My colleague Jeff Lawrence has just published an essay in the Chronicle Review: Who Owns Your Academic Community? There are so many good points that I was having trouble choosing which to quote-tweet. But then I realized: I’m not tweeting. So instead of locating the most RT-able, like-able, fire-emoji-able sound-bite, I can just tell you to read the whole thing. Jeff shows that social media is a hopeless pis aller for intellectuals and the scholarly community. Two years of pandemic isolation has made it possible for the fetid outrage factories on Facebook and Twitter to appear in the guise of a righteously populist substitute for exclusionary “academe”—even to academics who should know better. But there is no salvation for intellectuals to be found in the ruins of the public sphere, least of all in the extremely limited possibilities of so-called “public scholarship.” Without scholarly institutions, there can be but few scholars.
I add as a footnote that the dynamic Jeff describes is recognized by Pierre Bourdieu as an established tendency in the cultural field. One of the characteristic positions in this field is that of “internal anti-intellectualism,” the practice of denouncing the values of intellectuals themselves as a mere disguise for self-aggrandizement. Some of the force of these denunciations comes from the fact that, of course, some intellectuals of high stature are indeed terrible people. And people who are marginalized within the intellectual field are, says Bourdieu, “well-placed to discover the contradictions, weaknesses or pettinesses which go unnoticed by a more distanced reverence….But the objectifications of the intellectual game inspired by these intellectual passions remain necessarily partial and blind to themselves: the resentment of disappointed love leads to a reversal of the dominant vision, demonizing what it once made divine.”1 Social media has proven even more effective at disseminating this distorting and demoralizing vision than the cultural journalism of print and broadcast mass-media (or as we now call them, “legacy media”) that Bourdieu had in mind. Jeff’s point is that social media has proven far less effective as a substitute for the kinds of interaction that allow intellectuals to organize collectively in defense of their own institutions and the integrity of their own values.
Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 280, 182. ↩︎