circulation of printed text. Making Reason popular in Enlightenment parlance meant making literacy available to the greatest numbers of people, founding schools and education projects, distributing printed books.
Thus were the passageways and bridges between Knowledge (or Science) and Opinion, between great minds and humbler folk, constructed. Whether a die-hard defender of Republicanism or a variety of Socialist, the dreyfusard of 1900 took up lecturing in public university forums or rose to the directorship of popular print organs.

AGIT-PROP | But then the monochromatic austerity of Industrial Age gazettes gave way to the splashier color formats of the postindustrial illustrated magazine. In its aftermath the intermittent contributor of journalistic pieces has become a professional of the mediatic agit-prop. It is what the earlier logic dictates. If the French intellectual's primary mission was to strike fecundatory sparks to, in Victor Hugo's words, "throw an inexhaustible supply of truths about by the handful," his second and corollary duty was a "savoir-faire" of faire savoir-of symbolic mediation's logistic effects on knowledge and belief. So the French intellectual was an inveterate publicist, publication his fated career. His blossoming over time into super-journalist of the journalistic supermarket only fulfilled the norm.

LOGOS TO PATHOS | From the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, "publicity's" content has changed. The new electronic agora no longer adopts the pace of logos (reason) but of pathos. It runs not on discursive argument but on arresting images. The intellectual of influence is thus transformed into a trader in emotions and the rewarding finer sentiments.

"Simple things are false things. And what is not simple is unusable," Paul Valéry observed. And the medias' medium of the image leans more toward simplification than does the printed word. The vectors of "broadcast" influence are discordant with yet blurred into the values of rationality.

Our regimen and regime of news, online information, promotion, publicity and polling remake life and the world such that the public enlightener who cleaves to some modicum of social utility must make things simple, ever shorter. He must eliminate nuance and complexity from his treatments of issues.

To fill in the patient's charts for our Terminal Intellectual as a pervasive type of the times, mention must be made of five key traits proper to the collective mentality he embodies. (The mentality is local to his particular historico-technological circumstances but its fallout can be measured on the larger scale of the global village.) These traits are: collective autism, bombast of presentation to the point of unreality, moral narcissism, a chronic lack of sober foresight, and total immersion in instantaneousness. Call this, if you will, a kind of "folkloric" symptomology updated to a new techno-industrial setting of fast food, fast thinking, and instant gratification-a society without delay.

Instantanism reflects the promotion of the immediate, the apotheosis of the microsecond, nowness and hotness of the newest arrival in a society based on capital flows, mutabilities and metamorphoses rather than on constancy and stability of durable goods and services. Note that what used to be published in periodic reviews in France fifty years ago now appears in French daily newspapers. Weeklies replace monthlies; and our swollen monthly magazines now become virtual books.
One consequence is that the controversies over certain issues and ideas which, before, were stretched out over one or two entire years-as books came out in response to earlier books-have now yielded to the polemics of the week, during which articles respond to articles. People move from place to place today in ever greater numbers, and circulation ostensibly helps dispel centrism. But now we are actuo-centric, which is simply a new form of egotism centered on matters or urgency and immediate attention (rather than an egotism of identification with one's original home or place of residency). If we are truly to keep pace with our own age we are called upon to react with immediate ninety-degree turnabouts to anything capable of becoming hot news or making a sensation. A specifically literary symptom of this acceleration and removal of delay exists in the form of the intimate journalistic account in real time. One now publishes in January one's encounters and ideas from December.

WAR OF SYMBOLS | With the case of Chateaubriand the historian Pierre Nora sees a first incarnation of the intellectual in the contemporary sense, the deliberate fuser of literature and politics. Nora's observation is highly elucidating, namely that the intellectual in nineteenth-century France came into his own as an active social principle proportionately to the declining role of the aristocracy. "[It was] as if the intellectual world," he writes, "took over from the aristocratic world." Do the opinion society's equivalents to men of gentle birth wage war just like nobles under feudalism? The equation is false. We give battle through the proxy of petitions and manifestos. We regroup outside the city to stage ambushes. But it is a skirmish of tastes and ideas, the only authorized kind nowadays. The war of minds and symbols leaves fewer dead than the other, but recourse to it is explicable simply because the other kind is off-limits. You've got to use what's available.

Within the new "democracy of opinion-making"-and it is one that proves an exception to the very rules of democracy comprised of transparency, election, and careful counting of ballots-aristocrats of the information networks do not "gather" news but leap on something already bouncing around. Commentary comes off better than inquiry. The privilege to engage in it is maximal, the real service it involves minimal. Such symbolic retribution affords dwindling practical contribution. Here, then, is where the democratic "nobility" that made up the intelligentsia of dreyfusards has passed over to the aristocracy of so-called information societies.
Unfortunately for the super-politicized intellectual, it is no longer wars of ideas that transform our world, "change life." But rather wars of norms, standards, credentials and specialized bailiwicks. And here the heir apparent of Voltaire and Zola becomes irrelevant. Worldwide economic neo-liberal homogenization certainly deserves to be fought against. But the person who does not go back to his own basis in technologies risks making statements in a void or giving in to wishful thinking.

