From the Gut

If you like, you can read my long intellectualized response to the struggle over intellectuals and culture below.

I also have a much more visceral, personal response to the kind of anti-intellectual populism that’s been more visibly present in American life over the last decade. This is the “gut reaction” that Robert Zimmerman talks about in the comments on my other thread. Intellectually, I understand why educated professionals should be regarded as a snobbish power elite. (Margaret Soltan sketches out quite a few of the reasons at her blog today.)

Personally, emotionally, there’s something that doesn’t add up, about how I got to where I am today, about the person I was and became.

By the time I was in third grade, back in the early 1970s, I had been a voracious reader for some time. I particularly liked natural history, biology, and science on one hand and fantasy and science fiction on the other. My sister was similarly voracious: the joke in our household was that rounding us up for dinner was a real chore because we were likely to be so deep into reading that we didn’t hear anyone calling.

I was completely innocent about what this habit meant in the larger world around me. So in third grade, if we had a lesson about hermit crabs and I happened to know the scientific name of several different species, the details of their life cycle, the ecology of intertidal zones, that was all good, as far as I could tell.

In fourth grade, that got my face shoved into the dirt or into fences, it got me kicked and spat upon, it got a ring of girls chanting “you’re a scientific martian” at me during recess. Rinse and repeat for the next four grades or so, welcome to the geek subculture. By high school, things changed a bit, the social hierarchies spread out and complicated somewhat, the recognition of where life was tending started to settle in. But in the years where I came home and cried most days after getting hit or bullied, I looked around at the world for some clues about my situation. I don’t think I had to look very hard for evidence that in mainstream American culture kids–and adults–who knew too much were mocked, marginalized, represented as effete, useless and weak.

Yes, this was also the highwater mark of the authority of technocrats: see my other entry for more subtle histories. But the air around me felt poisoned. That’s what so much fantasy and science fiction, especially for children, fed upon, in fact, and why I grew even more attracted to it over time: its protagonists experienced grievance and marginality and usually had special compensatory powers and experiences conferred upon them as a result. But it wasn’t just speculative fiction. When I got to junior high, I started reading more conventional literary work, particularly short stories, and that felt just as much like an induction into a kind of secret garden, a hidden and despised fellowship of readers (adult and adolescent) who enjoyed literature or found history thrilling rather than disparaged it to join in the polite company of one’s peers.

Now since the 1970s, this sensibility, these themes, has moved from being a marginal literature to being the central engine of much American popular culture. How many stories and films have we seen about the marginalized smart and sensitive child who becomes a key player in the workings of destiny because they’re smart and sensitive? Hermione Granger and Harry Potter are only the latest in a long line of characters fitting this mold. The geek has become a heroic economic and cultural figure in American society, and a major driver of both cultural production and cultural consumption.

And yet here we are: not only listening to mockery and lashings of eggheads and intellectuals, but the eggheads and intellectuals are sometimes apologizing for being that way about as abjectly as I ever pleaded not to be hit one more time.

Time opens up perspectives. It’s possible to realize, many years later, that what you intended to say in all innocence, deeply wounded someone else because of their insecurities, their own baggage. One older male relative of mine who had done military service was once talking to some of the kids about it, and about how the enlisted weren’t treated all that well. I was about ten, I think, and I commented that it seemed like soldiers had always been treated badly by generals, all the way back to Sargon the Great. It was like I’d slapped him, and of course, in some sense I had. But it was all I had to bring to the conversation: I read a lot, I knew a lot about military history. I was trying to give a gift, but from his perspective, it was just a smelly little turd. He was telling me what he knew from life; I was saying what I knew from books, in a ten-year old’s way. I honestly had no sense that I was thinking I was better than him, or that my books told me more than his life told him.

You know, I want to say: it was ok. It was ok that I knew that. It was a helpful thing to know that. It helped me to understand what he was saying. If he was a more open kind of person himself, he could have done something good with that comment, used it himself. Rolled the ball of the conversation along rather than shut it down. Still, there’s a fundamental asymmetry. I could take what he said and add it to my knowledge, make use of it. He couldn’t take what I said unless he followed me into formal knowledge, or trusted me so much that what I said was in the books was as good as truth. (Not wise if you’re talking to a ten-year old.)

Who is most sinned against in that kind of moment?

