Overweening Generalist

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What's a Generalist Good For?

1. I spent over an hour Googling the term "generalist" and indeed I did come up with, on the first page, "a person with a wide array of knowledge, the opposite of which is a specialist." But most of the generalists now seem to be in the Information Technology field, or as medical doctors who have decided to not specialize and instead became general practitioners. Or they work in the HR field for large companies. Other generalists seem to have a wide array of knowledge in the field of architecture or social work. I saw that the famous Lloyd's of London - "the world's specialist insurance market" - sponsors a credential in a "Generalist Graduate Programme," which I assume is a field with a wide array of knowledge in insurance matters.

                                     Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals

2. Having closely read two of the Whiz-generalists in the field of the role of intellectuals in the 20th century, Russell Jacoby and George Scialabba, the last chance a "generalist" intellectual had of making a living at it was with the New York Intellectuals. (Which I wish they'd rename the Mets, but you can't have everything.) Both guys seem to mourn the passing of them out of history and both Jacoby and Scialabba have done a good job at fleshing out a narrative about the social forces that ended the generalist run. From 1945 till about 1980 (roughly), a thinker/writer/social critic/freewheeling art historian/Marxist theorist with a deep reading of the Great Books could afford to live in Manhattan and write for little magazines, give talks, write pamphlets and books. And it's still where the big publishing houses are; people cared about ideas. (The truly maverick genes moved West to San Francisco by 1955?) The NY intellectuals were almost all Jews, finally emancipated with their resources and passions formerly fenced-in, now free to vent. They took Western philosophy and the Western "canon" and used it to critique mass culture. Many of the Frankfurt School thinkers ended up there, teaching at Columbia or the New School for Social Research. Scialabba, a big admirer of the New York intellectuals, said they threw ideas together creatively and were passionate, knew everything or at least were very good at faking knowing everything. I've read some Howe, more Sontag, lots of Trilling and MacDonald, a bit of Kazin, almost all of Mailer, and at least some from just about everyone who gets named as a player in the era in which they held sway. Leslie Fielder and Paul Goodman had some amazing moments, to my mind. If you look at the hypertexted list in the Wiki, notice that the earliest movers and legitimators for the Neo Cons are there, too. (How this happened: that well-educated and prolific, formerly Trotsky-ish Jewish writers became the "braintrust" for the worst of Unistat Right Wing thought, is covered pretty well in a documentary film called Arguing The World.) I think it was Irving Howe who called his group, the New York Intellectuals, "luftmenschen of the mind." My favorite definition of luftmensch is "an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income." But they did make at least some bank with their brains in that bygone era.

                                    Irving Howe, published a terrific essay on his own
                                    tribe, the so-called "New York intellectuals," I forget

3. Forces that ended the generalist intellectual's run: late 19th/early 20th century technology. It called for a strong mass education, which is a problem for the 1%, because with enough education, a significant number of the newly educated will learn to ask barbed questions about power, legitimate authority, privilege. This was a problem. Formerly, as either Scialabba or Jacoby (or was it Alvin Gouldner? Rorty?), you only needed a good ear for bullshit and then you exposed it. Think of Mark Twain or William James. When the government or banks or large corporations told the press their story and the press printed it, the smart set called them out on their bovine excreta. The ruling class then invented and deployed "expertise." And (hold your nose), "Public Relations." Using a term that I wish would catch on, Scialabba said the ruling class, who formerly sent their sons out to tell the press what they were up to, now hired "anti-public intellectuals." If you're a Chomsky reader, this is basically the same as his "commissar class" or "Mandarins." The anti-public intellectuals were experts in legitimation. They had advanced degrees from our finest schools. They truly knew. Hey, the social world had developed technologies and bureaucracies and machinations that truly did seem dazzlingly complex. Who could possibly know? Well, the New York intellectuals read up on business and finance and US foreign policy and advertising and still called the Official Edicts bullshit, but the corporate media seemed mighty impressed with people like MacGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger. They seemed to truly know this deep mysterious stuff; they have degrees, and besides, they're so readily made available to us. What could Mailer - a novelist! - possibly know about it? Best to ignore these...poets and philosophers, with regards to the Vietnam War/Cold War/"democracy." What could you possibly know about Unistat foreign policy with your Humanities degree? (It turns out you can see through the anti-public intellectuals' rhetoric even without a degree of any kind, but I'll leave that for another time.)

                                                      George Scialabba

4. Scialabba says it then took "investigative journalists" to put the anti-public intellectuals in check. People like I.F. Stone, Sy Hersh, Glenn Greenwald. Or: academics who were mavericks and were willing to answer "expertise" with another sort of "expertise" and a willingness to spend a lot of time doing deep studies, in the archives. These would be people like Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Dale Scott, J.K.Galbraith, William Appleman Williams, Christopher Lasch. 

But mostly, the media were taken by the anti-public intellectuals. To me, the most telling fact here is the virtual absence of Chomsky - in the Top Ten most-cited thinkers of all time - in Unistat corporate media. 

