UK paperback


Militias, message force multipliers, and Christopher Hitchens

Attention: there is a new album by Whitesnake available at Amie St. The first track goes like this:

You may imagine I am making the horns.

What’s that? You were expecting something about Unspeak too? Oh, very well.

“Radical cleric” Muqtada al-Sadr has, I heard a CNN news reporter say the other day, been “refusing to disband his militia”. Well, why should he? After all, everyone knows that a “well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state”, which is why America’s houses need to be stuffed with guns. Perhaps the complaint is that al-Sadr’s militia is not “well-regulated”. In response, al-Sadr pointed petulantly at the Badr Organization, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, and said “They’re a militia, why don’t you tell them to disband?” And the Badrs said “Hey, we’re not a militia: look, it says Organization in our name, how can we be a militia?” And al-Sadr said “All right then, I shall rename the Mahdi Army, from now on it will be called Mahdi, Brown & Root, is that better?” And so it goes.

By the way, Patrick Cockburn’s book on al-Sadr is good: here is my short review of it, together with a review of a book called Mindfucking, which I wish had lived up to its title. Of course, Unspeak is a kind of mindfucking.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, US military “analysts” who appear on TV and defend the administration’s policies are, um, administration stooges who basically say whatever they’re told to say. Who would have guessed? The report contains some lovely Unspeak. These sockpuppets, apparently, are known as message force multipliers, to help the Pentagon gain information dominance in the MindWar being waged against — who else? — the American people themselves.

Lastly, what is an “intellectual”? Darned if I know, given Foreign Policy / Prospect magazines’ new list of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world, from which you are invited to vote for five. Apparently, General Petraeus, “military strategist”, is a public intellectual. Qué? (So, apparently, is Björn Lomborg, here described as an “environmentalist” although he isn’t one.)

Luckily, our old friend Christopher Hitchens is also on the list, and has written an essay explaining what a public intellectual is. Among other things, intellectuals are those people:

who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth

The subtle relationship of Hitchens’s language to truth has often been remarked hereabouts.

The list itself is interesting. There’s a pretty good showing for novelists — Coetzee, Eco, Oz, Pamuk, Rushdie — and favourite Slavoj Zizek also creeps in, to throw custard pies in everyone else’s face.

When you vote, you can also nominate someone who isn’t on the list, but should be. Defend your choice in comments!

  1. 1  William  April 24, 2008, 12:10 am 

    I voted for the author of Unspeak, I can’t believe he wasn’t on the list.

  2. 2  C. Reaves  April 24, 2008, 1:13 am 

    Are you sure the military terms you refer to are Unspeak? Of course you are the expert and a better judge than I, but these terms seem to be just contemporary military jargon, and for the military remarkably straight-forward. Message force multiplier from force multiplier, information dominance from battlefield or air dominance, and PsyOps from psychological operations. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in some ground-truthing. I’ve been around some military people and that is actually the way they speak… for clarity.

  3. 3  L  April 24, 2008, 2:22 am 

    If you, Adam Curtis and Charlie Brooker aren’t on it it must surely be the Greatest Fraud in the History of Mankind.

  4. 4  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 24, 2008, 8:09 am 

    I see from your piece in the Guardian that P. Cockburn has characterized Sadr as, in the words of your review, ‘the only credible representative of a vast Iraqi constituency: the Shia poor’. I remember complaining about Sadr at your blog sometime ago. While being a representative, credible or otherwise, of the Shia poor may not necessarily make one a good guy per se, I am prepared to believe that Sadr may very well be a more interesting fellow than I gave him credit for. It is certainly the case that the Bushes fed him into their boogeyman propaganda machine.

    I have never favored the category of ‘public intellectual’, which has been thrown around a lot in the States at least since the early 90’s. Even so, I particularly don’t think that novelists belong on the list unless they are particularly known for intellectual contributions to the world other than their novels.

    J.M. Coetzee, by whom I’ve read over a dozen books, is a favorite novelist of mine, but he is not a public intellectual on the grounds that he does not generally make analytical, philosophical, or epistemological contributions to public debates. If we are going to include novelists, then why not include others whose brilliant ideas are non-analytical, like artists and musicians. In that case, I would nominate Richard Serra and Brian Eno.

  5. 5  Graham Giblin  April 24, 2008, 8:30 am 

    “Got What You Need”? “Let There Be Rock!” Long Live AC/DC!

    Hitchens’ definition is simply humbug. An intellectual is not what he says, at least not merely. His glib, boozy hauteur is the reason I wish he were not an atheist. He gives us a bad name. I have the feeling he’s a hack, clunking out one mechanically “controversial” essay after another; a professional controversialist rather than a public intellectual; not necessarily such a bad thing in some ways, but that down that potholed boulevard does not lie the guessing after subtle truths.

  6. 6  Steven  April 24, 2008, 12:12 pm 

    Thanks, William and L!

    C — the exact place of those things on a spectrum of Unspeak vs mere jargon is open to debate, I’m sure, but they do tie into the tradition, discussed in the book, of blurring war vs non-war vocabularies. (Appearing on TV is not itself an act of war.) MindWar is a pretty direct translation, as you imply, of PsyOps, but it sounds to me even more brutal when you consider that the enemy is the American public. And information dominance is interesting to the extent that information != truth.

    Jeff —

    J.M. Coetzee, by whom I’ve read over a dozen books, is a favorite novelist of mine, but he is not a public intellectual on the grounds that he does not generally make analytical, philosophical, or epistemological contributions to public debates.

    Depends what you mean by “generally”, I guess. He did eg give the Tanner Lectures on “The Lives of Animals” at Princeton in 1998-1999, later worked into Elizabeth Costello; and he does write public literary criticism. I think he is no less a “public intellectual” than Petraeus or Pope Ratzinger or Malcolm Gladwell. Although it would be interesting to know whether he made this year’s list on the strength of someone supposing that the political essays in Diary of a Bad Year could be taken, in some reliable and uncomplicated way, as reflecting Coetzee’s own opinions. That would be funny.

    You’re right that there’s no reason why musicians or artists can’t be “public intellectuals”. Instead of Eno, I nominate Eminem.