It’s hard for me to pin the Scarlet Letter E for Egghead to my chest and beg apology for knowing things, or reading literature, or liking the heirloom tomatoes I grow in my backyard, or any of the things that compose my professional and personal being. It’s hard for me to see myself as some growling, powerful elite who daily intrudes upon the private lives of a humble family of church-goers in the heartland and forces them to watch pornography while I turn their children into Marxoislamicist transsexuals.

It’s not as if getting your face pushed into fences ever quite comes to an end, either. I was at a party a few years back where one guy, upon hearing I was a professor, immediately wanted to make sure I knew how to throw a football and put me through my paces. Yeah, I found that basically gentle and amusing, but it’s not as if I then got a chance to find out what he thought of Foucault, if you know what I mean.

So emotionally, I just can’t quite get my head around the idea that somewhere along the way, I magically became the swan and now it’s other people who suffer uglyducklinghood.

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19 Responses to From the Gut

  1. AndrewSshi says:

    Let me respond to your personal story with one of my own. In my early twenties, I was rather obsessed with the idea of being part of an intellectual elite, of being able to sneer at people like truckers, trailer park dwellers, etc. Part of this was a natural reaction to having been a bookish child growing up in a small town in Texas. I wanted to be part of an Us who shut Them out rather than the other way around.

    But I kind of realized that desire to be part of an intellectual elite took me to an emotional place that was not at all good. I’m not sure when it happened, but I realized the desire to be part of a smirking intelligentsia was unhealthy, and that the kind of people who are interested in being that sort of person are, in general, dicks. (Also, seeing people desperately posturing in a grad school seminar has kind of an off-putting effect as well).

    So at this point in my life, I’m happy to be a person who is writing a dissertation but who also thinks that lentils taste like ass. I’m not ashamed to say that biscuits made with lard taste delicious and that pro wrestling is actually kind of fun to watch. Being able to say that being part of an intellectual elite is not terribly important has made me a much happier (and less superficial) man at 32 than I was at 22.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I hear that too. I think that’s another reason, though, why bashing intellectuals strikes me as kind of wrong. It takes as typical what educated people are at 22, which is often exactly the point in time where pretentions soar highest, where knowledge may way outstrip wisdom. 22-year olds who skipped college often have their own flavor of self-satisfied bullshit on offer.

  3. Did someone around here turn on a tap marked DEPRESSING? I can relate to the childhood stories all too well, and it’s a fine thing to look back and see beyond the egocentric experience of oppression, see it as something of a two-way street. In fact it’s an example I should probably take to heart. But it’s hard for me to accept that an adult can be metaphorically slapped in the face by an innocent comment from a 10-year-old. That interaction was all about the adult’s limitations. So when you ask who was most sinned against, I don’t think there’s any question. That moment still brings a cultural fault line into relief, but it’s the job of the grown-ups to handle that kind of thing.

    I don’t know what to make of the post you link to by Margaret Soltan. It’s kind of overwrought, isn’t it? I suppose elitist intellectual snobbery might be especially cutting. The attitude of being on a “higher plane of understanding about the social good” is definitely in circulation and making an impression, but to propose a subtext like “my interiority is finer than yours, and there’s nothing you can do about it” seems like a stretch to me. And the dueling clichés at the end–the McMansion builder and the prissy neighbor–has a dreary reductive thud. There are too many layers of personality and circumstance to toss the whole package into the class war bin. It does capture the mood of the Palin era all too well, though.

    Is it time to start thinking about Canada?

  4. Doug says:

    Canada means conceding that they are right.

    I know that’s a funny thing for me to say, because life and fate have taken me out of the States for 12 of the last 18 years, but still. It is my country every bit as much as theirs. In fact, I am bold enough to say it is more mine than theirs because my country is the one that grows, that changes; my country is the one that acknowledged women’s right to vote and black people’s claim to full citizenship, while their conservative leaders were the ones trying to stand athwart history crying stop. My America is the one who took in the poor, the hungry, the huddled masses. Their America is the one that said the boat was full, that said no dogs or Irish, that still says no one who test positive for HIV. My America fought Communism with containment, theirs talked about rollback and the need for pre-emptive nuclear war. My America asks what you can do for your country; their America whines about Checkers the dog. My America was getting it on and hearing it through the grapevine, theirs only showed Elvis from the waist up. My America will go boldly where no one has gone before, theirs won’t get past the Harper Valley PTA.

