Apr/May 2009

What Are Intellectuals Good For?

Wesley Yang


Early in his new book of essays and reviews, George Scialabba declares himself a “utopian” and a “radical democrat,” though he concedes, parenthetically, that he owns up to this identification “on fewer days of the week than formerly.” It is the most succinct statement Scialabba provides of the sensibility governing What Are Intellectuals Good For?, which collects the work of more than two decades spent addressing the broadest philosophical and historical issues in five thousand words or fewer in the back pages of newspapers and magazines.

Scialabba is acutely conscious that the utopian impulse, having been held responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, is often derided these days. Still, qualified embraces such as the one above are Scialabba’s stock-in-trade. He stakes out a position, for example, in reviewing Russell Jacoby’s polemic The End of Utopia that permits him to say “Hold it, not so fast” to Jacoby’s own professed utopianism: “There is a rational kernel within the shell of anti-utopian prejudice. . . . [W]e all want to see the plans. And there are no plans.” At the same time, Scialabba sounds an equally skeptical “Yes, but” to the Soviet historian Robert Conquest’s “unwillingness to play fair with the revolutionary and utopian impulses—to admit that they might have any sources except a lust for domination.” Scialabba’s criticism is closely calibrated within the narrow band between these two statements of principled dubiousness.

Indeed, even his affirmation of the importance of injudiciousness is a model of judiciousness. “A sense of the simultaneous urgency and futility of much social criticism—i.e., the tragic sense—is a necessary part of the critical temperament,” he observes. “To resist this sense is the critic’s everyday responsibility. To give in to it, to risk excess, loss of dignity, disconnection, may also, on occasion, be his duty.”

Scialabba writes with marvelous fluency and conversational ease and is a gifted expositor of the ideas of friend and foe alike. “To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponents; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problems that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing”—this is his account of disinterestedness as Matthew Arnold understood it, and surely a description of the author’s own outlook. This posture gives him considerable authority on the relatively infrequent occasions he lets fly against one or another false idol. Edward Said’s polemical manners in Culture and Imperialism, he writes, “are atrocious, sneering, overweening, ad hominem. Too often, he innocently misinterprets or not-so-innocently misrepresents other people’s arguments.”

Scialabba has heroes, a somewhat eccentric assortment, presented here as models of intellectual engagement— especially Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky, and Christopher Lasch, the subjects of the book’s dedication and all of whom, in some respects, he serves less well than he does the writers he admires less. The claims he makes on behalf of Rorty (“Rorty, though less original than Plato, is a better philosopher”) and Chomsky (Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is “the finest political essay of the last several decades”) are reckless. Lasch receives searching and detailed exposition, even though Scialabba predicts he will remain “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Reading straight though this volume leaves one with an appreciation for Scialabba’s many gifts—particularly his rare combination of intellectual depth and reach with readability. He inhabits his role comfortably, without histrionics or nostalgia and with an untroubled resignation toward the contemporary intellectual’s diminished standing in a cultural world now dominated by specialized knowledge and professional guilds. He manages, nonetheless, to provide a personal guide through the controversies of the age. There is much to admire about this modesty.

Advertisement