John Pistelli


After the Public

From Mark Greif’s rather ingenious (too ingenious?) essay on “the public intellectual”:

But the additional philosophical element that made this complicated arrangement work, and the profound belief that sustained the fiction, on all sides, and made it “real” (for we are speaking of the realm of ideas, where shared belief often just is reality), was an aspirational estimation of “the public.” Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and commercial, as we use “aspirational” now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are—and that naturally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing—and that every worthy person does. My sense of the true writing of the “public intellectuals” of the Partisan Review era is that it was always addressed just slightly over the head of an imagined public—at a height where they must reach up to grasp it. But the writing seemed, also, always just slightly above the Partisan Review writers themselves. They, the intellectuals, had stretched themselves to attention, gone up on tiptoe, balancing, to become worthy of the more thoughtful, more electric tenor of intellect they wanted to join. They, too, were of “the public,” but a public that wanted to be better, and higher. They distinguished themselves from it momentarily, by pursuing difficulty, in a challenge to the public and themselves—thus becoming equals who could earn the right to address this public.

Aspiration also undoubtedly included a coercive, improving, alarmed dimension in the postwar period. The public must be made better or it would be worse, ran the thought. The aspiration of civic elites was also always to instruct the populace, to make them citizens and not “masses.” Both fascism and Sovietism had been effects of the masses run wild (so it was said). The GI Bill, and the expansion of access to higher education after 1945, funded by the state, depended on an idea of the public as necessary to the state and nation, but also dangerous and unstable in its unimproved condition. This citizenry would fight for the nation. It would compete, technically and economically, with the nation’s global rivals. And it must hold some “democratic” vision and ideology to preserve stability. Even the worst elitists could agree to that. Hence the midcentury consensus that higher education should “make,” or shape, “citizens” for a “free society”—which one hears from the best voices, and the worst, from that time.

Those of us attached to universities can feel, as strongly as anyone, how ideologies of the “public” have changed drastically from the older conception. After all, it’s on the basis of this increasingly servile, contemptuous, and antinational vision of “the public” that universities are being politically degraded, in vocational rationales for the humanities and the state’s lost interest in public higher education. The national indifference, from the top down, to the mass, the many, the citizenry, the public, from the 1970s to the present, expresses a late discovery that the old value and fearsomeness of the public had been erroneous. The mass public was no longer threatening, or needed. After Vietnam, the public was no longer needed for military service, as an all-volunteer army would fight for pay without inspiring protest. The public was no longer needed for mass production, as labor was exported. A small elite of global origin, but funneled through American private universities, would design all the new technological and financial instruments that could keep U.S. growth and GDP high in aggregate, though distributed unequally.

Greif is certainly correct, elsewhere in the essay, to chide contemporary academics for their condescending populism—which undergraduates, in my experience, do not appreciate in the least. But the defense of intellectual standards does not require this essay’s other assumptions.

What do 1950s nostalgics such as Greif actually want or think is possible? I am a little less than a decade younger than Greif, which makes puts me in the last generation to feel the afterglow of high-modernism-plus-social-democracy, so his nostalgia is in no way foreign to me. After all, I am a petit-bourgeois modernist too. But Greif has to know that reversing the process he condemns will involve reversing cultural developments I suspect he otherwise champions—or maybe not, since he rather boldly deploys a phrase that one imagines seeing in a Ron Paul newsletter or hearing in a Marine Le Pen campaign speech. I will let you, gentle reader, smart member of the public that you are, pick out the potentially offending phrase from the excerpt above: it should not prove difficult.

Left-wing intellectuals have not fully confronted the collapse of Marxism; they are like those post-Christian moralists scorned by Nietzsche, retaining all their values even as they admit that those values’ metaphysical foundation has fallen. To put it bluntly, international socialism was not and never will be on the table. Given that, the real options seem to be some kind of national socialism or some kind of global capitalism. This bifurcation means, in the realm of culture, that the “mass mobilization” Greif ambivalently elegizes is at odds with the ideological appurtenances of decentralized capital flows, which include feminism, multiculturalism, and the ever-expanding universe of sexual identities, all three of which would wither in an atmosphere of greater administration. Greif, of course, says he wants to make the public “dangerous” again—this is his subtle tip of the hat to feminism, multiculturalism, et al., a rose-colored (and I mean “rose” as in pink) look back at the ’60s as some Hegelian fulfillment of earlier radicalism rather than the new (let us say Nietzschean) thing that it actually was: not the climax of the 1930s but the prologue to the 1980s. In any case, let me ask again: what does Greif really want? The re-institution of the draft? Maybe we can invade Russia.