    Hitchens’s relationship with Leo Strauss has been the subject of some debate here before. I’m starting to think that language’s “subtle relationship to truth” sounds awfully Straussian.

  7. 7  lamentreat  April 24, 2008, 12:48 pm 

    Alexander Kluge does analytical and non-analytical; is an artist, intellectual, entrepreneur and all-round good egg.

    There can’t be many people who have an important place in both literary and cinema history, have written stacks of serious social theory, established an important film school, set up a TV production company, made decades of idiosyncratic and important TV programmes. And, at various points in a long life, been Adorno’s lawyer and Fritz Lang’s assistant.

  8. 8  John Meredith  April 24, 2008, 4:32 pm 

    “I’m starting to think that language’s “subtle relationship to truth” sounds awfully Straussian.”

    Unless you replace it in the decidedly un-Straussian context of the clause that followed: “and who are willing and able to nail a lie.”

    Really, your campaign against ‘unspeak’ will lose any moral force it might have if you keep deliberately misrepresenting your opponents like this.

  9. 9  Steven  April 24, 2008, 5:42 pm 

    Don’t be silly: it’s hardly deliberate misrepresentation of Hitchens for me to say that I am starting to think that something he wrote sounds (implicitly: to me) Straussian. To what extent the subsequent “and who are willing and able to nail a lie” is consistent with “who guess [language’s] subtle relationship to truth” is an interesting question. The problem is that I don’t know what Hitchens means by the first, or how he intended the second to work with it, if indeed he really thought about it very hard before writing. Perhaps you do know, in which case you are welcome to illuminate us.

    I can’t resist pointing out that there is nothing “decidedly un-Straussian” about being willing to nail a lie if by that one means successfully propagating a really big whopper.

    In the mean time, perhaps you’ll be so good as to enumerate the other places where I have been deliberately misrepresenting my opponents. Or you could just withdraw the accusation of habitual dishonesty.

  10. 10  John Meredith  April 24, 2008, 6:03 pm 

    “In the mean time, perhaps you’ll be so good as to enumerate the other places where I have been deliberately misrepresenting my opponents.”

    Well there is an example in that there post:

    “I can’t resist pointing out that there is nothing “decidedly un-Straussian” about being willing to nail a lie if by that one means successfully propagating a really big whopper.”

    I think it extremely unlikely that you understand the expression ‘nail a lie’ to mean ‘successfully propagate a lie’. Certainly in the context of the Hitchens article you would have to be very perverse to come to that reading. It is obvious that you are deliberately trying to misrepresent the very clear point that is being made (that Hitchens believes a public intellectual should be able and willing to spot and expose lies). Not ‘unspeak’, perhaps, but there are other words for it. Not nice ones. You should have resisted.

  11. 11  John Meredith  April 24, 2008, 6:06 pm 

    “Or you could just withdraw the accusation of habitual dishonesty.”

    There was no such accusation, by the way. I said you would lose moral force IF you kept misrepresenting opponents. I didn’t claim you habitually did. I am sure that was an accidental misreading rather than a cynical one (see how generous I am?).

  12. 12  Steven  April 24, 2008, 6:11 pm 

    I think you would have to be very perverse to think that my sentence beginning “I can’t resist pointing out…” was a serious attempt to misrepresent Hitchens.

    Anyway, since you refuse to withdraw your accusation of habitual dishonesty, I will treat any further comments from you with all the respect they deserve.

    Edit: posted before I saw your comment #11. Ah, good. I am happy you intended no accusation of habitual dishonesty. You have, however, still accused me of “deliberate misrepresentation” ie dishonesty in two specific cases during this thread. Absent withdrawal of those accusations I shall treat your comments etc.

  13. 13  Roger Migently  April 24, 2008, 6:26 pm 

    You don’t have to try very hard to guess the subtle relationship to truth in the phrase “if you keep deliberately misrepresenting your opponents”. To a reasonable person it clearly asserts that there is evidence of an existing pattern, or a habit, or an inclination. That was – a reasonable person might think – the intention of the phrase and it is therefore, despite the denial, a deliberate misrepresentation of the opponent.

  14. 14  Alex Higgins  April 24, 2008, 6:26 pm 

    Well that was fun.

    I just voted for Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen, Al Gore, Jared Diamond and Wang Hui.

    My highly subjective criteria being that I should like them and wish to encourage them and/or they are on the receiving end of mean-spirited drivel from their spiritual inferiors.

    Sorry, Steven, I voted to add the fabulous Naomi Klein to the list. Surprised she wasn’t on there actually while the charlatan Bjorn Lomborg, whose influence is surely on the wane, was.

    Maybe your forthcoming secret book will change everything…

    Part of me also wants to try and get Dsquared on the list, although I can see him rejecting the title of Prospect’s top intellectual with contempt…

    Robert Kagan is on there, and he fits Prospect’s amoral criteria alright, but shouldn’t there be some cost if you’re intellectual contributions are monstrous and catastrophic?

    Basically lists like these remind me that I don’t know an awful lot and that I haven’t read so many important books and that I could tell no one anything much about the intellectual life of Korea, or Pakistan, or Eastern Europe or er… Africa however cosmopolitan I might think I am.

  15. 15  Steven  April 24, 2008, 6:30 pm 

    Roger makes a compelling case. If someone kicks you once, you say: “If you kick me again, I will stamp on your ice cream.” Only if they kick you multiple times would you say: “If you keep kicking me, I will slap you upside the head.”

    Alex — no need to apologise re Naomi Klein, I think. And dsquared is unarguably more deserving than many on the list.

    Maybe your forthcoming secret book will change everything…

    I very much doubt it.

  16. 16  JamieSW  April 25, 2008, 1:07 am 

    Well, I voted for: Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Amartya Sen, Peter Singer and James Lovelock.

    However, I did it in a bit of a rush – if I could go again I’d include Tariq Ramadan and Al Gore, probably in place of James Lovelock and Richard Dawkins (who isn’t exactly lacking in exposure, and in any event is now known more for his “militant atheism” than for his science writing, which is the main reason I like him).

    Al Gore is not really an intellectual, as such, but he’s very “public” and has been of critical importance in spreading public awareness about climate change (on which note, he’s apparently at work on a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth).