5. I enjoy and admire Jacoby and Scialabba a lot, but they seem far too enamored with what I'll call the New York caste of mind. They seem to not want to deal with that other part of the New Class that Gouldner wrote about, the technical intelligentsia. Oh, they touch on it. Scialabba thinks specialization in the sciences is a sign of true progress, and that in a little over 100 years, an accomplished person in any field of the physical sciences could pretty much know the entire field, but now when you specialize - in some area of cognitive science or molecular biology or math or physics or organic chemistry - you can't possibly keep up with everything that's going on. And this is true progress. I agree with Scialabba.  But the nature of McLuhan's re-tribalized mind via all our digital whiz-bangs makes his point something tangential. A chasm has opened up, and readers of Austen and Proust who study the esthetics of John Ruskin and link "Breaking Bad" to Auden or 9/11 or de Quincey in passing conversation? They will not rescue us. (But I'm glad some exist!)

We are not so much Gutenberg Man anymore. McLuhan predicted this and knew he wouldn't like it; Scialabba, Jacoby, Nicholas Carr, Sven Birkerts, Morris Berman and many others do not like it, but they are searching for a way out...

                                           Christopher Lasch, an anti-modern
                                            that both Jacoby and Scialabba admire

6. Academia has become increasingly market-driven. It's beholden to business interests or it's run by business people themselves. And in the non-physical sciences this seems to have contributed to a lot of insularity and impenetrable language. If you seem innovative and novel with some critical theory of society or a way to interpret literature or history, hey, it's attractive...to the wrong people. My gawd, look at the language used when the Humanities in Unistat became enamored of French post-structuralists. How did this "innovation" help society? I think it was a backward move. It was faux innovation, for the most part. With some exceptions. A lucid and intellectually interesting Third Culture writer, Steven Johnson, majored in Semiotics at Brown and he wrote a blog post about how infected his writing had become at the age of 19. I've experienced the same thing, reading Derrida and Lyotard and Foucault and Frederic Jameson. Hell, even Adorno. Don't even start me on Judith Butler. That stuff warps your style, and your style seems like a big part of your "mind." What's all that about? How the French Academy works? The resultant of what was once called "Physics Envy"?

7. I used the term "Third Culture" above. I used to blog about it, e.g, HERE. Scialabba and Jacoby seem so utterly taken by the Humanities as the true land of the generalist intellectual that they barely, if ever, even acknowledge this new type of thinker/writer, and it seems a main reason why they both feel too mired in a New York/Harvard cognitive style. I like both guys a lot, let me reiterate. Especially Scialabba (who I found out is a depressed guy who thought about suicide, which really bummed me out because I really love guys like him: he's a long-time office-worker at Harvard who manages to write better than most of the professors at Harvard and he's like Sven Birkerts: both guys seem to have a wealth of things to say about the phenomenology of reading), but I do think they make a good, hard case for "their" intellectuals. Read both guys! (But the Third Culture writers seem to have won. As of today. Anyway...)

8. My favorite writers and intellectuals are generalists/polymathic types who seem nowheres near the radar screens of Jacoby or Scialabba (<----btw, say something like "shuh-LAH-buh"), probably because my squeezes seem too frankly interested in the academically declasse: the semantic unconscious, mind-expanding drugs, Eastern religious ideas and techniques, "underground" knowledge and societies, tricksterism and irreverence, the frontiers, hacking, the cutting edges of science, science fiction, sex, the speculative mind untethered, High Weirdness, and, at times, an utter contempt for Authority of any kind. As far as generalists go, this is a different breed of cat. They're hermetic and/or Dionysian with an information density that tends to be very high; they're heretical and offensive. Some have written eccentric quasi-encyclopedias. Many have stupendous and compendious minds. A few might have some of those genes expressed that cash out as schizoid or histrionic, manic or alcoholic, and a few seem given to expansive, even grandiose states. Quite a few were just bats. They're weird. Maybe they constitute a Fourth Culture, but I prefer to think of them as Ecstatics and Gnostics and Tricksters who happen to write books.

Although this may seem like a brief, almost occult statement, they all articulate the dimethyltryptamine aspect of basic human neurobiology.

(There are also some quite "straight" writers/thinkers that put me in a psychedelic head space. I always imagine that, were I to tell George Lakoff that his books were so stimulating to me they made me feel stoned and filled with wonder, he'd somehow not appreciate hearing this. But it's true.)

                                 John Lilly, an example of my favorite kind of intellectual

9. Given the $1,000,000,000,000 student loan bubble right now, the greatly watered-down quality of what constitutes the "university experience" these days (not for all, just most), and the evaporation of real jobs to pay for real rent, real food, real health care, and something like a maintenance of "sanity," I really do not know what a "generalist" (in the sense that the New York Intellectuals were) is good for these days. Anyone got a line on this?

10. Out of the mouths of Google employees: when in the course of doing an exploratory search for "generalist" (see #1, above), I stumbled upon the blog of one Tomasz Tunguz, who gives a quote from Management Guru-Wiz Peter Drucker on the idea of a "generalist": "The only meaningful definition of a 'generalist' is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the universe of knowledge."

