OWS, Public Intellectuals, and the Demands of Justice

Astute, compelling article by Henry Giroux explaining how the participants of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement can be understood as taking up the role of public intellectuals: Occupy Colleges Now:  Students as the New Public Intellectuals

….As people move or are pushed by authorities out of their makeshift tent cities in Zuccotti Park and other public spaces in cities across the United States, the harsh registers and interests of the punishing state become more visible. The corporate state cannot fight any longer with ideas because their visions, ideologies and survival of the fittest ethic are bankrupt,  fast losing any semblance of legitimacy. Students all over the country are changing the language of politics while reclaiming pedagogy as central to any viable notion of agency, resistance and collective struggle.

In short, they have become the new public intellectuals, using their bodies, social media, new digital technologies, and any other viable educational tool to raise new questions, point to new possibilities, and register their criticisms of the various antidemocratic elements of casino capitalism and the emerging punishing state…..

Giroux’s work and the courage of the OWS movement gives us reason to reflect on what precisely is meant by the of “public intellectual”

Twentieth-century Russian author Yevengy Zamyatin, author of We, arguably the world’s first dystopian novel, wrote: “The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy.” Zamyatin was principally concerned with what he saw as the forces of entropy, those wishing to reach the conclusion, to uncover social, even scientific finality. He actually witnessed this desire and tendency in revolutionaryRussia where the newly empowered set out to constrain the imagination of the very intellectuals who had initially supported them. The problem with those seeking finality is, according to Zamyatin, that “[t]here are no final revolutions; no final numbers.” The ideas he expresses date back to at least ancientGreece when Heraclitus noted that fire was the most basic element of the universe. On a philosophical level, Heraclitus’ view of fire as the universe’s most fundamental building block referred to the fact that the flame of perennial change is the only constant the universe has to offer. Even when cultures resist change, the world around them, indeed the very universe in which they live continues on in a state of flux. For Zamyatin, the heretic is one who understands that both the beauty of existence and the reality of existence require the acceptance of constant change.

In reading Edward W. Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, there is no mistake that he, too, grips the mantra of the heretics: “Real intellectuals, according to Benda’s definition, are supposed to risk being burned at the stake, ostracized, or crucified. They are symbolic personages marked by their unyielding distance from practical concerns.”[1] For Said, the ideal intellectual is an iconoclast unconstrained by convention; the intellectual is a heretic in exile from institutions, not only ready for change but also ready to spur it on.

The task of the intellectual, as conceived by Said, is to be out at the front of the curve of change, to oppose the forces of inertia which exalt the status-quo and thus misguide the charging train that is life. The moment an idea becomes canonized as dogma that idea poses a threat to the reality of constant change. Must intellectuals be persistently confrontational? The answer is a resounding yes. Said writes that intellectuals, “have to be in a stage of almost permanent opposition to the status quo….”[2] Whereas institutions are predisposed to fortification and the establishment of sedentary ideals that soon turn to stone, Said asserts that intellectuals, at this point almost interchangeable with Zamyatin’s idea of a heretic, should be least interested in making “his/her audience feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”[3]

Envisioning intellectuals as the “fathers and mothers of movements,” [4] Said argues that the intellectual must be an iconoclast who refuses the constraints of institutionalization. She must declare allegiances to no one but her own rationally formulated opinion. The intellectual must embrace revolt; must be on the cusp of cultural revolt, so that she may help steer the future toward the most humane path. He warns that the consequence of claiming heresy as one’s faith is exile; however, exile, according to Said, is not only good but, in some ways, necessary. It makes one marginal[5] and frees one from proceeding with caution.[6]  Being an exile keeps the imagination and the critical incisiveness of the intellectual sharp. He directly says that the role of the intellectual “has an edge to it”; that the task of the intellectual is to “confront orthodoxy and dogma” rather than produce them.[7] The perspective of the exile enables one to recognize that what is today is not the result, the finale; it is not something “unchangeable, permanent, irreversible.”[8] The importance of exile is also made manifest when contrasted with the dangers of professionalism as Said envisions them. He contends that professionalism, as an attitude, poses the greatest threat to the intellectual today precisely because it limits one’s mobility, one’s ability to drift into intellectual exile.[9] Professionalism constrains heretical thinking.

The problem of accepting admission into institutions of any kind is that history shows very few individuals are willing to rise to the task of a heretic. That is few are able to break free of the institutions into which they admit themselves, even when such an institution is upholding abhorrent policies. While some may have the strength to withstand the imposition of power that comes from becoming a member of an organization, historically most have proven ill-equipped to withstand such a tidal wave of pressures, limitations and dogmatism. As Noam Chomsky asserts in his work, Hegemony or Survival, the reasoning of those in institutions are often limited by the fact that what is reasonable to the institution may not be reasonable or in the best interest of the broader society.

The trouble with renouncing dogma is that it requires the realization that nothing is everlasting. This idea is not only disturbing to many, it can literally be accused of collapsing the institution of hope, that which urges one to push onward and give life and blood for the cause of a lifetime. The problem with human beings’ conscious desire for this kind of inorganic conclusion, be it to personal relationships, political ideals, professional objectives, or any number of other issues is that the universe refuses stasis. In order to “arrive,” be it intellectually, politically or otherwise requires human beings to ignore new truths and the sanguinary consequences of their calcification: lives turned to corpses against the hard rock of their obstinate prejudices and principles. The purpose of the public intellectual, as articulated by Edward W. Said, is to constantly march minds into the intellectual and moral revolution required by the universe and, more often than not, the principles of human justice.

[1] Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage books, 1996), 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 63.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 60-61

[9] Ibid., 74.


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