    I chose Peter Singer because meat consumption is becoming increasingly important not only in terms of animal ethics but in terms of climate change and world hunger. Plus I’ve recently decided to become a vegan (which is not to say I have actually become one yet!), so he was on my mind.

    For my ‘write-in’ vote I chose Norman Finkelstein, not only because he is a brilliant and courageous scholar but because of what happened to him last year at DePaul. The thought of seeing Dershowitz’ face if he won was, of course, an added incentive.

  17. 17  Steven  April 25, 2008, 1:19 am 

    I voted for Zizek, Gore (certainly no less a “public intellectual” than Ratzinger, Lomborg etc), Singer, Smolin (see Cosmic Variance on how biologists are kicking poor physicists’ asses on the list), and Chomsky. The last, I must admit, in part because of the people his victory would annoy.

    Actually, a Gore victory might even annoy more people. My advice to readers: Vote Gore, like all those Americans in 2000! As if a Nobel, a presidential election, and inventing the internet weren’t enough for the guy.

    My discretionary candidate: Stanley Fish. Of course.

  18. 18  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 25, 2008, 4:26 am 

    Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures, a.k.a. The Lives of Animals, a.k.a. two chapters of Elizabeth Costello, exemplify why he is a novelist and not a public intellectual. Given the opportunity to give a lecture series at Princeton, he chose to deliver fictive lectures. I have also heard him do this in person at the New York Public Library, where, in lieu of a lecture, he delivered a new story about Elizabeth Costello and pornography.

    A ‘fictive lecture’ is a fascinating notion. The OED definition of ‘lecture’ does not necessarily require that the contents of a lecture be attributable to the speaker nor delivered by the speaker in the character of himself. The first definition is, simply,

    ‘1. The action of reading, perusal; also fig. Also, that which is read or perused. arch.’

    But I think we can agree that, by custom if by nothing else, a lecture is a recitation of remarks delivered for the purpose of instruction or sharing of ideas, such that the content of the remarks can be attributed to the speaker as beliefs or as academic instruction. A lecture is thus analytical non-fiction (one hopes).

    A fictive lecture is a different category of thing altogether. In Elizabeth Costello and all its variants and spinoffs, I find Coetzee exploring the novel as its own form of logic or reasoning, distinct from analytical logic. The portion of the book that, to my mind, comes closest to being the thoughts of Coetzee appears on pages 199 to 201 of the American paperback edition where he turns to Keats’s negative capability. It is here that she/he says: ‘I have beliefs but I do not believe in them.’ The EC novel is committed to the rigor of investigating how language, narrative, and character embody the action of thinking, but it has no interest in persuading us of any analytical findings. It is brilliant and experimental in many ways, but a public intellectual must be someone who cares to persuade us of content that he believes. And so I realize something else about the nature of the public intellectual: it is someone who practices rhetoric, in the classical sense of the word, in order to advance his beliefs. Coetzee is no such person.

    Yes, Coetzee has written literary criticism and essays on topics of sincere belief, censorship for instance, but he is far less distinguished for these activities than for his novels. I don’t mean to dis him, but many of us would not read or have access to his criticism were it not for the novels.

  19. 19  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 25, 2008, 4:39 am 

    As for President Al Gore, he is indeed an intellectual. If I had not just spent the leisure portion of my evening discoursing on Coetzee, I would go into greater detail. Gore is as smart a person as has ever participated in American politics. He thinks in big-picture paradigms. It is one thing to advocate environmental change, which he does very well. He has done the intellectual work of understanding and articulating that such change will require that we, in his words, ‘internalize the externalities’, i.e. find a way to count as costs all the harmful consequences of capitalist activity that corporations and producers currently need not account for, e.g. pollution. The ability to think in such terms and to convince and instruct others to do likewise is the surest mark of a public intellectual.

    And may I further add that the current mess in the Democratic Party is entirely his fault. On the off chance that he is an Unspeak reader, this last bit is for him:
    Get off your ass and run for re-election already! Your country needs you!

  20. 20  Steven  April 25, 2008, 8:16 am 

    I like very much your case against Coetzee as “public intellectual”, particularly as summed up here:

    a public intellectual must be someone who cares to persuade us of content that he believes. And so I realize something else about the nature of the public intellectual: it is someone who practices rhetoric, in the classical sense of the word, in order to advance his beliefs. Coetzee is no such person.

    Well said. Nonetheless, I would not wish him off the list!

  21. 21  Alex Higgins  April 25, 2008, 7:29 pm 

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that temptation to vote for the purposes of afflicting the comfortable and irritating.

    And I think Al Gore certainly counts as a public intellectual and recommend his book on American democracy, capitalism and the media – “The Assault on Reason”. It’s very impressive for a mainstream politician.

    I don’t admire very much of his career prior to the moment he was shafted in 2000 (apart from the Internet! That was wicked!), but since then he’s done great things. And I think he may cherish the freedom he has when he’s not running for office, which certainly suits him better.

  22. 22  Alex Higgins  April 25, 2008, 7:50 pm 

    Ratzinger is certainly a public intellectual, but it can hardly escape notice that his main intellectual influence is likely to have been the repression of other Catholic intellectuals whose contributions I suspect will prove more enduring in the long term – Hans Kung, Leonardo Boff, Sr Jeannine Gramick, Fr Jacques Dupuis etc.

    As for Bjorn Lomborg – his primary role in public life is that of an Internet troll, someone who wastes everybody’s time with attention-seeking distractions and bogus arguments that require some effort to unpick but contribute nothing to our sum of knowledge even when disproved.

  23. 23  sw  April 26, 2008, 7:00 am 

    Shocked to find that Paul Wolfowitz was nowhere on the list, I sighed, sadly straightened my tie, and voted for Gore, Zizek, and some three others, mostly – pace Steve – with an eye on who would be most annoyed by their victory.

    I also like Jeff Hussein Strabone’s definition of public intellectual, and agree with his insistence that Gore be considered one. Spot on!