Our liberal-democratic aristocracy finds itself facing a world for which its historical baggage-manicheanism, moralism, and a more juridical bent-has not prepared it. Within the old politico-ideological sphere there was no need for highly specialized expertise. But in these new climes the singularity of the age has shifted toward the cognitive and technical. The gentleman rhetorician indeed cares little for the hold and influence that technologies and new areas of scientific knowledge have over us-having no more regard than he has for the new physical materials. As he recycles in the twenty-first century the hit parade from 1920 he does not so much discover afresh as reconfigure or rearrange. Fixated on what is up and coming (and on pointing out what others fail to see on the way) he has no eye for what goes on, like the bomb, the pill, television, the automobile, the silicon chip, superjumbo jets, the portable, reactors, patenting the genome, telecommunications, copy machines. Nothing in this list falls under one or the other polarities in the pairs "Good/Evil," "Progressive/Conservative," "liberal/authoritarian."

These templates are no longer functional, with the result that intelligence about our world resides no longer with generalist intellectuals. The work of thought now takes place upstream in laboratories, firms and agencies and not downstream in rhetoric.

ISMIA vs. ICSIA | The original intellectual of 1900 foresaw his century with its outsized wars of myths and ideas, its political Internationales, the promotion of the masses into the subjects of History. There are reasons to be apprehensive that the twenty-first century's terminal intellectual might turn his back on the future, tending only to his weekly pot-stirrings of -isms (socialism and anti-socialism, independent nationalism versus larger alliances and unions, liberal-democracy and its antitheses) in a world where the -ics call the shots (informatics, robotics, optics, bioethics). Ismia's advantage over -Icsia is that its customs allow writers and commentators to say anything with total impunity. In -Icsia this can cost you more dearly. Our ideological -isms are no longer at the heart of the system of mediation so essential to our societies to confront scientific, technical or industrial evolutions which change the face of the world and the lives of human beings. The question on which the century's outcome could depend may well be "Can there or can there not be a politics of technology?" It would be unwise to expect from the intellectuals of repute some element of a real answer.

But as to the plane of ethics and social morality? Would it perhaps be more apropos to forget about intellectuals in order to better behave as an intellectual? This is a modality of civic action not reserved to some self-appointed role of official responsibility for Truth and Justice. It is known to happen for example that an army general behaves as an intellectual when, say, he speaks out against torture during the Algerian war. When a Christian acts rebelliously toward his church, a Jew towards the Israeli government, or a Palestinian toward the Palestinian Authority, or similarly a small farmer against the large rural cooperative, they too behave as intellectuals in the best sense of the word which is lost amid our current local intelligentsia.

There are no intellectuals "appointed for life," a concept too convenient and untenable. In the same way there are no title holders of the distinction "hero"; there are only individual heroic acts. To perform an intellectual act means breaking one's membership in, subscription to, the environment in which one lives and taking issue with one's own society or government, with those for whom one is responsible. One cannot take issue in any kind of meaningful way with distant enemies against whom the official propaganda already makes it its business to drum up anger and on whom the effects of taking such issue are negligible anyway.

A DIGITAL INTELLECTUAL | Will tomorrow see the digital intellectual? Just as once upon a time we saw a typographical intellectual and, over the last thirty years, an audio-visual one? How to picture him? He will no doubt be better equipped informationally than his predecessors, more hyper-specialized, less dependent on immediate reception, freer toward opinion. Less of the "I" and the author's aura, more specific. But perhaps also more segmented and less "public," less a citizen, attached to a community of birth or interests, with a diminished ambition to be universal. Digitized communication risks presenting us with a fragmented and patchy world, even parochial, statistical and egotistical all at once, exchanging the common welfare for collective constituencies or interest-groups of the like-minded. Such communication already directs a steady assault at the viewing-listening e-public through channels of thematic, regional, confessional and ethnic content.

The peril presented by the electronic village, therefore, would be a ceding of the common horizons of sense itself to the sects and of political choice to politicians. This would in effect mean a fatal professionalization of the very meaning of life. One only destroys what one supplants.

Erasing a certain generalizing mind-set in favor of a brood of sub-specialties could come at a steep price. In such a case one would still have need of French intellectuals in the earlier sense of the term if it is indeed true that the genius of the French resides in lively essayism, elegant vulgarization and general explanation, in producing intellectuals faithful not to emotion and the latest news, but to the Enlightenment slogan, "To render Reason popular."

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