The Anti-Intellectual

by natothompson

I have been accused of being anti-intellectual three times this year and it is an accusation that I receive with a look in my eye the likes of which only a truly anti-intellectual personality could muster. I feel misunderstood or perhaps, people know me better than I know myself. An anti-intellectual? By being an anti-intellectual, does that mean I am against intellectuals or that I am acting in a way that has no intelligence? Supposing that I come at the question as though I embody both categories.

I have received this badge of dishonor upon the occasions that I publicly speak on the subject of the intellectual-industrial complex. I generally do so at art conferences or panels where I sense that the theoretical language has become stilted into an overly nuanced circle of inefficacy. More than communicating, the room feels reduced to a bunch of people doing push-ups to impress each other. We are all familiar with it. Somehow at some time, Marxist theory became the go-to language of academics who worry more about tenure and publishing than any touchstone on the ground. Somehow, theory revealed itself as a vehicle of the social game of power that demonstrated who was more versed in the contemporary lingo of the time (more than the production of ideas and social change). It is a common dilemma which has left everyone involved very frustrated. Thus the anti-intellectual becomes a haunting figure in movements as the exhaustion of post-modern theory and its own capacity to become a game of more-of-the-same became one of its more enduring legacies.

To not be too theoretical about it, if knowledge is both power and a commodity in the information age, then certainly knowledge deserves a degree of doubt. If name-dropping Jacque Ranciere, Bruno Latour, saying things like deterittorialization and reterritorialization, using the poetics of Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Judith Butler, and on and on and on, become weapons in the pursuit of personal power than any kind of community building, what is that? In an age of vast cultural production, capitalism and knowledge have become deeply intertwined. Thus knowledge emerges as a double figure. Its identity and intentionality are ever shifting and in doubt. What one says is not necessarily what one means. We know this. What to do with this is another question.

Riding alongside the information age is the invigorated phenomena known as social capital. This strange quality of importance and social standing that gains actual traction in relation to hard earned dollars cannot be underestimated as an alluring goal when one speaks. For those who think in order to obtain their bread and butter, their words are their wares. Saying theoretical ideas isn’t just an saying ideas, but also indicating a certain social strata one belongs to. It is a code of power and belonging. Often words are used (like art) for the mere purpose of putting food on the table and elevating ones social standing.

Yes, it is more complicated than that. Yes people do in fact speak with the intention to communicate. Yes, there is still a value to words and knowledge. Yes, yes, yes. It is this simple equation of knowledge = commodity that gets faculty members on their toes worried that such an all-too simplistic condensed summation of the knowledge economy could fuel their already lethargic student’s desire for any quick theory in which they could dismiss everything a teacher says. All I can say is: be afraid. Be very afraid.

I am aware that these accusations of being anti-intellectual comes from those who are, in fact, self-identified intellectuals. They worry about their shrinking authority in the classroom and their increasingly skeptical reception amongst their student body. They see all their hard work being dismissed by this all too facile analysis. They sense a trap that knows no end. Just recently, when I was posing the idea that speaking in a general language that could move more fluidly across class and race lines might be an important consideration for museums, I received the strange reaction that such a position fed too easily with the desires of capitalism to reach the most people. As though intellectualism itself wasn’t a part of the capitalist administrative machine. Perversely, some in the theoretical camp truly believe that a generalized language will in fact be in the service of capital. The intellectual reactionaries also sense a strain of romantic back-to-real-terms nostalgia that fuels the likes of the Tea Party, George ‘Dubya’ Bush, and other anti-intellectual mass movements. Anti-intellectualism has often been the bed fellow of fascist movements.

Lets see, who are anti-intellectuals? Creationists. Aynne Rand libertarians. Glenn Beck. Racists. Mormons. White power. You get the idea. The bad people! You know, the folks that mistook the lessons of postmodernism as a method for getting rid of any faith in empiricism whatsoever. Skeptics of global warming unwilling to listen to the liberal scientists. People who get their news from Fox. People that love images of military gun ships, watch NASCAR, listen to Toby Keith, quote the founding fathers and wear Jesus is Lord jewelry. They are the folks that loved the war. They are the ones that believed Bush. They are the anti-intellectual demographic. They are the ones that misunderstood the values of postermodernism. They are the ones that keep making headlines in Texas with their anti-intellectualism in the classroom campaigns. We were simply supposed to put a lower case t in the place of the capital T of truth. It was meant as a modification of the modernist project not a rejection of the entire enlightenment!  Don’t you see what you feed into when you egg on the hostility for intellectuals? You become like them! The savage right wing masses of America!

Such strange company us anti-intellectuals keep.

Those that bandy about the label of anti-intellectual sense a pernicious logic that may ultimately shut down conversations. For the guile of social capital is that it can set off a witch hunt that knows no end. A razor sharp tool with no friends, its misuse is deadly for social capital, is in fact, everywhere. For an alienated audience sick of heros and protagonists, social capital can be just the weapon of criticism to take down the biggest giant. We see it lurking throughout the Occupy Movement as the paranoia cuts through all social ties and yet keeps the community strong.

Just as dismantling the capital “T” Truth of modernity was necessary for the myriad of subjectivities coming to the table in the era of postmodernity, so too does the cry for a materialist transparency when it comes to the logic of Truth in an information age. If Truth is not only power but money, then we must be nuanced in the way we wield it. For social capital is in fact a pernicious force in an information age and its radical ubiquity produces a dense fog that is hard to see through.

For lets face it, the right wings paranoia of elite liberals has a dash of truth to it. If one can speak about progressive ideas and be part of progressive movements while simultaneously maintaining the status quo of class oppression then a certain distrust of the intellectual must come to bare. If what constitutes an art critic today is the supposedly critical perspective on a machine dominated by power without interrogating that entire structure, what use are words? If we can continue to theoretically talk about class and race but do nothing to actually build those bridges in our language and lives then what are we doing? And speaking specifically to the arts, if we continue to speak in theoretical jargon to a predominately privileged audience (and by privileged I only mean in terms of class and the bizarre culture that brings) without interrogating these problematics of power (and doing something about them), then what a truly sad state of the arts we are in.

Yes, fascism does rise up on a wave of anti-intellectualism. But perhaps one could flip that and say that fascism can rise up when intellectualism betrays the most oppressed. When the words no longer touch the realities. When the social game of power is the only point and the destitute remain alienated and broke. Of course there remains a role for the intellectual in our society, but the function of ideas and the techniques of their deployment cannot be untangled. Language is a reflection of our culture and our culture is a reflection of the power dynamics at play in our world. Not being aware of that when speaking is to be something worse than an anti-intellectual or intellectual, it is just being a bad communicator.