    I hate to do this – I really do, if only because it will convince everybody that I would receive a lot of votes for Public Cock – but I suggest that if one thinks that Jacques Derrida might ever have been considered a “Public Intellectual”, one would have to grant that title to Coetzee. Both approach such things as rhetoric and belief – truly, as Jeff Hussein Strabone points out, key features of the Public Intellectual – as matters of citation/quotation and interpretation. Derrida did this in his wonderful ways (one of which, I just realised, is quite funny: as if saying a familiar word over and over again until it seems strange and alienated, Derrida would take a concept – like “signature” in Limited Inc – and go over it again and again, quoting it and re-quoting it, until it became something else, something tangible, something one could roll over one’s tongue, and certainly not the thing it once was); Coetzee’s rhetoric is fiction, which is always a form of self-quotation, and always a form of citation (of other authors, of the features of the genre, of fiction itself). And in their rhetorics, ideas become displaced, even as they are made public; with this displacement, belief is no longer a core of the speaker, but subject to interpretation, infiltrated by characterization, wrapped up in the gauze of narrative. Persuasion, contained within both belief and rhetoric, is an aesthetic matter: and you yourself, Jeff, are sufficiently persuaded to have read his novels and to consider him a “favourite novelist”. That you are not necessarily persuaded to forsake meat (even as Costello herself is never really persuaded that she will persuade anybody of her opinion, and even as Costello is clearly a lousy public intellectual) is not the measure of his success as a Public Intellectual. For the very reasons Jeff Hussein Strabone discusses, Coetzee is the paragon of a Public Intellectual, one who responds precisely to Hitchens’ flabby buffoonery about language and its “subtle relationship to truth”, where “subtle” is supposed to reflect back onto Hitchens’ own observation and not some actual characteristic of the relationships between language and truth – which, not to put too fine a point on it, are topics of some interest to Derrida and Coetzee.

  24. 24  Roger Migently  April 26, 2008, 7:35 am 

    I have just looked at the Great Big Thinking Contest page. I wonder if there is going to be a reality TV show based on this? “Thinking with the Stars”, perhaps? Or, “So You Think You can Think”? Or “I Think Therefore I Scam”? You know, you cheer for your favourite intellectual and one by one they get thrown out of the house.

    After all, isn’t the way it’s set up just a meaningless popularity contest? Who’s hot this week? David Petraeus is big this week, in the news and all, but Al Gore had it hands down last week.

    Also, what the fuck is Lee Kuan Yew doing on the list? He’s just a thug.

    On the basis of FP‘s criteria …

    Candidates must be living and still active in public life. They must have shown distinction in their particular field as well as an ability to influence wider debate, often far beyond the borders of their own country

    … George W. Bush has to win hands down.

  25. […] IMEMC News – International Middle East Media Center – IMEMC wrote an interesting post today on Comment on Intellectuals by Roger MigentlyHere’s a quick excerpt… George W. Bush has to win hands down. […]

  26. 26  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 26, 2008, 9:54 pm 

    I’m glad that I specified that I meant ‘rhetoric’ in the classical sense, for I can now draw a sharper distinction between my argument and SW’s. At comment 23, SW wrote: ‘Persuasion, contained within both belief and rhetoric, is an aesthetic matter[…]’.

    The question of æsthetic appreciation does not arise until the eighteenth-century Scottish rhetoricians, beginning with Adam Smith’s and Hugh Blair’s lectures on ‘rhetoric and belles lettres’. The study of rhetoric had changed dramatically in Europe in the two centuries before Adam Smith began his lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres in Edinburgh in 1748. In the wake of Peter Ramus’s new division of rhetoric and the spread of belles lettres, the focus of rhetoric in Europe, and France especially, increasingly turned towards elocution, delivery, and style. Smith’s incorporation of the French belletristic tradition into English rhetoric marked a major step towards the construction of English-language literature as an object of academic study.

    (For more on Scottish rhetoric’s response to Ramus and belles lettres, see Neil Rhodes, ‘From Rhetoric to Criticism’, in Robert Crawford, ed. The Scottish Invention of English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998). For treatments of Smith’s rhetoric in light of his contributions to licensing subjective aesthetic experience and, indeed, ‘the production of modern subjectivity itself’ (Sorensen, p. 141), see Janet Sorensen, The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), chapter four; and Ian Duncan, ‘Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson and the Institutions of English’, in Crawford, ed., The Scottish Invention, chapter two.)

    I will therefore stick to my pre-modern conception of rhetoric in the definition of ‘public intellectual’ and tell the post-modernist SW that he is wrong. Although I am a literary scholar by day, I am a person of the real world at other times, and in this other world people advocate for what they believe in. I am currently advocating that luxury duplexes under construction on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn be demolished. I am not, or at least not chiefly, investigating the properties of rhetoric or narrative or anything else in this advocacy. I am simply trying to knock the apartments down. (Duplexi delendi sumus.)

    As for Derrida in particular, who considered himself chiefly a philosopher, he contributed a method of reading to the world and his many public appearances advocated for it on the world stage. He satisfied the definition of public intellectual.

    I still argue that Coetzee’s literature does not itself advocate for literature. ‘Advocate’ is understood best in its narrowest sense of for-ness, i.e. that advocacy is an action undertaken for something else. From the OED:

    lit. One called in, or liable to be called upon, to defend or speak for.

    ‘2. fig. and gen. One who pleads, intercedes, or speaks for, or in behalf of, another; a pleader, intercessor, defender.

    b. Specially, applied to Christ as the Intercessor for sinners.

    3. One who defends, maintains, publicly recommends, or raises his voice in behalf of a proposal or tenet.’

    As counter-intuitive as this may sound, a literary writer thus does not advocate for literature by writing literature. He or she writes literature and, if so inclined, argues for it by other modes of language use.

    Again, I am not dissing literary writers and other artists by refusing to call them ‘public intellectuals’. It is valuable to distinguish artists from public intellectuals primarily because artists are more special. I am thus in a position akin to that of religious people who support the separation of church and state not for the usual reasons but to defend the church from the state.

    Finally, I am persuaded by SW’s advocacy and hereby cast my vote for him as Public Cock.

  27. 27  sw  April 26, 2008, 11:22 pm 


    After your generous posting, I don’t see why you end up reducing Public Intellectuals to some sort of Public Advocate; as I had said, I liked your suggestions about the roles of rhetoric and belief, but didn’t think that they had to be so firmly anchored in “classical” rhetoric or a specific belief in a specific idea. Neither Derrida nor Coetzee, the two people I was commenting on, are writing in the “classical” rhetorical tradition, and, in fact, I would question whether any of the listed “Public Intellectuals” operates in that tradition.

