Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some Further Notes on the "Free Floating Intellectual"

It occurs to me that a further definition of oneself here may derive from its similarity of structure to Antonio Gramsci's "organic intellectual." In contrast to the intellectual class that serves to perpetuate the hegemony of the current order, Gramsci's organic intellectual is a working-class thinker who is able to articulate the feelings of the situation for other workers, and encourage a recognition of the order of things and how a resistance might be made. I am not talking about some Balzac-ish idea of a too-smart anarchist "plotting revolution in a garret," although that seems to be an enduring romantic notion...

(What do some of us relatively free-floating unattached intelligentsia hope to accomplish? A meme that goes viral? Some writing that pays the bills? That's not too much to ask. I hope there are no little Lenins or Neo-Cons reading this, hoping to seize State power for themselves, because they know the One True Course History Must Take...)

Gramsci (1891-1937) spent the last 11 years of his life languishing in Italian prisons, writing, and watching his health deteriorate. A short life, but one that proved enormously influential upon subsequent critics of the State. Supposedly, the Fascists gave him a sham trial and a prosecutor said, "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning." Check out his Prison Notebooks.


While a leader of an opposing political party when arrested by Mussolini's thugs and so not exactly "unattached," Gramsci nevertheless seems to fit the Mannheim ideal fairly well...


I ran across a quote not long ago, originally printed in a 1984 issue of Magazin Litteraire, by the towering French historiographer Fernand Braudel, who died in 1985 at the age of 83. He influenced the macro-study of World Systems Theory. Anyway, he said this there:


"For me, there is only a unitary interscience...If one tries to marry history with geography, or history and economics, one is wasting one's time. One must do everything, at the same time...Interdisciplinarity is the legal marriage of two neighboring disciplines. I myself am in favor of generalized promiscuity. The devotees who do interscience by marrying one science with another are too prudent. It is bad morals that must prevail: let us mix together all of the sciences, including the traditional ones, philosophy, philology, etc, which are not as dead as we claim." (found in Immanuel Wallerstein's The Uncertainties of Knowledge.)


What's not to like about a guy like Braudel, eh? I have the "bad morals" thing down already! And I have always tried for "promiscuity." (I said "tried.") Those of us who fancy ourselves as some species of free-floating unattached intellectuals (which I will now abbrev. as FFUIs and see if it flies) want this kind of carte blanche. At the same time, "One must do everything, at the same time..." will tend to make demands on our social lives. (Do we have social lives, by the way? I ask that rhetorically.)

In recent years, in the U.S, the itinerant academic Morris Berman has advocated for a class which he calls "New Monastic Individuals," or NMIs. Some of us FFUIs may fit in with this NMI stuff.

Berman is not exactly bullish on the fate of the U.S, especially after eight years of George W. Bush. The U.S. tortures, starts phony wars and gets away with it, the financial wizard-crooks who wrecked the economy get bailed out; no one goes to prison. But for the rest of the beleaguered citizenry without Wall Street connections, the U.S. imprisons at a higher per-capita rate than any other country in world, the rich have gotten much richer since Reagan, everyone else poorer, and the right wing has bought most of the corporate media and has many Americans convinced Obama is a secret Muslim Nazi socialist who is after their guns and "keep your filthy government hands off my Medicare!" It's over for the U.S, Berman is convinced. (see, for example, his Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America for a very well-reasoned and robust argument to give up almost all hope of any decent "recovery." See esp. pp.135-136 of Twilight and note how his subset of NMIs sound very much like early 21st century FFUIs.) 


For Berman, it doesn't get better. And he has too too many reasons why. I hope he's wrong, but he might not be...


But then what is the function of the NMI? Well, you refuse to participate in the sinking of the country as much as possible, and hunker down and prepare to do what some scholars did up to the beginning of the Renaissance: you preserve what was good in the culture, so that later, when a new, saner order arises (if it does), all will not be lost for them. Sounds bleak? I think so, but Berman is a serious thinker to contend with. 


Here are some of the values of Berman's NMIs in the 21st c:

  • craftsmanship
  • care
  • integrity
  • preservation of the canons of scholarship
  • critical thinking in the Enlightenment tradition
  • combatting forces of environmental degradation and encouraging social equality
  • valuing individual achievement and individual thought
  • a thorough rejection of a life based on kitsch, consumerism, profit, power, fame, and self-promotion
Finally, for an very colorful example of a Gramscian organic intellectual, definitely a FFUI in late 20th century America who is having a difficult time making it, see Jim Goad's The Redneck Manifesto. Just a thought...     (Amazon link to Goad's book here.)

4 comments:

Loba said...

I am delighted with the concept of FFUI or NMI...

... someone who taught me a lot once suggested I stop being concerned about others trying to settle me down.. he told me that settlers usually try to stop gypsies from wandering, but gypsies don't try to make settlers into wanderers. Free-floating-unattached-intellectuals don't need the "status" of attachment to institutions, but it seems that attached academics often have a hard time understanding the motivation to remain unattached.
Thanks for the brain massage..

michael said...

Loba: Hey, that's what I'm here for! Thanks for the kind woids.

I like the gypsy/settler analogy.

ARW23 said...

Good thought! I am glad you mention Jim Goad - one of free floating intellectuals and underrated writers. I find the title of his book, "The Redneck Manifesto", very intriguing and provocative. This book can really shake anyone's "liberal" or "progressive" brain. I think Goad is brilliant and very radical 1 st Amendment guy.

Max Weber once defined "class" as "chances on the market". What are our chances? Are we marketable? Do we have something to market? We
probably do. But is it profitable? "Economic apartheid"? As Jim Goad calls it in his "The Redneck Manifesto" chapter V Workin' Hard:
"Work or perish!........A select few have never needed to dream, while
the majority have been rewarded with nothing but dreams.......Economic
Supremacy - esteems money over human lives - has killed more people,
black and white, than racism ever has." (p.105)

According to JG: "Being a "team player" really means being a blind worker,
having no opinions, feelings, habits. It means looking, dressing and
smiling like the rest of them." (p.119)

Some of my favorite quotes by JG:

"The office is a coffin"

"God - the original gangster"

Go Goad!

michael said...

Re: Jim Goad: Yes, he seems to have been one of those organics who push the First Amendment pedal to the metal.

To anyone reading this: ideas about interesting blue-collar intellectuals? Mike Davis and Eric Hoffer immediately come to mind. Others?