    When will I concede my America to them? How about never. Never works for me.

  5. peter55 says:

    It is particularly galling to experience the anti-intellectual current of contemporary western life knowing, from first-hand professional experience, how much of contemporary western technology and economic life, even for ordinary comsumers, depends on the co-ordinated application of very complex, highly-technical, sophisticated intellectual skills. The average American’s cellphone, hunting gun, SUV and even beer-can are embedded manifestations of long-standing technological expertise which would not exist without concerted intellectual activity, from chemical engineering (putting the beer into that can), through design (that SUV) and marketing (filming those adverts; defining the cellphone features) to mathematics (encryption algorithms for those cellphones; designing that weapon; organizing those deliveries) and computer science (all of the above).

  6. Doug says:

    It’s the little things, too. Here’s one that hit me in the gut:

    “A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. [Maurice] Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.”

    Which is precisely when he was making Where the Wild Things Are. If he had been out back then, conservative prejudice would have meant that we would live in a world where no one grew up with Where the Wild Things Are. How rotten is that?

    Let the wild rumpus continue!

  7. AndrewSshi says:


    That’s very similar to the type of argument advanced by the engineer who holds all fields of learning not his* own in the utmost contempt. The Chemical Engineer who says, “What good is a professor of African history? It’s my work that puts gas in his car” is only slightly removed from someone who holds all book learning in contempt.


    *And it usually is a “he.”

  8. cjlee1 says:

    Can I add another dimension to this conversation that I think is being overlooked? It seems to me that the problem is not only the disjuncture between “intellectual elites” and other social sectors (whether truck drivers or suburban moms), or between one’s childhood and one’s eventual profession, but that even within so-called intellectual communities (here I’m thinking of colleges and universities) there can be a lack of interesting dialogue and conversation, a disinterest in other people’s research, a sense of specialization such that at parties and other social occasions faculty don’t talk about ideas, but instead choose to talk about family, sports, vacation, etc. Making small talk to get along.

    Is this why I chose academia as a profession? No. I chose it to be a part of a community based on ideas, compelling conversation, etc. But what is striking to me is that having a faculty position is basically like any other job. To name drop or express interest in a well-known thinker or writer while having drinks at the dept.’s holiday party is to cross some sort of line where few dare travel… in sum, a kind of anti-intellectualism even among intellectuals. I enjoy pop culture just as much as anyone else, but I also want more, and occasions for serious conversation outside of conferences, journal forums, etc. seem all too rare.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, CJ, that’s an issue I worry about a lot here. It’s one of the main reasons I was really sympathetic to a lot of academic critics when I started blogging: I felt that there was a bait-and-switch, that you thought you were joining a community of ideas by becoming a professor, where the common passion was the first and last thing that mattered–as if you were joining a priesthood, a calling. And then you found out that to most, academic work was just a job. It’s not even that the serious conversations can’t be about something like pop culture: it’s that you’re made to feel, even among academics, like an amusing hick for being passionate. Now I’ve come to feel that some of the most persistent critics of academia are not particularly interested in that passion themselves: they’re hewing wood and drawing water for political partisans. But I’d still like to figure out how we make academia less workaday and more passionate.

  10. AndrewSshi says:

    But I???? still like to figure out how we make academia less workaday and more passionate.

    But isn’t the whole point of much of grad school to take people who are passionate about the Ideas and turn them into professionals? It’s kind of difficult to be interested in the really Big Ideas when much of your waking life is taken up in worry about bullet points on one’s CV, how hiring committees rate book chapters versus peer-reviewed publications, whether one will even make it to the AHA round of interviews, and above all else, the #@#% dissertation.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, that’s the way grad school is. I’d rather it wasn’t the point of it.

  12. peter55 says:

    AndrewSShi — you appear (it is not exactly clear) to have attacked my argument because it is similar to another argument. But my argument is not that other argument, and it is not even similar to it.

    Contrary to what you claim that I am nearly saying, many of the highly-technical fields on which our modern society depends themselves rest on research in the humaniities. For example, the main language standard for machine-to-machine communications, FIPA ACL of the IEEE, is informed profoundly by the speech act theory developed by the philosophers of language John Austin and John Searle. Likewise, London’s pre-eminence as a centre for global marketing, advertising and design is primarily because of its fine arts and performing arts colleges.

