The role of modern critics/intellectuals

Costas Douzinas in his article “A Short History of the British Critical Legal Conference or, the Responsibility of the Critic” examines the role of critics and intellectuals. He distinguishes between intellectuals of the past and the present arguing that the former had a clear aim to fight for universal values, while the latter are incorporated into the social system and are in a way “institutionalized.” There is a tendency to distinguish legal from other texts on the grounds that they operate differently. Law is seen as an objective set of rules necessary for a functional society and as such it is immediately thought of as a special kind of text not to be treated like the rest. But texts are imbued by ideology and represent a position, as Michel Foucault has argued. This is especially the case with Law where the correlation between power and text could not be clearer.

What Douzinas argues and what is a crucial point, is that Law and legal texts are to be analysed and interpreted as texts produced by someone rather than accepted as given, objective rules to be obeyed. In that sense, he agrees with Chomsky, as he states in his article “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” that intellectuals are to “speak the truth and expose lies” and to “see events in their historical perspective.” Legal texts need to be contextualized and recognized as authored texts. Identifying Law as discourse and analyzing it as such is the role of the modern critic/intellectual who has to respond to the needs of a changing world, interpret it, and criticize it, if there is any hope for a better society. However, the ubiquitousness of power declared by Foucault does question whether it is even possible to separate texts from power.


4 thoughts on “The role of modern critics/intellectuals

  1. kd287 says:

    Can the perspective of the post-modernist intellectual really extend beyond the nationalistic ‘western’ societies and radical beliefs? What gives them the insight to allow an immanent critique of both the society they are part of and that of Islamic radicalism? Interpreting Ziauddin Sardar’s argument from a political view-point, can post-colonial intellectuals inhabit and make space for the ‘others’, the barbarians who have attacked ‘western’ society and their freedoms? Can ‘western’ societies have a ‘world view’ as he argues non-western societies uniquely do? If according to Margaret Davies: ‘The perception of the object is relative to the social context in which the perceiving is done’ is the truth, how can one group claim to have a universal view? Slavoj Zizek, philosopher, writes about the Charlie Hebdo ‘massacre’ on 10th January 2015 and suspects that the terrorists/freedom fighters are subduing their own temptation of the Nietzscheian ‘last men’: apathetic, passionless, surveilling, passive but above all, self-indulging secularising nihilists. Zizek’s argument resonates with Roscoe Pound’s theory on 1943 that autocracies like the fundamentalist Islamic groups and the ‘western autocratic democracies’ share the same weakness: an unstoppable trajectory towards global consumerist civilisation. The latter fight it with passionate, divine belief, the former with increased security, surveillance and imprisonment of the others.

    Does the persuasive letter by Pickles and Ahmad to the Muslim faith leaders in Britain signify a wish to question and explore possibilities for reconciliation? Could the art of such rhetoric open a logical pathway to unpack the social order and reveal the contradictions and untruths of both ideologies? Lord Sacks, former chief rabbi says the letter was well-intentioned but that Islamism (of Zizek’s pseudo-fundamentalist type) is a global phenomenon thriving on the electronic highways and social media as other belief systems are also doing. British faith leaders do not have the power to control a global construct.

    Could an immanent cosmopolitan critique involving the post-modern humanities be the route to a universal understanding and tolerance of human existence? Is it possible to break the boundaries and mingle with the others?

  2. jmp42 says:

    I, too, am in agreement with CT and the comments made about intellectuals and ‘institutionalised’ academic/intellectuals and the responsibility of critics. The attributes of the intellectuals gone by were armed with ‘moral principles, historical awareness’ and resistant to the political – attributes that Pue advocates as a ‘total jurist’. The intellectuals were a force to be reckoned with, who were involved in anything that ‘gave them public recognition and respect’, were committed to social justice and were often involved within the profession of humanities, such as philosophers or authors. However, it is claimed that the modern day intellectual has now been replaced by the ‘institutionalised’ intellectual/academic, constrained by universities ‘to offer tools, to become instruments of government.’

