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14 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 5:33am

Where have all the intellectuals gone?

Who among today’s literary figures has any chance of being recognised as a thinker on par with a Dostoevsky or a Marx?

By Nick Burns

“Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Jordan Peterson, Peter Thiel, Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker, Tyler Cowen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Slavoj Žižek, Andrew Sullivan, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Peter Singer, Samantha Power.” This was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s attempt to list the most influential, if not the highest calibre, thinkers of the new millennium. 

A rather disappointing (and US-centric) list, and this was his point. Who among these figures had any chance of being recognised, centuries on, as a world-historical thinker on par with a Dostoevsky or a Marx?

According to Douthat, today’s intellectuals are nearly all journalists, either professionally or spiritually. True, many great writers throughout history wrote works of journalism. But Karl Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire” (1852) for example, an essay on Napoleon III’s coup d’etat in 1851, is the work of the intellectual as a journalist: what the current scene has to offer is so many journalists playing the part of the intellectual. Things have gone so far that it is no longer even common to hear talk about “the intellectuals” as a distinct group: only “the media” and “academia”.

In literature, the field is not much more fertile. Douthat declares Toni Morrison, who died in 2019, as the “last great American novelist”. The novel had proved itself peculiarly long-lived as other genres – say, poetry – declined, but it too has now reached the end of the line. Gone were the halcyon days of American writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Authors of stature still emerged, but mostly elsewhere – Elena Ferrante in Italy, Michel Houellebecq in France, and Karl Ove Knausgaard in Norway.  

What explains this cultural malaise in the Anglosphere? Douthat blames the exhausted radicalism of the 1960s; others might blame the peculiar doldrums of the post-1989 “end of history”. But what we lack most importantly is an avant-garde. Moments of great upheaval throughout history often produce small groups of insolent, insurgent intellectuals. These groups, often on the fringes of cultural life, mount frontal attacks on the literary establishment via short-lived “little” magazines. They defy easy categorisation on the great political questions of the day, often enraging or alienating all sides; sometimes they are not overtly political. 

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It is often from these productive intellectual cells, in times of political disturbance, that great literary talents are produced. Such was the tiny modernist scene in First World War-era Portugal from which sprung the great poet Fernando Pessoa. Or take a more recent example. One of the great literary lights of the “end of history” is the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, whose novel The Savage Detectives (1998) proved a runaway hit. The book is a love letter to the Mexico City underground during the 1970s, to the crackpot “visceral realists” who shoplifted from used bookshops and hated the literary establishment so much they wanted to kidnap the poet Octavio Paz.

Conditions today for an aesthetic revolt are promising – that is, they are materially unstable. If politics lacks the ideological stakes of the Cold War, there is still plenty of chaos and cultural contestation. A range of political positions, from rightist nationalism to left-wing democratic socialism, have become real possibilities, while fundamental questions of justice and the structure of society are up for debate.

But what do we have that resembles an avant-garde? Many progressive writers who deal with issues of race and gender fail to qualify as, far from serving to épater le bourgeois – to shock respectable middle-class opinion – they instead tailor their wares carefully to appeal to the tastes of this very group. Consider, for example, Robin DiAngelo’s anti-racist tract White Fragility. Not only has the book kept its place on the New York Times bestseller list for 134 successive weeks at last count, but its author wrings vast speaking fees from major universities and companies like Amazon.

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Neither do the other factions in the “culture war” make promising candidates for incubating a cultural insurgency. The centrist critics of “cancel culture”, such as the US writer Thomas Chatterton Williams or the political scientist Yascha Mounk, have assumed the role of counter-intellectuals, but they are far too respectable to merit being called a vanguard. The commitment of many writers on the right to the defence of traditional cultural attitudes makes them unlikely candidates to become enfants terribles. Despite constant insistence on the importance of high culture, few on the US right today show interest in contemporary literature – Douthat is a rare exception.

The transatlantic young socialist awakening that followed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders has now deflated without producing – as yet – many major literary talents. One exception is the novelist Sally Rooney, whose debate-kid Marxism is best understood as a purely aesthetic device meant to scandalise, and distinguish herself from, an older generation of Irish writers.  

One problem is that the journalistic mindset that dominates intellectual production from left to right is too narrowly political to lend itself to aesthetic rebellion. Douthat, for his part, makes more of an effort than most anyone else on the US centre-right to read literature, but most of his writing on cultural topics still takes the form of comment on the latest Hollywood superhero slop, chiefly employing a political lens.

The relentless demands of the “culture war”, pressing aesthetics into politico-cultural service, makes the matter more difficult. Or perhaps our problems are material and lie in our institutions. By corralling poets and novelists into the stultifying collegial conventions of the academy via Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programmes, American writing has institutionalised dullness and conformism. As the transatlantic publishing industry becomes ever more consolidated, the possibility for insurgent writers to reach an audience is gradually reduced.

But a few new publications present signs of hope: in London, The Fence has impressed with wry satire of leading literary and journalistic figures, while in New York, The Drift seeks to prove the mettle of a new generation of socialist-inclined journalists. Whatever form the new avant-garde takes, we should expect to be upset by it some of the time. That will prove it is doing its job. 

[See also: Why the battle between left and right protectionism will shape the post-Covid world]