Is the Internet the Final Bohemia? (OA Version)

photo_74171_portrait_217x325This open access version of my essay is reposted from a roundtable on Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 29 2015.

In 1987, I was in graduate school at New York University, living among the “milk-toast professors” who, in Jacoby’s words, “turned purple” with rage at his book’s arguments. When they turned purple, like all good graduate students, I did, too.

However, I was also already a feminist. This put me in another kind of tension with a book that mentioned a few women but failed to recognize anything that had happened in feminism after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. More important, the first missiles of the culture wars were beginning to whiz over university walls by 1987, and we feminists were in the cross hairs. That same year, Allan Bloom wrote that feminism had “triumphed over the family as it was once known,” something that did not bode “well for the family as an institution.” Three years after that, Roger Kimball classified academic feminism as “in collusion” with a “cult of theory” being promoted by tenured radicals.

Almost 30 years after Russell Jacoby wrote his influential book, he and three other essayists look back at the status of public intellectuals in a new academic climate. View the essays.

Yet Jacoby misses something beyond feminism’s recent history — he misses the intellectual ferment of queer New York. Graduate students, artists, and workers were still flocking to the East Village in the 1980s for its bargain-basement rents, cheap ethnic food, and performance spaces carved out of abandoned buildings. Recognizing ourselves not as the gentrifiers we were, but as the queer and feminist descendants of Malcolm Cowley, Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, and Shulamith Firestone, East Villagers like me presumed, as Jacoby correctly notes, that our intellectual lives would be supported by universities, and that we would make universities different. We wrote for zines and community newspapers and we also wrote dissertations; we aspired to write big popular books and we submitted seminar papers to The Radical History Review, The Journal of Social History, and Feminist Studies for double-blind review. What I resented most about Jacoby’s schema back then was its diagnosis that “university intellectual” was a contradiction in terms.
The Cold War expansion of the universities, as well as the centrality of the humanities to the Cold War project, altered expectations about what public-intellectual work was for. Suturing the university to the future of intellectual life has had unforeseen consequences that are far more obvious a half-century later. The thousands of precariously employed contingent academics who neither function as public intellectuals nor support themselves adequately by teaching are one good argument against allowing universities to govern intellectual life. A second is the emergence of soul-killing routines of faculty governance and the gatekeeping rituals that fill the lives of well employed faculty members, time that might otherwise be devoted to public writing, talking, blogging, even Facebooking.

Yet social media and the Internet point us to the continuing possibilities of public-intellectual work. What Jacoby touched on, but failed to develop, is the historic importance of networks and networked knowledge in sustaining intellectual life. This is vital for those of us who, perhaps in addition to our more traditional scholarship, write and publish electronically. Media networks, Katie King has argued in Networked Reenactments (2012), had become central to intellectual work and knowledge creation by the 1990s. However, the cafes, little magazines, friendships, and bohemian social life that, as Jacoby notes, marked the first half of the 20th century were important networks as well.

What Jacoby dubs the mid-century “Hofstadter compromise” illustrates how the cultural geography of New York, functioning as a network, promoted one historian’s career. A historian still regarded by many as a defining public intellectual and leading scholar, Richard Hofstadter spent a lifetime establishing his brand, as my students would say. In his early career, he was reported to have seen the Partisan Review set as so crucial to his success that he sank into a deep and inconsolable depression every time an issue was published without his byline. He apparently attempted to secure his place in Ivy League circles through anti-Semitic humor, and obscured his presence in other networks (for example, Communist Party circles and the Popular Front) when they threatened to drag him down professionally.