    In response to Chomsky’s claim that the responsibility of intellectuals is ‘to speak the truth and to expose lies’, Douzinas puts forward a further claim by Posner that intellectuals are now becoming experts in their specialised fields and are constrained by what they can talk about, which may not always be the ‘truth’ – this is because they can only talk about what is in their ‘professional competence’.

    Douzinas states that the notion of responsibility is derived from knowledge and power which comes from one’s own power. In relation to the responsibility of the scholar, we turned to Foucault and his dialogue with Deleuze (both political activists). Here, in their dialogue, Foucault talks about the role of the intellectual and the response to power which differs from Chomsky in his approach to ‘speak out’ and ‘expose lies’. Foucault states that it is the not responsibility of the intellectual to ‘represent’ the Other or ‘speak out’; it is to create conditions and give the opportunity to speak for themselves.

    I believe that the responsibility of the modern scholar should be to remember the attributes of the intellect and the values of the ‘total jurist’ and to strive for the ‘ethical good’.

  3. jegs2 says:

    It has been posited that present day intellectuals have become institutionalized and that that their role in society has decreased over time. I would certainly agree that economic forces have changed the exercise of intellectuals – whether they are consciously aware of this as they undergo their research or whether the intellectual is only subconsciously aware. It seems that much of our knowledge in today’s society is produced after first considering if it is profitable, or at least feasible, to do so. These capitalist considerations seem at odds with our romantic notions of the intellectual at ‘war’ with oppressors, free from capitalist forces and fighting on behalf of the disenfranchised (as Douzinas would have it). In my opinion the reality of the situation faced by our academic institutions is such that we can give up on this notion of the intellectual. Having said this, the courageous work of Malala Yousafzai should restore our faith in the potential for wisdom gained outside of economic forces.

    Turning to the responsibility of the scholar, Vattimo is of the the belief that the scholar must remember what inspired her because otherwise her work becomes nothing more than a simple literary exercise in individualism, serving her own private interests. Two things can be drawn from this. Firstly, the idea that as a scholar you bring yourself to your work. To put it another way, the subject is inextricably linked to the object because the ethos of the scholar inevitably shapes her view of the object she studies. Secondly, Vattimo suggests that the scholar belongs to a community to which she must also contribute to.

    I would agree with Vattimo as to the responsibility of the scholar. I am doubtful as to whether the intellectual serves the interests of the oppressed minorities as I would suggest that your responsibility is driven by your motivations, identity and personal ethos. Having said this I would disagree with Vattimo when he disparages the potential for individualism. In my opinion, the individualism is a natural and undeniable consequence of being motivated by personal ethos. The only obligation the scholar can be subject to is the duty to be true to oneself. It is only this responsibility that will produce authentic and therefore valuable work.

  4. ml461 says:

    In the post ‘The role of modern critics/intellectuals’, the author suggests that there is a difference between the role of intellectuals of the past, and the role of those in the present, arguing that the former had a much clearer ‘fight for universal values’, whilst the latter had become somewhat institutionalized – thus suggesting, possibly, that their role has been somewhat diminished.

    I would support the notion that the role of the intellectual has diminished over time. Bertrand Russell, in his paper ‘The role of the intellectual in the modern world’ (The American Journal of Sociology, volume XLIV, January 1939) commented that ‘respect for the intellectual and the sage is in inverse proportion to the intelligence of the community; respect for the intellectual decreases with the increase in their numbers’. The availability of textual information and knowledge has meant that the power associated with it has been diluted, and it is thus no longer the sole preserve of the intellectual.

    Whilst their role may have been diminished, the responsibility of the intellectual remains, as Chomsky says in The Responsibility of Intellectuals, to ‘insist upon the truth’, and also ‘to see events in their historical perspective’. Whilst this may seem clear, and leaning again on Chomsky’s paper, truth does not necessarily fit into one easy to label box. Martin Heidegger stated that the only truth that [intellectuals] had a responsibility to talk about was that which ‘makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge’. It is this constraint that could lead to the comment that modern intellectuals are institutionalized – they report the truth in a way that benefits their society. In effect becoming the intellectuals as described by Constas Douzinas, who defined their role as one of ‘offer[ing] tools, and becom[ing] instruments of government’.

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