Overweening Generalist

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Notes on the "Free-Floating" Intellectual

Drawing from and greatly fleshing out Alfred Weber's concept of a freischwebende Intelligenz, or "the socially unattached intelligentsia," Karl Mannheim in his Ideology and Utopia, the Ur-text in the sociology of knowledge (pub in German in 1929, translated into English in 1936), argued that all ideas in the political, economic and cultural fields were rooted in class interests and social and economic circumstances of the thinker. No one from any strata had a complete purchase on the "truth." A very small group of thinkers, however, were subject to the least amount of bias and were able to articulate viewpoints about the cultural scene from a wider and more encompassing stance: a relatively classless stratum of free-floating intellectuals. 

Mannheim was historicistic (is that even a word?) enough that he rejected the notion of "relativism" because it seemed to assume there existed a Platonic realm of Eternal Truth, True Being, etc. Mannheim favored "relationism": as history moves on the truth changes according to time and place. In this he was influenced by pragmatism. Anyway, the idea of a special class of intellectuals who were able to see more than their institutionally attached academic brethren in the universities, churches, think tanks, and government: this has long appealed to the marginalized (indeed: the marginal themselves?) book readers living in their cold water flats, surrounded by stacks and piles of books and magazines, a cot, and maybe some food. But to what extent does this concept hold (cold?) water?

Mannheim thought a main value of this posited group would be the development of a "dynamic synthesis" of all the other ideologies of the other groups. Anyone know a writer in 2011 who has accomplished this? I think I know a few, but you will probably disagree with me. Anyway, I'll get to it in some later blog-spew...

Well, certainly the institutionally-attached seem to be indebted to larger interests. Probably too many to enumerate here...But the institutionally-attached have far more resources at their disposal, too. (The itinerant academic and full-time scholar Morris Berman has cited the "McWorld" values that American universities have devolved to for much of their faculty and students. Some studies in 2010-2011 have suggested there's never been a time in U.S. history when a university education was so expensive, and the after-graduation job expectations so dismal. Start here?)

Back from the digression: The relatively unattached stratum are free to study anything, at any time, to keep their own hours (apart from their rent-paying job, if they have one), and to edit, publish in little magazines, 'zines, write plays, radical essays, blather on in blogs, etc. (What would Mannheim have made of blogs?)

In an essay in 1969 by Noam Chomsky, published in the New York Review of Books, "The Menace of Liberal Scholarship," he very articulately decries the increasing role of specialist, technical intelligentsia from the universities as playing strong roles in the administration of the State. Because of Chomsky's ethics, he is almost always criticizing the U.S, because it is "easy" to point out what's wrong in some other country's political maneuvers; a truly free intellectual will focus on criticism of their own country. (This basic idea of Chomsky's seems criminally misunderstood, or rather, actively non-understood. What is interesting is that he has developed and sustained his incredible body of critiques of the U.S. while "attached" to M.I.T. He has answered questions surrounding this seeming paradox many times, as you probably know. See one discussion around this issue here.)

Why does Chomsky think specialist, technical intellectuals go in for service to the State? Senator Fulbright had recently lamented (this was 1969) that universities had failed to serve as a counterforce to the military-industrial complex. Fulbright thought the lure of money was too much to pass up for these...geeks. Chomsky saw access to money and influence and access to a highly restricted, almost universally shared ideology and the "dynamics of professionalism." Then, 30-odd years after Mannheim's discussion of the possible role of the "free-floating intellectual," Chomsky writes:

"The 'free-floating intellectual' may occupy himself with problems because of their inherent interest and importance, perhaps to little effect."

Ouch! Was Chomsky right? Is he still right? Some of us unattached, generalist, inveterate readers of thick texts hope not. Has the rise of the Internet changed the ratios a tad? Maybe?

More later; this topic is - for moi - too rich to abandon here.


ARW23 said...

I wonder if by any chance an American writer of an Irish origin, Robert Anton Wilson, falls into this category of "free-floating intellectual"?

michael said...

Sorry I took so long to respond, ARW23. In a subsequent post (above) I reveal that, yes, I think RAW seems one of the great examples of an FFUI.

His biography (not yet written) suggests that he struggled with money, but the reasons are not entirely clear. He never worked for a university or think tank, he published on a variety of topics, and supported his books by doing invited talks in which he performed a sort of rambling, stand-up intellectual comedy. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in his apartment for three hours and he was like some sort of alien intelligence: he answered my questions - which he had not seen beforehand - in full, writerly paragraphs, with jokes. And his conversation was brilliant. And he was almost chinese in his courtesy. At the same time, he was suffering horribly from post-polio syndrome, which eventually killed him. He was free-floating, never attached to any institution after he worked as an editor at Playboy 1966-71? Because of some of the topics he wrote about, I think some people miss how massive his intellectual chops really were. Quite a guy!

ARW23 said...

I don't know if you are familiar with Wilson's "The Eight-Circuit Model"? Actually, Wilson "has collaborated with Timothy Leary in constructing a multifaceted model for the individual's understanding of her/himself in a general field theory of psychology aimed at liberation and transcendence" (from another free floating intellectual and underrated writer).

Are you familiar with the author Antero Alli and his book "The Eight-Circuit Brain"?

michael said...

I mention the Eight Circuit Model in the "We, of a Certain Genetic Caste?" post.

Yes, I'm aware of Antero Alli and his unique take on the Leary-Wilson "octave model." He's an interesting character.

I would think some people interested in classic models of personality (Freud, Jung, the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, etc) would be interested in the Eight Circuit Model. Maybe someday a synthesizing Adept will incorporate all of it...although, if you read the dispersed and voluminous writings of Wilson on the 8CB Model, he's already done a lot of that work...

Eric Wagner said...

I have less interest in the eight circuit model than I used to, but it still permeates my thought. I write this on Wednesday, the third day of the week if one starts with Monday, the moon, the first circuit/system/dimension. Today, Woden's day, who lost the use of an eye for his understanding. I have for decades associated Odin with one-eyed Robert Creeley, as well as Mercury, Hermes, and winged-understanding.

Interesting blog, as usual.