As much as this smarts, it seems, in my experience, only too-true. To paraphrase Brando from On the Waterfront, "I couldda been somebody. I couldda been a specialist!" (I couldda learned to write code like a bad mutha while reading Ulysses and books on quantum mechanics in my spare time?)

What are generalists good for? Could we replace Edwin Starr's "War" with "Generalist" and come up with the same answer? 


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Any chance you'll list some of the favorites you mention in point No. 8?

michael said...

Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, Marshall McLuhan, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Robert Hass, Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey, Tom Robbins, HP Lovecraft, Joseph Campbell, Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Clifford Pickover, Rudy Rucker, Thomas Pynchon, Douglas Hofstadter, Gregory Bateson, Colin Wilson and Giambattista Vico, Montaigne, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Freud and Lucretius as a mere start.

For "straight" or academic writers: Korzybski, Chomsky, Lakoff, Damasio, Peter Berger, Randall Collins, E.O. Wilson, Mark Monmonier, Oliver Sacks (recently come out in a big way as not all that "straight"!), Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Robert Sapolsky, and Elaine Pagels.

There's a very readable yet hardcore academic book by a colleague of Lakoff's at Berkeley: From Molecule To Mind, by Jerome Feldman. I read that over and over and over. I find it very trippy and totally wonderful...and I always wonder what he'd say if I told him this. I think the ideas about how language actually works is finally - probably - "right." And I consider this work an ideal extension of Korzybski. But it's only one book. And yet: more than enough for me. Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is becoming sort of like that for me, too. Nick Herbert's Quantum Reality has functioned like that for me for a long time.

I'm leaving out some people, but this is me typing an answer quickly...

I'd put my team up against the New York Intellectuals, any day, any time, any place.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Very cool list, just wanted to say thanks.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece and terrific comments. I wonder about the future and the future of education, while I ponder Proust, etc. I get email from the New York Review of Books, and I like some of the articles. They used to publish a lot by Joseph Kerman and Charles Rosen. I know they will contemplate the new Pynchon novel. However, as you comment, they neglect a lot of writing I find interesting, from Bob Wilson to yourself.

BrentQ said...

Michael: Are you familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality test?

It was first developed by Jung (a great generalist in his own right) I believe. When I was in school trying to figure out why I couldn't pick a specialization, I did the test and realized I may belong to one of the types known as INTP. It would seem that most famous generalists/philosophers were of that type as well. It is also one of the least common personality types which might explain the increasing rarity of influential generalist types in academia and mainstream culture.

Also, I would put one my a favourite writers Jorge Luis Borges on your list of generalists.

michael said...

@ Tom: I wrote that list, knowing I'd forget about 20 that "should" be on there AND knowing I'd leave out someone else's favorite that they thought they might have shared with me, but hey: it's only a sampling.

@ Eric: WHY do you think Pynchon went on to become a Big Deal while, when I utter the name "Robert Anton Wilson" around PhDs they usually shake their head "no" silently? Personally, I do think Pynch's prose style is immaculate and his mind first-rate. He's funny and encyclopedic. And he had major NY-based publishers...

michael said...

@BrentQ: The last time I took one of those it was the Humanmetrics Jung Typology Test, and I scored INFP, thinking I was INTP. Maybe I'll find THE Myers-Briggs and do another one.

I like your idea about INTPs and generalists and their dwindling ranks in academia. Russell Jacoby makes a big deal out of young smart people going to university and valuing the "professional role" rather than the emissary to the public of Big Ideas. The new academics write impenetrably for each other...other specialists like themselves. It's a drag.

And Scialabba touches on this more than Jacoby, but digital media seems to have militated against a working class public still interested in knowing about ideas in a more-than-superficial way.

I'd put Borges there, too. And Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley. I want everyone to have their own long lists of cherished thinkers/writers, and I honestly don't care if they think my list is full of marginals and weirdos...

Eric Wagner said...

I asked a similar question of a professor in graduate school. I asked something like why the people with Ph.D.'s in English like the Pynch so much (a group which overlaps with the world of "New York intellectuals"). He said he thought it due to how Pynchon lent himself to popular literary theories.

I think both those worlds have accepted Pynchon more than Wilson because Pynch came up through their farm system, attending an Ivy League school, publishing in appropriate little magazine and winning appropriate awards, plus Pynchon has an appropriate pessimistic attitude (seemingly).

michael said...

That's about as fine an explanation as I've read. Thanks. It rings true.

I think maybe some readers of RAW forget he acknowledged quite baldly the dire straits humanity might be in, and there's lots of deep diagnosis of Our Problems. It's easy to be blinded by his optimism and take away that Wilson was some LSD/Berkeley blissed- out rah-rah futurist, but too given to optimism.

I think RAW was right about the NY intellectuals and optimism, not to mention their inflated senses that they were the ONLY intellectuals in the world of any weight and heft. (Not all of 'em, but a lot of 'em. Sontag seems unbelievably full of herself at times, for example. And I have a neighbor in Berkeley who has some stories to tell about Annie Liebowitz and Sontag...very unflattering to Sontag. And, to digress: Krassner's friend Margot St. James and RFK's micropenis...)