    Nevertheless, I do hope you are a better reader of whatever it is you read during your day job as a “literary scholar” than you are of someone’s blog posts, because I do not say that advocacy is impossible, or that someone cannot be “for” something sincerely, unequivocably, or that there isn’t a “real world” etc. And I certainly don’t think that I say that Coetzee is “advocating for literature”. Instead, I am talking about two writers – Coetzee and Derrida – and I am arguing – quickly, I accept – that they have something in common in their approach to rhetoric and belief (based on an ongoing, public investigation into the nature of quotation and citation – and I may entirely misleading and misspeaking when I say such things), and that this commitment to public inquiry and the question of how rhetoric relates to belief, through various genres (in Coetzee’s case, fiction, reviews, speeches) merits them the epithet Public Intellectual.

    Finally, I think that your claims about how writers can only argue for writing and the value of literature through “other modes of language” is as weightless as your condescending claim that artists are “special” and your patronising claim that Derrida “contributed a method of reading” and that his role as a Public Intellectual was to go around and shill for this “method of reading”. Even before Adam Smith and Hugh Blair such arguments would be met with a cry of “Baloney!” by all but the most sentimental chuckleheads.

    I leave you now – I reject the silly label “post-modernist”, but will accept the label “Public Cock” as the final mark that registers my presence here.

  28. 28  Steven  April 26, 2008, 11:40 pm 

    It’s like a Federer-Nadal final here.

    I wish I had more time to contribute right now, but I don’t. That being said, I would like to chafe, with sw and against Professor Hussein Strabone, against the notion of a public intellectual merely being someone who engages in advocacy of a particular view. Stanley Fish, my non-list pick, is gleefully careful in his NY Times blog about never offering an opinion on the “substantive political issues”, but merely pointing at the arguments being had and saying: “That’s bollocks, because no one is taking into account x, y, and z.”

    I think crying “That’s bollocks” is and has been a precious role for public intellectuals through the ages (cf Zizek & Derrida also, and all the way back to Socrates at least), and they don’t need at the same time to “advocate” something positive to prove their value.

    Perhaps the advocate of the advocacy view would simply respond: “The intellectual in this case is advocating that we see the said arguments as bollocks.” I suspect, however, that that may be to weaken the concept of advocacy beyond use.

    What this has to do with Coetzee, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

  29. 29  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 27, 2008, 1:03 am 

    I see that I somehow slipped from ‘persuasion’ to ‘advocacy’ without realizing it. ‘Advocacy’ may be too issue- or cause-oriented for our discussion. Not that it’s SW’s fault, but I think ‘advocacy’ entered my mind when he said ‘you yourself, Jeff, are sufficiently persuaded to have read his novels’, as if the novels were making the case for reading the novels. They did make that case for me, as SW knows from the offline world, where I read all of Coetzee’s novels one after another in the course of a single year, ‘persuaded’ (I prefer ‘seduced’, a word that stands apart from rhetorical persuasion) after each one to read one more.

    But the power of art to make us want to consume more art is not, properly speaking, persuasion. The OED defines ‘persuade’ as:

    ‘To induce to believe or accept a statement, doctrine, etc.; to convince that or of; to urge successfully to think, believe, etc. […] To bring oneself to believe that something is the case; to convince oneself; to become or be sure. […] To urge successfully to do something; to attract, induce, or entice to something or in a particular direction. […] To use persuasion or inducements to win a person over to some opinion or course of action; to plead, make entreaties. […] To succeed in inducing or convincing by persuasion; to convince.’

    Rhetoric, obviously, is ‘The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others’.

    SW has said, italics mine:

    ‘And in their rhetorics, ideas become displaced, even as they are made public; with this displacement, belief is no longer a core of the speaker, but subject to interpretation, infiltrated by characterization, wrapped up in the gauze of narrative.’

    Assuming we are still talking about Coetzee as novelist, what rhetoric? In the modern sense of rhetoric as ‘Literary prose composition, esp. as a school exercise’? The OED gives Richard Whately credit for the first such use in his Elements of Rhetoric in 1828:

    ‘Some writers have spoken of Rhetoric as the Art of Composition, universally; or, with the exclusion of Poetry alone, as embracing all Prose-composition.’

    Coetzee’s novels are that kind of rhetoric, but they are not the kind of rhetoric, i.e. persuasive, that makes one a public intellectual, i.e. someone who practices rhetoric in order to convince us to believe as they do.

    Further clarifications and refutations:
    -Rhetoric in the classical sense means rhetoric as persuasive language, not rhetoric as belles lettres. I was not, as SW seems to imply, comparing C & D to Cicero and Quintilian.
    -Derrida was a public intellectual, as I have defined the term here, by virtue of his contribution and advocacy of deconstructive reading to the public. He has persuaded many to practice this mode of interpretation.
    -There is nothing ‘condescending’ about ranking artists above public intellectuals in order that they not be read merely for content.
    -The OED dates the cry of ‘Baloney!’ to 1928, long after the deaths of Smith and Blair.

    Response to Steve:
    Fish, in your example, is participating in public debates, not writing fiction. He is at least persuading us not believe the claims of others. You are correct, and I did not mean to imply otherwise, that the persuasive speech of public intellectuals, need not be positive advocacy.

  30. 30  Steven  April 27, 2008, 7:21 am 

    Fish, in your example, is participating in public debates, not writing fiction.

    I am happy to confirm that I did not have in mind a picture of Fish typing charming little fables about horsies and princes. But I’m not sure the hard-and-fast distinction between “fiction” and “public debates” can hold. You cannot, of course, mean to imply that works of fiction have not themselves very often been designed as rhetorical salvos in public debates, as someone could write a very long comment citing chapter and verse to the contrary. And I think I might agree with sw if he were to sigh and point out again that every work of fiction is rhetorical at least to the extent that it wishes to persuade us of its own truth.

    In the mean time, Derrida’s rhetorical stance is quite subtle. I don’t recall him ever saying: “Everyone must practise ‘deconstructive reading’!”

    Remember that Baudrillard called his own late works “theory-fictions”.