Enough politics; let’s talk literature. Was there a truly first-rate writer among the Partisan Review crowd? Auden and Bellow and Camus and Orwell are very good, of course, but also too smart and well-intentioned to be of the first rank, none of them crazy enough. Greif mentions Eliot (with a few other relatively enlightened European rightists, such as Benn and Jünger), but he was an ideological outlier and not part of the central group. Along with Eliot, Ralph Ellison (also not really in the inner circle) no doubt comes closest. Like Eliot, whom he admired, he had too strong a sense of the literary tradition qua tradition to put all his faith in mass mobilization or in any kind of politics at all. The mature Ellison seems to me to have been a realist, in the polisci not the litcrit sense; he knew what politics were good for and did not delude himself that they were good for everything. His is perhaps the example we should be following. From “The World and the Jug,” as Ellison patiently tries to explain to an exemplary New York Intellectual that sociology can never do the work of literary criticism:

I like your part about Chekhov arising from his sickbed to visit the penal colony at Sakhalin Island. It was, as you say, a noble act. But shouldn’t we remember that it was significant only because Chekhov was Chekhov, the great writer? You compliment me truly, but I have not written so much or so well, even though I have served a certain apprenticeship in the streets and even touch events in the Freedom Movement in a modest way. But I can also recall the story of a certain writer who succeed with a great fanfare of publicity in having a talented murderer released from prison. It made for another very short story which ended quite tragically—though not for the writer: A few months after his release the man killed the mother of two young children. I also know of another really quite brilliant writer who, under the advice of certain wise men who were then managing the consciences of artists, abandoned the prison of his writing to go to Spain, where he was allowed to throw away his life defending a worthless hill. I have not heard his name in years but I remember it vividly; it was Christopher Caudwell,  Christopher St. John Sprigg. There are many such stories, Irving. It’s heads you win, tails you lose, and you are quite right about my not following Baldwin, who is urged on by a nobility—or is it a demon—quite different from my own. It has cost me quite a pretty penny, indeed, but then I was always poor and not (and I know this is a sin in our America) too uncomfortable.

My own position, by the way, is not that global capitalism is a-okay, but rather that the post-modern waning of the nineteenth century’s utopian dreams has returned western culture to pre-modern and non-western norms, norms that put less faith in the state’s ability to materialize and reproduce the nation. A part of me mourns this development too, I can assure you (that would be my civic-republican side, to follow this blog’s vocabulary for my ongoing inner political debate, which confuses me but which I self-servingly prefer to the dead-certainties of the Twitterati). My anarchist side says we might just have to get used to it. From the point of view of art, getting used to it will mean learning to form artistic relations and institutions that do not rely on the nation-state for their material existence or, more importantly, their spiritual justification. There will still be people after The People.


2 comments on “After the Public

  1. Vett
    26 February 2015

    Hello again. I was thinking of asking you, in our previous conversation, what you thought of Greif’s article. I’m afraid I can’t quite tell the offending phrase in the excerpt you’ve quoted, but only because the article’s most offending phrase, I thought, was in a part you didn’t quote — the very last one of his article, when he states that the task of the intellectual (here tellingly used sans “public”) is “to face off against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down “big ideas,” and call that world what it is: stupid”. I read that, and I recall, since I still think primarily of Greif as one of the founders of “n+1”, an article from “n+1″‘s second issue:

    “The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us. You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don’t have to read “that stuff” anymore—the ones who never read it in the first place. But who will insult these people now, expose their life as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren’t regularly insulted.” (

    It has been a decade since Gessen, Greif et al. have been heralding “n+1” as the second coming of the Partisan Review; they have done very well with it, but they are still complaining about not being taken seriously? Hence my problem with Greif’s article: it seems that the kind of readership he’s pining for isn’t so much the kind of educated readership that “n+1” already has, but the kind of old-middlebrow readers from the white-collar classes, and I’m guessing especially those involved in government, who should pay heed to what he proposes. He reserves himself the right to insult these people, while reminding them of their obligation not only to listen to him, but also to see to his material comfort. This is the part I find disquieting. He wants public intellectuals to make the public “more dangerous” to “elites”, yet practically says they deserve to be decorated for it. I guess it all goes back to “n+1″‘s position on elites (seen here in the comment on a “small elite of global origin, but funneled through American private universities”) where the bottom line was: “don’t trust any of these Harvard people, except, well, us.” (They’ve paywalled that particular article:

    When he talks of the public intellectual, he seems to have an idea of the function completely different from my own, in that I imagine the public intellectual as primarily establishmentarian, intentionally or not. (I’m thinking of all that CIA money funneled through magazines where such intellectuals could be found.) Howard Adelman’s commentary on the Greif article ( mentions the Canadian intellectual situation, where the intellectuals were “always beholden to the state” in the absence of any other structure robust enough to sustain them; and I’m not that certain whether a Greif can avoid a similar situation in the United States, except through, paradoxically, those same American private universities.

    I know you want to talk literature, but I don’t sense this is what he’s after, and it has only grown worse since “n+1” chose to associate with Occupy. What Greif calls “erudite rage”, however, has been there since the beginning. Sometime around 2007, Gessen had responded to an article critical of “n+1″‘s “Anger Mission”: “Yup, we’re angry. There’s a lot to be angry about. Now piss off.” The problem with “erudite rage” isn’t the erudition; it’s the rage, and more precisely, it’s the belief that the erudition excuses the rage, or ennobles it. And what was Occupy, if not aimless rage? Considering its Adbusters genesis, I’m not even sure it wasn’t intended as performance art, until a few Howard Beale types showed up. And when the intellectuals finally made an appearance, it gave us that article at the Chronicle of Higher Education about Occupy’s organizing principles owing “a debt to the ethnography of Madagascar”. Even a technocratic liberal like Thomas Frank saw there was no way it could succeed. Still, we now get to enjoy the hilarious situation involving Justine Tunney. And there’s “n+1” which hasn’t been the same since that time.

