Overweening Generalist

Friday, July 22, 2011

Free-Floating Intellectuals: A Loose Genealogy

                                         Journeying through the world
                                         To and fro, to and fro
                                         Cultivating a small field.
                                        -Basho, 17th century Japanese poet

In an earlier post (here), I wrote about Morris Berman's NMIs, or New Monastic Individuals. These are people (probably like you?) who travel or have traveled, both inward and outward, and cultivate a small field. Berman spots a poetic manifest statement on NMIs in a 1939 essay by E.M Forster called "What I Believe," of which a snippet here:

"I believe in aristocracy. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos...On they go - an invincible army, yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People - all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again, Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the Chinese Civil Service, or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut they are no longer in the room; their temple...is the Holiness of the Heart's Imagination, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world."

Berman's NMIs are not "monastic" in the sense of asceticism or religious practice, or any sort of organization, but they are about renunciation. Of trash culture and trash politics. (Read Berman's books for much elaboration, especially The Twilight of American Culture!)

Berman saw Paul Fussell's book 1983 book Class: A Guide Through The American Status System and recognized Fussell's "Class X" as having a strong similarity of structure to his NMIs. He also saw the "guerrilla" nature of this class's lives in Deleuze and Guattari's Nomadology: The War Machine. For these latter post-structuralist thinkers, we make our ways in "smooth space," which is fluid, slippery, stealthy. Everyone else is playing life by strict, rigid rules ("striated space") like chess, whose pieces are "coded"; nomads or NMIs live like the game of Go, and deal with reality situationally and via encirclement. They are unruly, but not likely to confront Authority directly.

Karl Mannheim's "relatively unattached stratum of free-floating intellectuals" seem to intersect a lot with these "nomads" and NMIs. 

Fussell called his classless stratum "Class X," before demographers named the population born c.1965-1982 "Generation X." (Actually, that term was used by a photographer after WW2, but it wasn't in common currency when Fussell wrote his [very funny] book.)

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System

But when I read Fussell, his Xers seem much more like intellectual hippies than Berman's NMIs, although I suspect much of this has to do with the difference between Berman's and Fussell's personalities and writing styles. Fussell delineates his Class X in the last main chapter of his delightful, short book (which reminds me a bit of Thorstein Veblen in both tone and aim although Fussell's style is more elegant; Veblen's more barbed and baroque), pp. 179-187. He says, "'X' people are better conceived as belonging to a category than a class because you are not born an X person, as you are born and reared a prole or a middle. You become an X person, or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable." Fussell also sees the Forster essay as a sort of manifesto for this class.

I also see this classless class in many of the people described in the 2001 book The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, by Anderson and Ray. Here's the Wiki for this group, who also presumably earned their way in, and weren't born into it. Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy also has a foothold here. 

Certainly freelance artists, poets, countercultural entrepreneurs, musicians and other denizens of bohemia can possibly fit into this "class," but I doubt most of them do. Only some. Fussell and Berman both agree, and I've read Mannheim very closely and I think he'd agree too: if you put out many fliers telling this class/group/whatever to meet at X place on Y day at Q time, no one would show up. As Forster says, "there is a secret understanding between them when they meet."

I realize that a square, a cop, a pink, a cowan, a rube, a normal, a larval...reading this thinks I might be talking about a terrorist group! 

I feel I can assure anyone who feels threatened: they (we) are anything but violent. 

But we do make "trouble,"depending how you define that term.

Bohemia in Paris, 1920s - Mannheim's FFUIs all over Europe, with some in Unistat and Canada - Forster's "aristocracy" - the Beats - Maslow's self-actualizers - dropout intellectuals (not Samuel Ellsworth Huntington's "policy intellectuals," rather, the "bad" intellectuals) of the 1960s/70s - Stewart Brand/Buckminster Fuller's Whole Earth people - Ferguson's Aquarian conspirators - Fussell's Class X - Berman's NMIs - Deleuze and Guattari's "nomads" - Hakim Bey's seekers after the T.A.Z. and the Boing Boing crowd a loose genealogy for the past 90 years or so.

Feel free to add to this list. Or quibble with it. You may even cavil!


Henry Jonasson said...

Have you ever heard of Elaine Aaron's "Highly Sensitive People"? She uses the same Forster quote to open her book. It would suggest a physiological (or at least psycological) explanation for this class, and moreover gives good advice on how to succeed as such a person.

michael said...

@Henry Jonasson: No, I don't know that book. THIS is one of the main reasons I started this blog: to learn from people like you. Thanks!

The idea of a physiological explanation seems tantalizing; I wonder how much of it is strictly genetic? The new genetics seems to suggest quite strongly what Harvard apostate Richard C. Lewontin has been saying for years: that we ought to think of it as a "triple helix": the double helix plus environment. (See my recent review of Epigenetics, below?

I will seek out Aaron's Highly Sensitive People, as this subject fascinates me. And thanks for chiming in, Henry!