    To what extent does this apply to Coetzee? Ah, I have a train to catch.

  31. 31  John Fallhammer  April 27, 2008, 4:24 pm 

    Were you going for the Guardian’s fuck-count record in the book review? I bet you didn’t get it.

    I was going to ask if you would feel comfortable reading it aloud to your Gran but then it occurred to me that most grans would really enjoy having something like that read to them, provided it was done deadpan.

    And they’d know how to deal with public intellectuals too.

  32. 32  sw  April 27, 2008, 9:11 pm 

    Hungover, hoarse from karaoke, and at my job on a Sunday – it is under these grim circumstances that I return to the hard work of convincing Jeff Hussein Strabone that he was in fact right when he took the very contrived category of “public intellectual” and chose to define it in terms of rhetoric and belief. Sadly, his ongoing insistence that “rhetoric” has to be defined in its “”classical”” meaning and his unedifying insistence that a public intellectual is “someone who practices rhetoric in order to convince us to believe as they do” (so: a demagogue? a polemicist? a Fox News pundit? They are all now Public Intellectuals?) has cordoned off the vague but intellectually generous terrain he had mapped out for the public intellectual, and confines them now to the same electric cubicle as a Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol.

    Now, I do thank Steve for providing me with a tentatively-endorsed line:

    And I think I might agree with sw if he were to sigh and point out again that every work of fiction is rhetorical at least to the extent that it wishes to persuade us of its own truth.

    Of course. And following Steve’s other point, I would love to offer two quick examples of novelists who might deserve a seat at the Public Intellectuals’ reserved table on account of their fiction alone (because Coetzee already belongs there sans fiction): Philip Roth and Milan Kundera. I would describe their fiction as “charming little fables about horsies and princes – but with erections.” Kundera’s writing in particular is a nice example of what Bahktin offered as the novel’s enduring contribution to belles lettres: polyphony. Amongst those possible multiple voices within the novel is the rhetorical voice, however it is defined. Does this rhetoric have the same quality as the rhetoric of the orator opining on Pastor Wright and trying to convince us that Obama has an electability problem, or even the same quality as the rhetoric of a Lacanian analysing Hitchcock and toilet seats? Of course not. Within the novel it takes on a different shape: the rhetoric gets put in the scare quotes of fiction. I do not think, however, that the anti-Semitism described by Roth or Kundera’s sharp analyses of the Soviet attack on Czechoslovakia have any less rhetorical, strategic, or persuasive power because they are nestled in the midsts of fictional meditations on erectability problems. Coetzee shows in his Tanner Lectures how the citation of fiction (that is, placing a rhetorical voice in the scare quotes of fiction) results in all sorts of interpretative problems about authority and the author’s intent, the ambiguity of communication and language, especially in the context of the imaginative, and the presumed and desired difference between the rhetorical voice(s) and the fictional ones. But perhaps these are not problems of fiction per se but are problems of rhetoric, foregrounded when put into a novel; I alluded to this above with Coetzee and his “lousy” public intellectual, Costello. And so, to return to Steve’s tentative acceptance of my presumed line of reasoning about how a work of fiction might be rhetorical insofar as it must persuade the reader of its own truth; I would go a step further: every work of fiction may be rhetorical to the extent that it wishes to persuade us that rhetoric is never simply reducible to its persuasivity, the beliefs wrapped up in the rhetoric, or the integrity of the orator.

    Professor Strabone should probably consider this in terms of karaoke. For the Professor’s benefit: “Karaoke” is a popular pastime amongst middle-aged businessmen in Asia and, since the Scarlett Johansson vehicle Lost in Translation, urban hipsters; it involves going to a “karaoke bar” where one finds little cubicle-like rooms, each one containing a television and two microphones. With a remote control, one controls what songs are played, while the television screen shows the lyrics, and one gets the opportunity to sing-a-long! It’s jolly good fun! Now, I went to a “karaoke bar” last night with a friend, and we purchased a karaoke room (or, in the lingo of today’s youth, “we holed up a songberth for tapping the ditties”). This friend really loves karaoke: he records every song he performs or wants to perform on his palm pilot (or rather, he records the names of every song he performs or wants to perform; when palm pilots can record sounds, I am sure he will do that, too). This friend and I take our karaoke seriously, and are very judgemental – as one ought to be about an art form. And every karaoke performance is just that: art. For better and for worse. It is art because it is a public product of engagement with culture, ephemeral, aesthetic, and interpretative. And – here’s the rub – every performance is a quotation: it is a recital of someone else’s lyrics, it involves a reference to someone else’s vocal styles (even if it is a rejection of that style – my friend does an excellent David Byrne but needs to do some work on the accents he deploys during renditions of his Britpop faves like Phil Collins and Rick Astley). Every karaoke performance is another iteration of someone else’s musical authorship. The issue is not originality or authorship or the anxiety of influence; these are factual matters of worthy historical or psychological debate, but they are not of primary importance here. What is important and what is judged is the nature of the quotation: who is singing the song now, and how are they singing it? Why do we applaud a friend who sings dirges like Snow Patrol’s Run as if every “Light Up” is accompanied by someone yanking down hard on his testicles? Now, what if the same notion of quotability and citability were true not just for works of art but for ethical matters, political matters, etc? What if the nature of their citation and quotation becomes important? This is more than just a debate about “context” – another subject of Derrida’s critique; it is about the work that quotation does – like paying tribute to a beloved singer who never has and never will hear your tribute. This calls for an evaluation of rhetoric not just on account of how “persuasive” it is or is not, and not as secondary to some ballast of belief for which it is the vessel; it calls for a much closer scrutiny of that aforementioned relationship between language and truth. I hope, Professor Strabone, this inspires you either to read some Derrida or go to a “karaoke bar” – and remember, Professor Strabone, it is considered good etiquette in “karaoke bars” to pat the bottom of whoever just sang and say, “That was fascist! You just rubbed music up my ear!”

  33. 33  Steven  April 27, 2008, 9:42 pm 

    Having hobbled home after nine hours of quite literally shoving and chucking people around and being shoved and chucked around in turn, I would just like to testify — can I testify? — that sw’s comment wracked my exhausted body with the funnies, and then it made me cry, and then — and I mean this as the highest praise — it made me hurl. These three physical tributes to sw’s comment occurred with dizzying rapidity, one upon the other, after my coming across the following line, which is the best description of any literature, ever:

    Philip Roth and Milan Kundera. I would describe their fiction as “charming little fables about horsies and princes – but with erections.”


