On Pop Clarity: Public Intellectuals and the Crisis of Language

It is nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.
– James Baldwin


The presupposition that academics no longer function as critical public intellectuals willing to connect their knowledge and expertise to larger public issues is now pervasive. Many factors have contributed to this alleged withdrawal from speaking to public issues, ranging from the demands of academic professionalism and the suppression of dissent to a simple lack of time to address such work. What is indisputable is that the voices of progressive academics have become increasingly irrelevant when it comes to assuming the role of engaged intellectuals interested in sharing their ideas, research and policy recommendations with a broader public. All the better for those neoliberal and conservative critics, who insist that academics must remain neutral, apolitical and professional, disavowing that politics has a place in the classroom or in the pursuit of research that speaks to broader public concerns. Sadly, the most pronounced voices critical of academics as public intellectuals come from the general public (who may or may not agree with right-wing portrayals of the university as a hotbed of left totalitarianism), who unite in their dismissal of ivory tower elites for speaking and writing in a discourse that is as arcane as it is irrelevant.


In what follows, I support three increasingly unpopular positions. First, I argue that academics should assume the role of critical public intellectuals. Second, we must repudiate the popular assumption that clarity is the ultimate litmus test to gauge whether a writer has successfully engaged a general educated audience. In this regard, I insist that the appeal to clarity has become an ideological smokescreen for a notion of common sense and "simplicity" that have become excuses for abusing language as a marker of the educated mind. Third, I argue that public intellectuals need to take matters of accessibility seriously in order to combine theoretical rigor with their efforts to communicate forcefully and intelligibly to a larger public about the most pressing matters of the day. In short, I want to scramble the opposition between the work of public intellectuals and the alleged simplicity of clarity. The issue is not one or the other – a choice between a firewall of convoluted discourse or a frictionless discourse purged of complexity – but rather the challenge for public intellectuals to address important social issues by writing in a language that is accessible without sacrificing theoretical rigor. Underlying this challenge is a larger political project in which public intellectuals have a responsibility to share a commitment to language as a site of experimentation, power, struggle and hope in the interests of building larger democratically inspired social movements.


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