The (in)visible intellectual

The intellectual has, traditionally, been caught between the conflicting demands of truth and power. He would like to see himself as the man who seeks to discern the truth, to tell the truth as he sees it, to act – collectively where he can, alone where he must – to oppose injustice and oppression, to help bring a better social order into being. If he chooses this path, he can expect to be a lonely creature, disregarded or reviled. If, on the other hand, he brings his talents to the service of power, he can achieve prestige and affluence…”

Noam Chomsky, Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State

When you’re doing a PhD past the age of, say, 30, you go through regular existential crises of “why didn’t I start earlier?” and “I am way too old to be so broke” and “I’ll be half-dead by the time I finish my dissertation/start to look for work/pay off my loans/retire” (assuming one can retire on an educator’s living) and other such nonsense tied to our view of the 20s as the only legitimate time to start fresh.

I was foolishly telling a most brilliant professor of mine that I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to get started on my PhD a few weeks ago, a silly commentary which he kindly listened to before changing the subject to my family. I thought about it later and asked myself, “What would I have been and done had I pursued academia as a career straight out of college by the age of 38?”

No doubt I’d be able to use terms like “hermeneutical” and “rhizome” fluently and freely, dizzying some more undergraduate before I pause and restate: “the interpretation of texts” and “multiple entry points in philosophy,” respectively. (I just learned the latter today, by the way.) For sure I’d be working in a tenured-track position, or working toward one, most likely in a medium-sized cosmopolitan city; I’d hope to move on to New York or Boston or San Francisco in the coming decade. (In reality, I am at this point scraping by on loans and the prospect of adjunct faculty positions far away.)

I might have written articles and books by this time, and I’m sure I’d be thinking, speaking, living differently. Maybe my family would despise me, rather than tolerate my late-to-the-game writings on philosophy and radical pedagogy. I’m a bit muted, sobered, as a 38-year-old student. The fire was spent waiting tables and recording music in my 20s, living in New York and getting a tattoo and my tongue pierced…you get the idea.

But maybe I was never quite that smart. And maybe there’s a blessing in that.

When I think about geniuses, I think about Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, Will Hunting from “Good W—H—.” I never thought of myself that way, and I certainly don’t now. How wonderful it might have been to get a start on being important somehow, being smart in a registered, card-carrying sense, compelled by one’s luminous intellect and others’ faith in it! But then I experienced the freedom of being in my 20s and not trying to impress or be anyone. Is there really freedom in being that brilliant?

And nowadays there’s the issue of marketability, the curse and the pressure, of having such a brain. Chomsky must be a rare bird to respond to all of the emails he is written (he’s famous for always answering), to write and speak in public, because at the age of 80, I imagine most of us would be tired of being on stage, tired of being told we need to answer for the current state of affairs. He’s also rare because he speaks as much truth as one can given the bias and capriciousness of media outlets in the modern day, at least against progressives.

Virginia Woolf once said, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” John Stuart Mill argued fervently for freedom of thought in a time when most do not bother to question their own perspectives. Yet we are controlled by how we will be taken, on any side. Too brilliant? You’ll be followed, haunted, or become an accomplice of the powers that be. Not quite brilliant enough? You’ll be dogged by the notion that everything you write and say is good enough to be tolerated…and good enough to get you shut out.

We are warned in higher education that we must be careful of what we publish online, how we critique and how we represent ourselves, because there is a breadcrumb trail that always finds us when we’re trying to get work. Is it only the intellectual giants – not just the intellectuals, that Chomsky refers to – that can be as close to free in opinion and expression as one can be in social existence? Woolf was both brilliant and economically self-sustaining; her “room of one’s own” consisted of a modest annuity through the death of a family member. Would that mean, then, that only someone rare as she would be free of the pull to serve power to survive, and well, and to inspire beyond one’s own life?



One thought on “The (in)visible intellectual

  1. This is a fascinating reflection on being a student later in life. I think that the thirties are a difficult decade, a time when we start to question the hope (or the assumption) that we’re going to turn into something. Sooner or later we’ll fall into the right line, meet the right person, become Martin Luther King or Gandhi…or maybe we won’t. It seems like everyone feels like they should be doing something else, and should have lived the past in a different way. Reading Katie’s post I wondered how many people wish they’d “spent the fire” in New York city making music instead of spending their youth in a library.


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