    Coetzee shows in his Tanner Lectures how the citation of fiction (that is, placing a rhetorical voice in the scare quotes of fiction) results in all sorts of interpretative problems about authority and the author’s intent, the ambiguity of communication and language, especially in the context of the imaginative, and the presumed and desired difference between the rhetorical voice(s) and the fictional ones.

    Quite so. And in doing this (“placing a rhetorical voice in the scare quotes of fiction”, as sw’s unimprovable description has it), Coetzee is — it can hardly be denied — executing a rhetorical ploy.

    In the mean time, sw, I am fascinated to learn of this phenomenon you call the “karaoke bar”. By the sound of it, it calls for more investigation.

    John asks:

    Were you going for the Guardian’s fuck-count record in the book review?

    I did try. In terms of fucks-per-word-count it must be up there, but it is possible that there is a gnome somewhere in the bowels of the Guardian‘s offices whose purpose is to keep track of such things in an Excel spreadsheet, and even now is sadly shaking his head as he finds that my tally just fails to overtake the record set by a notorious column of Polly Toynbee’s.

  34. 34  Steven  April 27, 2008, 9:53 pm 

    By the way, I would also like to pay obeisance to this from sw’s #26:

    Hitchens’ flabby buffoonery about language and its “subtle relationship to truth”, where “subtle” is supposed to reflect back onto Hitchens’ own observation and not some actual characteristic of the relationships between language and truth


  35. 35  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 27, 2008, 11:30 pm 

    I am reluctant to take the argument any further than I have so far lest, in my pursuit of precision, I cross over into foolishness. I certainly don’t think that no artist uses rhetoric or strives to persuade us of anything. I would prefer instead to reiterate my first point and leave it at that.

    This passage, however, is arrant knavery from SW:

    ‘Now, I went to a “karaoke bar” last night with a friend […] my friend does an excellent David Byrne but needs to do some work on the accents he deploys during renditions of his Britpop faves like Phil Collins and Rick Astley).’

    WTF? Why conceal that I am the friend in question from last night, and why associate me with Phil Collins—ghastly!—and Rick Astley? I neither like nor sing their work. Nor do I record what songs I sing.

    Finally, referring to me as ‘Professor’ is about as charming as calling Barack Obama ‘elitist’ or ‘arugula-eater’.

  36. 36  Steven  April 27, 2008, 11:41 pm 

    In a very real sense, Professor Strabone, you asked for it at #25, when you announced, Batman-like, that you were “a literary scholar by day”.

    Anyway, I believe that this says everything there is left to say about rhetoric and fiction.

  37. 37  sw  April 28, 2008, 12:01 am 


  38. 38  leinad  April 28, 2008, 1:15 am 

    Oh for fuck’s sake, Steven.

  39. 39  KB Player  April 28, 2008, 11:14 pm 

    “who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth” is pretty crappy. If someone told me that their relationship with their partner was “subtle” I would guess they meant “difficult” or that they didn’t have a clue what was going on.

    By the way, to use the phrase that you subtly slip in case your readers just might be interested in your review, what is “crunchy delirium”?

  40. 40  Steven  April 29, 2008, 7:28 am 

    The relationship between the phrase “crunchy delirium” and a truth about Parallel Worlds is very subtle. I would love to explain it, but I have to leave in five minutes.

  41. 41  Gregor  May 1, 2008, 12:05 pm 

    I was pleased to read Orhan Pamuk was on the list. He is one of the bravest writers alive, especially as he still lives in Turkey.

    Given Turkey’s traditionally secular and pro-Western stances, it is treated with great indulgence by the media. In fact it still has one of the most brutal and racist governments in the region. The father of one of my aquaintances was recently tortured to death in Cyprus, but the British media never reports on such things.

    Of course, Turkey also has a strong left wing tradition and a comparatively small number of people have achieved great things there. So I am really pleased that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize.

    Of course it didn’t prevent Christopher Hitchens from castigating the Nobel, that it was awarded to a human rights supporter who was actually threatened with imprisonment by his own government. I cannot help noting the contrast between Hitchens in Washington writing rabid self-indulgent screeds about a culture he does not understand and the quiet decency of Pamuk living in Turkey and wanting laws that will benefit the Turks themselves.

  42. 42  Gregor  May 1, 2008, 12:16 pm 

    OK, I voted for Orhan Pamuk, Daniel Barenboim, Al Gore, Slavoj Zizek and Umberto Eco (dunno about Eco, but he gets a hard time and I loved Name of the Rose).

    Overall the list gave me a shock. Yegor ‘I destroyed Russia’s economy’ Gaidar? Niall ‘the British empire was the best thing to happen to Johnny foreigner’ Fergusson? Garry ‘Nazis and Stalinists against Putin’ Kasparov? Christopher ‘there will be no war in Iraq but a brief skirmish’ Hitchens? I half expected Richard Littlejohn to make an appearance.

  43. 43  Gregor  May 1, 2008, 12:36 pm 

    Sorry, just one last thing. I voted for John Gray. He has been wrong about a lot of things but he really p***es off the right people. It is astounding that his very simple message: that secular liberal democracies are the best regimes to live under, yet they are deeply imperfect and do not offer the emotional comforts that other regimes can, is distorted by others. He is often mendaciously paraphrased as saying that secular democracy is worthless.

    It is because he has a different message, and one which I agree with, that I voted for him.

  44. 44  Steven  May 2, 2008, 12:23 am 

    he really p***es off the right people

    I am glad to see we are all voting on this most important criterion!

    Also, I like Pamuk too. I didn’t know Christopher Hitchens had attacked him, but it doesn’t come as any very great surprise.

  45. 45  Gregor  May 2, 2008, 10:04 am 

    Hitchens hadn’t attacked Pamuk, but frequently attacks the ‘Nobel racket’ as he calls it. Largely (judging from his comments) because they haven’t given it to any of his over-rated chums and make the grave error of giving it to authors whose politics he dislikes.