If identifying with the university secured Hofstadter’s legacy, later generations would find higher education an increasingly closed culture. Not tenured radicals at all, Jacoby argues, Ph.D.s leave behind the Technicolor world of public ideas for careers sponsored by Benjamin Moore paints, exchanging the world of ideas for salaries, health care, and job security. What he misses is that by the 1970s, new networks had emerged to challenge university complacency: women’s studies, African-American studies, ethnic studies, lesbian and gay studies. Roger Kimball is correct that these activist scholars promoted “a kind of blueprint for special interests that want to appropriate the curriculum in order to achieve political goals.” In many ways they still do, but by 1990 they, too, were ingrained into the academy as the price of admission to intellectual work.

However, the taming of one network seems to promote the emergence of new ones. By the 1990s, networked computing promised to liberate intellectuals from physical space and even from publishers. Did the Internet spark the emergence of a social-media bohemia, one that aspired to even greater inclusiveness and freedom than the intellectual movements that Jacoby documents? Do these networks degrade intellectual life by their resistance to gatekeeping, or did the new freedoms — represented by what Finn Brunton, a media scholar at NYU and author of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (2015), calls the “utopia of loving-kindness and cybernetic anarchism” — reimagine bohemia by offering a virtual space for intellectual exchange and innovative knowledge production?

Like Jacoby’s bohemian cafes, the Internet is a politically anarchic space. There, people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have emerged as organic intellectuals who theorize critical questions about power, human agency, and ethics. Along with Internet collectives like Anonymous, they are fighting for a new bohemia that promotes a radical vision free of institutional constraints. If success inevitably renders physical bohemias fragile, the networked virtual bohemia operates in reverse. As it gets cheaper and more ubiquitous, the space available to the knowledge workers of the Internet expands, and the networks through which they exchange and realize ideas become less regulated.

Internet bohemians need neither neighborhoods nor universities. They work from anywhere they can. Indeed, it is in Internet bohemia where we can listen to and document the emergence of a new generation of “surplus intellectuals” (Jacoby’s words) — the many Ph.D.s functioning as academic pieceworkers, not unlike late-19th-century glove turners on the Lower East Side who picked up packages of goods to finish at home for pennies an hour.

On the Internet, the precariously employed make common cause with one another in their opposition to the bourgeois formations that are the neoliberal university, the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association. Bohemias and surplus intellectuals organizing in opposition to an intellectual establishment are, in Jacoby’s formula, codependent variables in the emergence of a recognizable generation of innovative knowledge workers. If “the human material is not available,” he writes, or if surplus intellectuals are Hoovered up into universities, then bohemias cannot sustain themselves; and when bohemias succumb to blight, development, chain stores, or their own popularity, intellectuals fail to cohere as a generation. They “do not disappear, but disperse; they spread out across the country.”

But do these networks dissolve, leaving nothing behind? This is the history of electronic intellectual networks that we are only beginning to write. The good news is that Internet bohemia is, by definition, dispersed. The bad news is that successful Internet bohemians also sell out: Think Nate Silver; think The Daily Kos. Think Tenured Radical. Write a successful blog and you, too, can end up selling ads for the University of Phoenix or pretty furniture made in Scandinavia. The expansion of spaces designed to promote intellectuals can lead to their undoing. As Jacoby notes, the expansion of universities in the 1960s, with their pernicious salaries, health benefits, quiet campuses, and lifetime-guaranteed employment, had a particularly corrosive role to play when intellectuals ceased selling ideas and sold the idea of themselves instead. The Internet is not immune to this.

Yet flexible, voluntary networks in virtual space offer other political and intellectual possibilities, and we should imagine them before it is too late. Jacoby has said that even though he was wrong about a few things, he was right about most things. I’m glad he did. We may disagree about the importance of intellectual movements anchored principally by women, people of color, and queers, but we don’t disagree about how quickly these movements have been sucked into the academy — the barbarians at the gates becoming gatekeepers in turn. Internet bohemia, with its disdain for credentialing, and its networks that form, dissolve and form again according to new needs and desires, could, in fact, be different.

Claire Bond Potter is a professor of history and director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School. From 2007 to 2015, she wrote the academic blog Tenured Radical.

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