'Understanding the ‘Public Intellectual’

Adheip Rashada

To gain a grip of the term “public intellectual,” we need to dissect the two words. In the traditional sense, an intellectual is someone who has the ability to critically analyze and interpret knowledge. However, there are possibilities of the word itself encompassing a vast plethora of ideas under its umbrella. Does an individual necessarily have to be ‘educated’ to be considered as an intellectual? Can one’s individual actions be considered as intellectual in nature? This process of inclusion and exclusion in the discourse for ‘intellectual’ makes the term very abstract. However the purpose of questioning the boundaries of its discourse is not to deconstruct its meaning but to bring to light the various possibilities and combinations that might exist to understand the meanings better. When an intellectual is able to communicate their knowledge in the public domain, they could be considered as public intellectual. However, to what extent does the influence of an individual over the public sphere qualify them as a ‘public intellectual’? Would the mere act of announcing opinions on several issues in the public realm be enough? For example, would posting an opinion on a social networking website be suffice to be considered as an act of a public intellectual? Would just having the power to influence a group of people (without having the traditional intellectual capabilities) be enough to call an individual a public intellectual?   
 
To summarize the ambiguities dealing with the term ‘public intellectual’ let us look at four questions to ponder as stated by Issitt and Jackson[1]:
Is it someone who is consulted because of their recognised command of a specific topic?
Is a public intellectual someone who talks from a position of specific expertise on a general topic related to that expertise?
Is a public intellectual someone who talks from a position of specific expertise on a general topic?
Is a public intellectual someone who talks about anything whether they have any recognised specific expertise or not?
 
These questions highlight the scope of the meaning. Anyone, despite not being an expert on a given topic, can express views that are accessible to others. The key here is that knowledge is communicated. There has been an enormous shift to technology being the main mode of transfer of knowledge. Social media is a form of technology that has made communication among common people from various parts of the world efficient and it has broken the rigid control over communication in prior times.  Hence, the distinctions between controllers and consumers of communication have become vague. Proliferation of social media has brought the possibility of an informal communication in between the senders and the receivers of information.  
 
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Antonio Gramsci’s[2] ideas on hegemony would help better understand the dynamics of intellectuals in the public sphere. (Hegemony mainly has two ways of enforcing powers; by having the force to do so and additionally gaining the consent of people to rule over them.) The variety of the ideas is determined by the extent to which public intellectuals are influenced by the dominating hegemony at a given point of time. Although, ideas of the passive hegemonies will continue to exist, their power to influence would be determined by the power of a dominant hegemony.   
 
To understand the various positions of power through which the public intellectuals operate we will have to look at Althusser’s ideas on state apparatuses.[3] He describes the means through which the state (a repressive machine) enforces its repression; Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA)[4] and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA)[5]. The major difference between the ISAs and the RSAs is that ISAs are dominantly ideological and the RSAs are dominantly repressive (and hence violent). 
 
Although the public intellectuals do have a role to play in the functioning of the RSAs (as the RSAs cannot do without the ISAs and vice versa), they are more likely to take part in propagating an ideology and thus in the ISAs. Althusser identifies the educational ISA as the most influential of them as it has a major role to play in an individual’s development. As mentioned earlier, the key is to have a control over communication in order for one to be a more influential public intellectual. So an individual subscribing to the dominant ideology would find it easier to function in schools, legal institutions, political institutions and the religious institutions. The others operate under relatively passive hegemonies. Most of the alternative ideologies operate in the communication ISA as it has the greatest potential to be an anti-state ISA (relatively less state control over this ISA). Therefore, several alternative perspectives have the potential to reach different audiences, especially through the internet.    
 
The permanence of public intellectuality is in question and with the advent of the postmodern period (where technology is the main medium for the exchange of knowledge) it could be reduced to an act or a function that can be attributed to a subject when certain parameters are fulfilled. The parameters are not fixed and will be changing with the changing conditions of the environment. However, one can look at the dynamics of power caused by active and passive hegemonies which determine the magnitude of the influence that an individual may have over the public sphere.   
 
References and Notes
 
[1] What does it mean to be a public intellectual? By John Issitt and Duncan Jackson
[2] The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935 edited by David Forgacs
[3] “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” By Louis Althusser
[4] ISAs include the religious ISA (the system of the different churches), the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private ‘schools’), the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA (the political system including the different parties), the trade-union ISA, the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.), and the cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sports, etc.)
[5] RSAs include the government RSA, the police RSA, the military RSA, the court RSA
 
 
    ~~ Adheip is a Research Intern with Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA)

 

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