The “public intellectual” is a 19th-20th century character who managed not to completely fade away in our postmodern time. This is a person who gained authority from peers, usually in the field of literature, and used it to become a publicly recognized authority on a host of worldly public issues. The intellectual is an informed amateur, someone who prevents incompetence from inhibiting participation in public debates.
Octavio Paz once said that in Latin America almost all writers are intellectuals. Is this assessment still valid? Probably not. Newly democratized societies are busy exploring the ins and outs of the new political process and show no appetite for great moral debates. The ascent of the blogosphere has also eroded the prestige and usefulness of a cultural aristocracy. Literary intellectuals are now in competition with a host of opinion-makers, not without some comparative advantages (they usually write with more style and breath) but with no exclusive mandate to act as the “conscience of the people.” In this day and age, the masses can speak for themselves: they won’t accept to be ventriloquized by a self-appointed “vanguard.”
Historically, intellectuals have been known and remembered for their views, what they stand against and what they stand for (in that order). Now that utopias are few and far between, they don’t feel the need to champion a “model” or a set of policies. Arguably, the triumph of liberal democracy and the absence of a truly attractive alternative to it are both hurting intellectuals. They face stiffer competition in the chatting class and have much less to offer than they used to. Today’s academic conferences on intellectuals reveal the solipsistic angoisse of the social sciences and humanities, first and foremost. Consider for instance a recent conference on intellectuals held at the Washington University in St Louis in 2008, which explored how “Indigenous, Afro-Latin and other social movements are taking a vanguard role in intellectual and cultural politics across much of the region, with epistemologies that refigure plurality and decolonize dichotomies of right/left and modern/traditional.” Mexican writer Jorge Volpi is right: Latin America is a fiction periodically reinvented during literary and academic conferences.
Our time is one that celebrates authenticity. The most authentic form of representation is the microcosm (to each group its quota of power and resources), not the trustee or the delegate. Karl Mannheim’s famous theorem on the prominence of the “detached intellectual” is out-of-date: nowadays, being detached from one’s roots is to be a fake. Opinions are like tattoos (very trendy): they are worn under the skin. New politics is identity politics. Even environmentalism reveals a craving for roots and authenticity.
The writer of today may also be an activist but as a citizen with a privileged access to public space, not as a “nation-builder.” For instance, the work of the most famous Latin American writers of the turn of the century, the Chilean Roberto Bolaño, can easily be interpreted as “political,” but he examines politics in a cerebral and personal way: he is not a “political writer” à la Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa or Benedetti. José Mujica of Uruguay and former president Lula of Brazil recently called for the formation of a “group of intellectuals” tasked (by Mujica and Lula) to “flesh out” a new “doctrine” promoting the integration of Latin America.
What writer of the newer generations could possibly accept such assignment? Wouldn’t a twenty-first century Latin American writer be more proficient to write about the disintegration of the continent?
Definitions of the intellectual are often self-definitions. They tend to be flattering, highlighting his or her propensity to speak the truth to power. One remembers texts published in the 1960s and 1970s by writers-pensadores of the continent where intellectuals are hailed as the voice of the voiceless. The emphasis on the mission of the intellectual prompt analyst to neglect a less altruistic disposition: the quest for recognition.
Once a writer or artist has been recognized by his or her peers (a considerable achievement), recognition as a public intellectual must be gained from a broader constituency. Conventional wisdom on the mindset of intellectuals would suggest that the more a society is closed and liberticidal, the more the intellectual would find it difficult to “fit in.” The reality is more interesting and complex than that. In open and free societies, intellectuals can espouse the organizing principles of these societies (or not) but will need to be critical of some of its functioning attributes. The importance of television makes it even more imperative to “stir the pot” if one wishes to stand out. Conversely, in a completely closed and repressive society, genuine artists and intellectuals have no space and usually try to leave the country. In between those to models, one has the mostly closed societies (say, Cuba since 1959) or the mostly open ones (Mexico under the PRI). The pattern here is for intellectuals to be simultaneously wooed and despised by the rulers. It takes two to tango, and for writers and artists the partner is the great benefactor and merciless retaliator: the state. Here the intellectuals’ incongruous quest for critical space and for recognition stands out more histrionically than anywhere else.
This is particularly striking in a mostly closed and officially “revolutionary” society like Cuba. Recalling Paul Valéry’s bon mot that “two mortal dangers threaten humanity: order and disorder,” one can argue that order (the state, the regime, the statu quo) and disorder (revolution, insurgency; and concomitantly, criticism, imagination, autonomy) represent a danger for each other. They require very different sets of skills and dispositions. Under the oxymoron “revolutionary government” one typically finds in official rhetoric numerous calls for unwavering obedience to the leader and the party, and simultaneously a celebration of debate and even criticism. A cursory review of public declarations by cultural officials in Cuba shows that they, the censors, routinely chasten self-censorship, challenging intellectuals and artists to be more audacious and critical. In sum, the name of the game is to be “critical” within the revolution, at the right time and the right place, which pretty much means, as a Cuban intellectual (Lisandro Otero) once proclaimed during a congress of the Union of Cuban writers and Artists (in 1988), that “el intelectual en una sociedad auténticamente revolucionaria tiene ante sí el deber de consentir.”
Over the past five decades, in Cuba, many writers and intellectuals have been persecuted and went in exile. Others sought refuge in the “insilio” (i.e the “internal exile”), at least for a while. None of the conventional account on the mission of the Latin American intellectual prepare the observer to understand their contentment when finally, after years of seeing their work banned and their name sullied, Fidel consented to grant some of them recognition (often in the form of a belated national award, as in the case of writer Antón Arrufat). The cultural institutions of the country are packed with formerly persecuted intellectuals who are now grateful enough not to ask explanations, let alone an apology, from their tormentors. Between mild criticism (for épater le commissaire) and recognition, the latter tend to prevail.
What does a case like this tell us about intellectuals in general? That both freedom and recognition are essential for an intellectual, and that the first is not necessarily the most important.
Artistic inspiration and creativity is not as affected by circumstances as we may like to think. The uncomfortable truth is that democratic societies do not produce better artists and writers than non-democratic ones. No writing or work of art can be regarded as bereft of social and historical resonance, yet no great writing or work of art can ever be reduced to what Milan Kundera called the “small context”, i.e. history, social conditions, politics and pubic opinion (the “big context” is the artistic and literary traditions). The fortune of a public intellectual, on the other hand, is completely conditioned by his or her environment. In this phase of emergence of democracy in the region (only Costa Rica has a fully “consolidated” democracy), the retreat of many artists and writers from direct political combat should not be interpreted too rapidly as a setback for either politics or for literature. Today’s writers are doing politics in a way that serves better the interest of their art, shedding light on what is often hidden by social discourses and not inadvertently, contributing to our understanding of politics. Great writing does much of the saying, even when the quest for recognition trumps critical dispositions. All in all, the disenchanted public intellectual of our time still has much to offer.