  13. AndrewSshi says:


    My bad, I was writing in a hurry. Gathering my thoughts to restate things…

    Arguing on the usefulness of academic pursuits because of practical results is problematic. For centuries, logicians didn’t know that the work that they were doing would eventually be useful in machines that they could have only dreamed of. Likewise, to use Sagan’s example, Maxwell probably didn’t know that his work would result in television.

    If you’re arguing based on practical results, there is really not much use for someone who studies Anglo-Norman devotional literature in the wider world and precious little use for a Comp Lit department. I occasionally see the argument that an English degree produces critical thinkers, but by that argument, you should just hire people with philosophy degrees from departments that focus on analytic philosophy and thus you’ll have much better thinkers than English majors. There’s “people with a degree, any degree, tend to make more money and so the liberal arts are useful for maintaining a middle class” is some pretty weak tea, since by that argument you could just replace a liberal education with a professional certification.

    When you make the argument that academic pursuits lead to tangible gains, that allows the engineer to make the argument that I wasn’t trying to attribute to you. Worse yet, it allows the legislator to make the argument that the engineer might be too decent a person to make. What does a professor of Classical Greek do if s/he’s called before an audience by a legislator who says, “The Chemical Engineer is giving us new fuels to get through the energy crisis. How do you justify your paycheck?”

  14. withywindle says:

    I was aware, from a child, that my eagerness to know was allied with an eagerness to flaunt knowledge; that I was an intellectual bully. Overcoming that is my life’s work. I am not overwhelmingly fond of bullies; I know from the inside that the physically bullied are no paragons of virtue.

    Discovering that people can be intelligent and not intellectual has also mattered a great deal to me.

    I think that being bullied can be a wound without compensations; the cause of deformation of character without ennoblement; cankering a worldview and nothing more.

  15. peter55 says:

    Andrew — I agree with you that instrumentalist arguments for research are flawed, for the reason you state: ie, that no one knows what research will be useful in the future, nor when. But these examples you give of the unforeseen consequences of research (and I could cite another couple of dozen or more) actually support the case for unfettered research in the humanities. This is because if our society does not allow academics and researchers complete personal freedom to explore whatever they wish, no matter how “pure” or “unapplied”, then we are limiting the potential to generate future financial and technological benefits from current research.

    No research funding agency focused on short-term economic benefits would have funded speech act theory in the 1950s, for example. Yet if this theory did not already exist, computer scientists designing artificial languages in the 1990s would have had to invent it (or something very like it).

    In short, I think we should attack instrumentalist arguments for limiting academic research with an instrumentalist counter-argument for unfettered academic freedom.

  16. Rewinding to Peter’s first point, the most ironic anti-intellectual stance is the creationist who takes advantage of modern medicine–antibiotics, for instance–even though they were developed in a thoroughly Darwinian framework.

    I’m not so fond of the instrumentalist arguments on either side. As a musician I immediately think about “the Mozart effect.” It’s almost surely delusional, and even if it isn’t, it’s a grim and shortsighted reason to invest time in something that’s beautiful and joyful.

    And looking at things in purely economic terms, if we have the capacity to support professional football teams, businesses devoted to sports memorabilia, and psychotherapists for pets, why does a professor specializing in Anglo-Norman devotional literature have to be called to the mat to justify their salary?

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    I like that, Withywindle. As you can see, I’ve spent some time worrying about that impulse to flaunt, and trying to figure out when I’ve done it innocently, when I’m doing it on purpose, and most complicatedly of all, when that’s what my job is, in some sense.

  18. Carl says:

    Thank you all for this.

  19. scratchy888 says:

    I had quite a different experience. I didn’t know I was an intellectual and in fact by every definition of the term I wasn’t one throughout my teenage years. However, I was very annoying. I asked too many questions. And I asked the sort of questions that my parents found difficult to answer. Also I didn’t seem to read between the lines concerning what might have been socially expected of me in the some of the more repressive contexts of the Rhodesia of the time. I thought people meant what they said, concerning being honest and telling the truth about your impressions. So my father, who was (although I didn’t know it) becoming increasingly disturbed about the regime change in 1979, and its ramifications and its implications for his right wing beliefs, responded in a mode as if I were mocking him. It was all too bad because I was simply saying what was true — not politically, but phenomenologically, in my small, childlike way. And this was proving too much for him!

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