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20 October 2022

The rise of the “substackademic”

Public intellectuals of the kind embodied by Bruno Latour are disappearing.

By Chris Bickerton

It was late in the afternoon, towards the end of February. Paris was mired in a protracted cold spell and the city was already consumed by a chilling darkness. My tiny office at the Institute of Political Science (Sciences Po), which gave onto the Rue des Saints Pères and the austere façade of the Faculty of Medicine opposite, was still full of cardboard boxes stuffed with books. I had only arrived at the start of the year and shelves had not yet been built. After a curt knock and not much of a pause, a tall and slightly hunched man entered, wearing what looked like a tweed cloak. Though I recognised him as my new university’s research director, I did not know a great deal more about him. He sat in the only available chair and asked me what I was working on. For the next half an hour, my visitor questioned me on my research, probing the various arguments, gently raising some objections. Perhaps because his interest was clearly not in the finer points of European integration, the subject of my research, the conversation left me with a feeling of having drawn out something deeper from my own work. At the end of it, my visitor shook my hand, welcomed me to Paris, and left my office, all without removing his cloak.

My visitor was Bruno Latour. Latour’s death on 9 October has prompted a flurry of acknowledgements of his towering status as philosopher, thinker, guru and public intellectual. Reading some of the tributes and thinking back to Latour’s unprompted visit to my office just over a decade ago, I cannot help wondering whether his death also signals the passing of a certain kind of thinker and public figure. The end, if you like, of the long tradition of the intellectuel. If this is the case, what – if anyone – is taking their place?

Ironically, as the willingness to broach big questions and overcome narrow disciplinary boundaries is one of the founding traits of the public intellectual, this question has become the subject of a mini-industry within the academy. Specialists and experts hold forth on the very question of the demise of the public intellectual. Some bemoan the use of the term, believing that it reeks of elitism and snobbery. Others use it as the basis for a nostalgic look backwards at a golden age of late 19th- and 20th-century thought and contrast that time with the apparent superficiality and emptiness of our own. Whatever we think of the term public intellectual, it is a useful starting point for reflecting on how ideas are produced in the second decade of the 21st century.

A public intellectual is associated with building a distinctive body of thought, a system of some kind, an intellectual framework with its own categories and declinations. They are public figures by the sheer quality of their intellect and by their willingness to step outside of the academy and engage in public debates. Think of Edward Said and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Michel Foucault’s writings on the Iranian revolution, or Martha Nussbaum’s work on animal rights. There may be something of the polymath to some of these individuals but most often their contribution is distinguished by a relentless pursuit of one idea or intellectual vision, such as Latour’s inquiry into the social construction of scientific investigation or Wolfgang Streeck’s work on the internal contradictions of contemporary capitalism. There may even be a curiously reclusive aspect to public intellectuals: working out the full implications of a certain system of thought requires extended periods of withdrawal from public life. Knowledge, after all, is hard to come by without the private activity of reading, writing and engaging with the ideas and claims of others.

A distinguishing feature of the public intellectual is their disregard for the boundaries between at least three domains of social life – scholarship, media and politics. The ability to make contributions that resonated across all three is an expression of the power of their ideas but also their active place within each domain. Roy Jenkins, while serving as president of the European Commission, would spend his mornings writing. Heads of state that visited him were often keener to speak about his biographies of Asquith or Gladstone than about new European Economic Community legislation. Though one never quite knows, it is difficult to imagine Ursula von der Leyen, the current president, or Charles Michel, president of the European Council, blocking out large chunks of their diaries to make time for an unfinished novel. As the critic and historian Stefan Collini observed, British public culture downplays the role of the intellectual but the integration of these three domains has also been a feature of British life, from AJP Taylor to CP Snow. In the United States Albert Hirschman, who made significant contributions to philosophy, economics and politics, was for decades a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. But his career also included working for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington and years spent in Bogota, advising the Colombian government on economic development. Pablo Neruda, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, was Chile’s ambassador to France.

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[See also: Bruno Latour and the philosophy of life]

A final element is that of the public. This term is usually misunderstood, treated as a qualifying adjective that refers to the celebrity status of certain thinkers or to their presence on television platforms. The public intellectual is not someone who courts publicity. Public intellectual refers to a particular relationship between a body of ideas and the public, between a thinker and their audience. As the US political theorist Corey Robin has noted, one of the vocations of public intellectuals is to create a public that does not already exist. They do this by providing a framework and a language for people’s experiences. This lifts such experience, anchored in daily life, and transforms it into something potentially universal. One of the reasons for Latour’s popularity in the latter part of his career was that he provided a language for all those trying to understand the relationship between humanity and nature in the context of climate change.

Why is there a recurring sense that the age of the public intellectual has passed? One reason is that it has become virtually impossible to integrate the spheres of scholarship, media and politics today in the way that it was before. All three spheres have been subject to intense pressures of specialisation and professionalisation, as have most domains of social life. Though Boris Johnson has attempted to recreate the Churchillian writer-politician model, what is most noteworthy in his case is the payment of a sizeable advance for a book that has not materialised. The professionalisation of politics has reinforced the border between the political and academic world: each has its own career path, social network and requisite skills.

There are also specific reasons why public intellectuals are less likely to appear from within the academy. After all, the ability to span all three domains was always relatively rare and not all public intellectuals did so. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a Democratic senator for New York for more than two decades, recipient of an academic award for his contribution to political science, a diplomat and a regular contributor to Commentary, Public Interest and other leading magazines. Many public intellectuals have not achieved such a feat yet their influence has been just as great. We associate public intellectuals above all with their intellectual legacy and its impact upon public attitudes, in the way historians such as Eric Hobsbawm have shaped the way we have thought about the modern era. Today, there are many reasons why the academy is no longer functioning as an incubator for thinkers such as these. The academic transmission belt is broken.