    Having said that he did write a review of Snow which criticised Pamuk (so unfairly that it made me wonder if Hitch had actually read it) for not being explicit enough about the racism in Turkey’s history and politics. Firstly, Pamuk is a writer of fiction not a pamphleteer. Secondly, he does write about the brutality of the Turkish military. Thirdly, Pamuk lives in Turkey where writers are often threatened and murdered by nationalists.

    ‘he really p***es off the right people

    I am glad to see we are all voting on this most important criterion!’

    Absolutely ;)

  46. 46  Tawfiq Chahboune  May 4, 2008, 9:28 pm 

    I seldom disagree with much you have to say, but Al Gore? Oh, come off it, Steven! Especially when Al’s distant cousin, the phenomenon that is Gore Vidal, does not make it, although, if I remember correctly, the great man did make the last Prospect list. Usually I’d discount anyone who believes the Mafia assassinated JFK, but I’m willing to overlook this in Vidal’s case. Incidentally, Hitchens also believes the Mafia was behind JFK’s death.

    And from what I can see, no Akbar Ganji (Iran’s leading dissident) or someone like Mike Davis either. Slightly surprising that. I can certainly understand why people of the caliber of Chomsky, Eco, Diamond possibly (even probably) making the top five. Smolin deserves thinking about almost solely because of his book The Trouble With Physics: a brave and brilliant book, which also rescues Paul Feyerabend a bit from the dimwitted pseudo-intellectuals who’ve clearly never read him and also gives a stunning counterexample to Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” thesis and leaves Popperian scientific method spluttering to explain the current theories dominating theoretical physics.

    However, some of the so-called intellectuals are merely publicity whores, seeking their own pornographic version of that celebrated fifteen minutes of fame: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who advocates an all out war to the faith of some 1.3 billion people), Bjorn Lomborg, and, er, David Petraeus, for pity’s sake. My giddy Aunt, in what way can Martin Wolf, Fareed Zakaria, Thomas Friedman and the various number of theocrats included ever be called “intellectuals”, other than perhaps as one of the silly French definition’s has it of having attended university and since graduating spends time reading books.

    By the way, given the amount of dunces on the list, why does our old friend, the Chuck Norris of political commentary, Oliver Kamm not get a mention?

    When you get a moment grab today’s Sunday Times. The absurd Rod Liddle (“Islamophobia? Count me in,” he recently brayed) nominates Charles “bell curve” Murray as a public intellectual. Murray’s thesis, if you remember, is quite simply black people are as dumb as stumps. One rightwing buffoon nominating a reactionary lunatic does have a beautiful symmetry about it.

    PS. I’ve never understood your fascination with Zizek. Perhaps I’ll give give him another go.

  47. 47  Steven  May 4, 2008, 10:12 pm 

    I think your comparison of Kamm with Chuck Norris is very unfair on Norris, who was at least seriously good at karate.

    Re Gore: anyone who makes a successful documentary feature film out of himself basically giving a Keynote presentation is ipso facto a public intellectual.

    Where I live, grabbing the Sunday Times is no easy matter. Link?

  48. 48  Tawfiq Chahboune  May 4, 2008, 11:36 pm 

    Steven, enjoy the bizarre stupidity of the Roy Hattersley lookalike:


    Now you don’t have to rush out and pound the streets searching for a publication that boasts the wonderful minds of A.A. Gill, Jeremy Clarkson and Rod Liddle. That’s far too much brainpower for any one publication to (golden?) shower on an unsuspecting reader.

  49. 49  Steven  May 4, 2008, 11:46 pm 

    Thanks, that really is incredibly stupid!

    Jeremy Clarkson, though — he’s a properly good comic writer. And I don’t even like cars.

  50. 50  Gregor  May 5, 2008, 8:38 pm 

    ‘the Chuck Norris of political commentary, Oliver Kamm’

    Actually, Chuck is now a scribe in his own right. Here he discourses about church and state:

    De Tocqueville could not have been more profound. I should have voted for Chuck in Prospect.

    As for the article, whoa nellie, I wonder if Rod is yet another glove puppet, controlled by a sniggering master who enjoys watching people take him seriously. I loved his attack on Yasmin Alhibi Brown. Ms Brown won the ‘Orwell Prize’, which is given for those who ‘make political writing into an art’. Melanie Phillips also won it (presumably because she is so gifted at fictional narrative) after which it should probably have been dismantled.

    However, I suspect Rod feels rather bitter at not being given an ‘Orwell Prize’, given that he is so clever he can look down upon the ‘middle brows’ (incidentally, I’ve never read a real philosopher using the term ‘middle brow’… but anyway).

    I think that my favourite line nonetheless was when he says that Richard Dawkins ‘updated Darwin’ with ‘unquestionable brilliance’. Updated? Or offered a theory which is no longer taken very seriously? As for ‘unquestionable’ that is one of those words like ‘thus’ or ‘obviously’, which seems to say ‘I’m talking bullshit, but if I’m assertive enough no one will know’.

    Still, I was rather disconcerted that I agreed with him about the Hitch.

  51. 51  richard  May 5, 2008, 10:37 pm 

    Melanie Phillips also won… after which it should probably have been dismantled.


  52. 52  Steven  May 5, 2008, 11:02 pm 

    “Melanie Phillips” should probably have been dismantled, I agree.

  53. 53  Gregor  May 6, 2008, 11:35 am 

    And I thought you were allowed some metaphorical license on monday evening… though the idea that ‘Melanie Phillips’ could be revealed as a thought experiment that got out of hand after winning an Orwell Prize is a pleasing one.

    Oh yes, and as for Rod saying that Charles ‘I have no background in neuroscience but have a racist pet theory to make up for it’ Murray should have trounced all the ‘middle brow’ intellectuals, I found that plain weird.

  54. 54  Steven  May 6, 2008, 3:21 pm 

    No no no, metaphorical licence is only granted around here on Wednesday mornings.

    Poor Rod doesn’t actually know which people on the list are scientists, since he thinks the only scientists on the list are those who have polemical views on big political issues. And as you say, affecting (however incompetently) to be pro-science while hinting that Murray is only kept off the list by some liberal conspiracy is worthy of nothing more than a slap upside the head.

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