The decline of intellectual debates

Reading recently about the Löwith-Blumenberg debate made me think of the dramatic decline of the public intellectual debate as a cultural exercise and terrain.

Since at least La querelle des Anciens et des Modernes and The Battle of the Books, debates over cultural issues had been relatively common and popular.  Limiting myself to the 20thcentury, I can think (in no apparent order) of Freud-Jung, Heidegger-Cassirer, Bohr-Einstein, Sartre-Camus, Greenberg-Rosenberg, Kelsen-Schmitt, Arendt-Scholem, Castoriadis-Lefort, Nabokov-Wilson, McCarthy-Hellman, Baldwin-Malcolm X, Furet-Nolte, Poulantzas-Miliband, Steblin-Solomon, Naipaul-Theroux, Kerman-Lowinski, Foucault-Chomsky, and Derrida-Searle. This century, however, the practice seems to have disappeared.  Intellectual disagreement still happens but it is civil, conciliatory, and separatist (with both parties going the way of their tribe), not agonistic, divisive, and polemical (with parties pursuing victory and acclaim).

Many possible reasons for this rapid decline come to mind:  The role position of the eminent intellectual has disappeared.  There are no longer fora facilitating antagonism.  The rules of the competition game have changed. Audiences are no longer interested in achieving the self-worth or sense of community that taking sides promised. In terms of cultural capital, the stakes are low.  Lines of difference are drawn across identity, not ideology, and as a result toleration prevails over confrontation.  Everybody acknowledges that debates are not conducted but staged, like the last duel scene in Sergio Leone’s last spaghetti western, where Nobody became the name of Telemachus.

Not that I miss those old debates and their duelists.  But I find it interesting that today even the most visible, controversial, and feisty academic and cultural figures cannot generate a major debate in any public sphere.  The pursuit of inclusion has made agonism illegitimate.

10 March 2019

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