    Before Occupy, at least, the magazine still paid lip service to literature, even if it manifested itself through a dismissal of lit blogs, motivated primarily as an attack against capitalism (see for example which repeats the n+1 claim that lit blogs are “easily succumbing to the capitalist tendencies of publicity and consumption” without ever considering whether those capitalist tendencies might also apply to oh, say, a literary print magazine originally bankrolled by I don’t know who exactly). One of n+1’s worst post-Occupy articles, I thought, was the one they wrote about world literature (, which more or less told the rest of the world what kind of literature it should be producing: no past trauma, please, because “past horrors, unlike contemporary ones, also tend to be events liberal readers agree about”, and above all there must be “opposition to prevailing tastes, ways of writing, and politics”. And yet, I can’t remember in which Canadian literary magazine I’ve read this, but it suggested that today it’s braver to defend Michael Ondaatje than to dismiss him as “n+1” does; and perhaps today’s bravery is to consider that the “prevailing tastes, ways of writing, and politics” are those of the Brooklyn liberal intelligentsia which “n+1” represents. But if you, as a foreign-language writer, oppose those, it’s a familiar story: no translation for you.

    Which is a sort of “international socialism”, if you wanted to stretch it.

    • johnpistelli
      27 February 2015

      Hi Vett! I am familiar with the n+1/litblog debate you link as I was, alas, a member of the Long Sunday group blog, which was not one of my better experiences on the Internet! I also recall how aggressively n+1 addressed itself to blogs even as it eventually derided them, and I have corresponded with Keith Gessen (who, to be fair, seems like a very nice guy). I suppose the types of blogs they had in mind back then were the kind that now have migrated over to and make more sense on social media than on freestanding sites: they are largely concerned with commercial fiction and they evaluate it on commercial criteria. Like the Brooklyn boys (and there is a point to be made here about gender, but it’s not worth trying to make it in the current climate of absolute polarization), I am not interested in that kind of thing, but neither do I see the point in railing against it, training the heavy artillery of Frankfurt School critique on people who like romance novels. If mass culture is dismissible from the point of view of aesthetics, then dismiss it, which is to say don’t talk about it, which is what I try to do. The problem, as you say, is the n+1ers don’t want to dismiss it; they want to be part of it, or rulers of it. This is what I have against the whole trend of nostalgia for the midcentury: it is a misguided desire to be at the center of culture again, which was never the situation of the writer in modernity and can’t be the situation of the great writer in a differentiated and complex society. There are too many mediating institutions for any very sophisticated achievement to reach everyone as soon as it’s published. As for the success of the midcentury writers, I like Brian A. Oard’s suggestion (see here at the paragraph beginning “Whenever I wane nostalgic”) that it was based on the lifting of sexual restrictions on literary content and the consequent brief vogue for dirty literary novels, mainly because they were dirty and not because they were literary. Anyway, your point about public intellectuals being of necessity policy intellectuals, imbricated with the state, is the key; hence their instrumentalization of literature and their vulgar chasing after fashionable causes. I suspect eventually Elif Batuman will be regarded as the best writer to have come out of n+1.

      Some scattered remarks in passing:

      1. Here is a hint as to where the n+1 money comes from. (It might go without saying, but I don’t endorse the overall editorial line of the linked website.) I try very hard not to write out of resentment on the Internet, even though resentment and porn seem like the main things the Internet was invented to disseminate, but I can’t resist expectorating a bit of naive but honest frustration that money and connections can get novels as weak as All the Sad Young Literary Men and Indecision (granted I didn’t finish the latter) published when my poor Portraits and Ashes, much more compelling than those two, has to languish! Okay, expectoration over.

      2. I was being slightly mischievous, but the “potentially offending phrase” was “[a] small elite of global origin”; I thought the last phrase had a sinisterly euphemistic sound.

      3. My sense is that blogs are dead, deader than the novel or the lyric poem. It’s all social media now, and if you exclude yourself from the Twitter colloquy/mob, you might as well not exist. Better not to exist than to be hashtagged to death, though. The Canadian novelist Douglas Cooper once said that he liked to work in dead forms, like the novel, since, being dead already, they were not sick and dying like all the other and more “current” forms.

      4. Now Justine Tunney…I wonder if she will come to be seen as exemplary of our time in ways that are not yet perceptible.

      5. At a certain point I loved Michael Ondaatje, around age 21-22. Later on, I was told by another Long Sunday person that The English Patient was merely an apologia for imperialism. I never revisited him or it; I wonder if I would love him as much now. I will say that there’s a grain of truth, even on aesthetic rather than political grounds, to the n+1 objection to fiction about past political horror; I do think it invites pre-programmed responses and inhibits critical thought, and I generally avoid novels on such subjects for that reason.

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This entry was posted on 23 February 2015 by in essays, literature, politics.
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