Saturday, October 4, 2008

New Old Mills

Regular readers of this blog may have become familiar with the name of C. Wright Mills from my occasional references to his 1956 book, The Power Elite. Actually, my first encounter with Mills was through my mother, who had decided that she would finally get a college education after both of her sons left the nest. I came back from MIT during one of my breaks and first saw the book From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, which Mills had collected and edited with Hans Gerth. For many this was the first exposure to Weber, and it was not a bad place to begin. Personally, I actually started in the middle with Weber's classic analysis of bureaucracy on page 196; and, like many, my whole thinking about politics was seriously influenced by the text of his "Politics as a Vocation" speech. Not too later on, my personal book collection also came to include the primary collection of Mills' own essays, Power, Politics and People. This was at a time when much of Silicon Valley was abuzz with talk of "situated cognition" (not to mention "situated action" and "situated learning"); so I was a bit surprised when I discovered that the very terminology could actually be traced back to a paper that Mills published in the 1940 Volume of the American Sociological Review under the title "Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive." As a result of reading this paper, I developed an appreciation for the value of both George Herbert Mead and John Dewey in my own efforts to make sense of both the social world and those "situated actions" involved in artistic (particularly musical) performance.

Power, Politics and People was edited by Irving Louis Horowitz, who would later come under considerable attack for muddying the waters of those interested in pursuing scholarly research on Mills' life and works. One of Horowitz' fiercest attackers was John Summers, who has now compiled his own collection, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills. Alan Wolfe has reviewed this new book for The New Republic, providing an excellent introduction to the good, the bad, and the ugly of Mills' career in the process. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Wolfe's article that provide an excellent sense of the whole:

Mills was attracted to the theme of responsibility because his style of social criticism ranked hypocrisy among the most serious of vices: you, the protectors of power and privilege, claim to be acting as responsible managers of the national interest, but in reality you are oblivious to the havoc produced by your decisions. Many of the terms that made Mills famous--"crackpot realism," "the American celebration," "the military metaphysic"--were pithy expressions of the failure of America's leaders to live up to the ideals that they espoused. The role of the social critic was not to posit unrealizable utopias. It was to hold people accountable for their decisions.

If you are not going to be responsible, Mills went on to say to the powers of his day, intellectuals will have to do it for you. "The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society, at least with reference to the value of truth," he wrote in Dissent in 1955, "for in the defining instance, that is his politics." Unlike businessmen or military officers, intellectuals need not say one thing and do another--not as long as they adhere to their proper calling. "The work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article," Mills continued, supplying the words that give this book its title, "does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, is the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality." Mills was not given to underplaying the importance of the kind of intellectual work in which he was engaged. "Since we belong among those who ask serious questions and try to answer them," he told a group of Canadian educators in 1954, "we also belong--whether or not we know it--to that minority which has carried on the big discourse of the rational mind, the big discourse that has been going on, or off and on, since western society began some two thousand years ago in the small communities of Athens and Jerusalem."

I realize that this perspective of the intellectual-as-conscience must seem outmoded to many today. Indeed, there seems to be a general tendency towards disdain of the very concept of intellectualism, scorned on the one hand for its skeptical attitude towards faith and derided on the other for offering little more than abstruse talk in trying to oppose those faith-based fanatics. As a result, about the only time we encounter "intellectual" as an adjective is in that ne plus ultra of linguistic barbarisms, "intellectual property." Thus, one of the few bloggers who is willing to recognize that the word "intellectual" can be used in any other context is Andrew Keen (who seems to be having a field day with it right now in the matter of Sarah Palin).

Are the intellectuals a dying breed not even worthy of the attention we give to endangered zoological species? There are certainly some that seemed to like nothing better than to revel in their own opacity, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault; and what does it mean that the first examples that immediately leapt to my own mind were French? Then there is Jürgen Habermas (German this time), whose texts need to be carefully teased out, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, and eventually essay-by-essay, but who has a reputation for speaking to the public about public issues (such as the European Union) in language far more direct than that of any politician. (In this respect he has been appropriately compared to John Dewey.) Then there is one of my personal favorites, Isaiah Berlin, who is almost always up there with Marcel Proust when it comes to sentence lengths; but, as they lead you down many paths at once, those sentences always seem to end with you staring directly in the face something both startling and evident.

Perhaps my Berlin experience best illustrates the real value of the intellectual. The intellectual provides us with text that may not be that all easy to read but which can be unimaginably rewarding if we take the trouble to honor it with serious reading. In other words we are back on the turf that Nicholas Carr was exploring in his Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The question is not whether the intellectuals are dying out because they are not worth reading but whether we are (at least metaphorically) killing them off as a consequence of the deterioration of our own reading habits along the sorts of lines that Carr had suggested. Perhaps that old saw about people getting the government they deserve covers only part of the story. Because people shape their own culture through those "situated actions" and "vocabularies of motive" that Mills had studied so attentively, they get the very culture they deserve, leaving those of us outside the boundaries of that culture in danger of the "persecution of the other."

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