Reforms in recent decades have ravaged the academic world. Sub-fields are divided up into sub-sub-fields, each with their own codes and rules. Academic contributions are narrow and specific, not synthetic or ambitious. The importance of the number of publications in career advancement encourages specialisation while discouraging movement across different fields of research. Research funding (and the much-coveted overheads) has become key to the basic economic survival of a vast majority of universities, tying academic work to the goals of funding councils, which are themselves a compound of crude political priorities and narrow disciplinary self-interest.

At the same time, the quality of working environments has become so poor that it is difficult to take ideas very seriously at a day-to-day level. In countries where a monolithic public higher education system still exists, it is on the brink of collapse. There are few jobs and an unrelenting rise in temporary contracts. In France lecturers fight tooth and nail to be reimbursed for travel costs incurred while teaching. In Italy a stable academic job is rarely attainable until one is well into middle age. The most productive intellectual years are lost to administering to the whims of the professorial barons. Where academic environments are fully marketised and where students pay high fees, a dual system operates: where there is money, there is some freedom to research and think; where there is not, there is almost no freedom at all.

The academy is now producing academic entrepreneurs, or “substackademics” as the historian Robert Priest has put it. Academic entrepreneurs often aspire to do exactly what public intellectuals have done in the past. They make use of the new tools available to advance debate and understanding. Many are refugees from the social crisis in the academy; some of the very best minds of the present have embraced the relative freedom that being an academic entrepreneur can bring. But it is a cut throat world. It requires continual self-promotion, using all means possible. This includes a recent proclivity for the use of Substack – a platform that allows its authors to monetise content and easily engage with its users. While this gives an impression of overcoming the boundaries of the three social domains listed above, this is only a product of sheer activity, of presence, of occupying multiple spaces. A successful academic entrepreneur must make themselves their primary focus. In an odd way, the academic entrepreneur is the realisation of Foucault’s call for a “cultivation of the self”. The constant curation of one’s status as a source of insights is the route to success.

Many academic entrepreneurs, such as Yuval Harari, appear not to have any institutional affiliation whatsoever: they have their own websites and their own brand. There may be an economic imperative at work here and the academic entrepreneur is occasionally able to raise considerable sums through book advances or by giving talks to financial and corporate circles. But most academic entrepreneurialism is neither lucrative nor glamorous. A few hundred dollars at best for a prominently placed book review that took three days to write. Two or three minutes on prime time television, unremunerated, but the studio may cover the taxi fee. Lugging one’s book from one festival to another in the manner of a salesman hawking his wares on the doorstep.

Another problem is the public. To whom do academic entrepreneurs address themselves exactly? Instead of creating a new public through the elaboration of a distinctive body of thought, academic entrepreneurs more often than not address each other and a small quasi-public drawn from a narrow social elite, such as those who will pay for the insights the academic entrepreneur provides. The “substackademic” will struggle to go beyond a relatively closed conversation with like-minded individuals, one where the conversation itself is driven by the search for Likes and Up-votes.

The final and perhaps greatest danger is that by breaking free from the academy, the academic entrepreneur is exposed to all the vagaries of corporate and political power. Political and social elites are the core audience for the academic entrepreneur, making them dependent upon their interest and goodwill. Speaking truth to power when one is entirely dependent upon its munificence is a perilous enterprise. Annie Ernaux, who won the Nobel Prize for literature this year, was always clear about why she kept her job as a teacher: the financial security it provided meant she could write what she wanted and not what she thought might sell well. This should be a sobering lesson for those whose intellectual contributions are firmly wedded to and dependent upon support from governments and states. This problem is particularly acute for European intellectuals devoted to articulating a European project – constitutionalist in the 2000s, geopolitical today – funded and supported by European governments and a plethora of Brussels-based institutions. 

Latour’s origins in a prominent and wealthy wine merchant family, coming from Beaune at the heart of the Burgundy region, gave him the social and cultural capital, and the means, to insulate himself from many of these developments. Latour spent much of his career at the École des Mines, which for 20 years provided him with the space to develop his ideas. There is also an important gendered dimension to this story. Past generations of public intellectuals were often men for whom the possibility to devote themselves to their intellectual project was a function of everything else in their life – managing a home, raising a family – being undertaken by their female spouses. Change in this respect is unquestionably positive but it coincides with a degradation in working conditions in universities, which affect both men and women.

Where are ideas produced today? It would be quite wrong to suggest that the academy is devoid of ideas – of course not. But there is resistance to the exploration of big ideas. As the Harvard professor Peter Hall once remarked, research in the social sciences is dominated by lots of little dots; what is missing are the threads to bring these dots together. Many of today’s thinkers are not from within the academy at all. They are professional writers, or occasionally journalists who have risen above the cut and thrust of chasing news to devote themselves to writing.

Of the disappearance of the public intellectual, the rise of the academic entrepreneur is only one part of the story. But it is a significant part. It signals an uncoupling of the development of an intellectual project and the creation of a public for those ideas, a divorce between theory and practice. The result is rigorous esotericism on the one hand, and a vigorous but superficial circulation of ideas on the other. Under these conditions, it is not clear how the idea of the public intellectual can survive.

[See also: “Justice cannot be the lodestar of a new society”]

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