On Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cass Sunstein, and Other Public Intellectuals

I have a long piece up at The Chronicle Review on public intellectuals. It’s an adaptation of the keynote address I gave last fall at the Society of US Intellectual History. Here are some excerpts…

What is a public intellectual?

As an archetype, the public intellectual is a conflicted being, torn in two competing directions.

On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both, the public intellectual is a monkish figure of austere purpose and unadorned truth. Think Noam Chomsky.

On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to possess a distinct and self-conscious sense of style, calling attention to itself and to the stylist. More akin to a celebrity, this public intellectual bears little resemblance to Weber’s man of knowledge or man of action. He lacks the integrity and intensity of both. He makes us feel as if we are in the presence of an actor too attentive to his audience, a mind too mindful of its reception. Think Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yet that attention to image and style, audience and reception, may not only be not antithetical to the vocation of the public intellectual; it may actually serve it. The public intellectual stands between Weber’s two vocations because he wants his writing to do something in the world. “He never wrote a sentence that has any interest in itself,” Ezra Pound said of Lenin, “but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.”

The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself.

To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves….

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

On Cass Sunstein

With all his talk of menus and default settings, Sunstein is aiming for a new kind of politics, where government, as he and Thaler write, is “both smaller and more modest.” This new politics “might serve as a viable middle ground in our unnecessarily polarized society.” It “offers a real Third Way — one that can break through some of the least tractable debates in contemporary democracies.” Sunstein is also aiming for a new self. There are two types of souls in the world, he and Thaler say: Econs and Humans. What distinguishes them is the ability to secure the ends they seek. Econs have a lot of instrumental rationality and are rare; in fact, they don’t exist at all, except in economics journals. Humans have very little of it. The goal of politics is to bring these real, all too real, Humans into some kind of alignment with these fictitious Econs.

It is that desired transformation — of the self, and of the society in which the self becomes a self — that marks Sunstein as a public intellectual. And marks the ground of his failure. For the polity Sunstein would like to bring into being looks like the polity that already exists. Its setting is the regulatory state and capitalist economy we already have. Its ideology is the market fundamentalism we already pay obeisance to: “a respect for competition,” Sunstein stipulates, “is central to behaviorally informed regulation.” And its actors are the consumers we already are.

Consumers, as Sunstein’s utopia makes clear, with no need for a public. In decades to come, Sunstein writes, the choice architect “might draw on available information about people’s own past choices or about which approach best suits different groups of people, and potentially each person, in the population.” So finely tuned to each of our needs will this future choice architect be that “personalized paternalism is likely to become increasingly feasible over time.” Whatever libertarian slippage may be occasioned by the current state of choice architecture — where some serendipity of desire is eclipsed or ignored by the crude technology of the day — will be overcome in the future. Assured by the detailed knowledge the choice architect will have about each of us, each of us will be happily corrected in our choices. We will know that these are truly our choices, inspired by our ends, uncontaminated by anyone else. What we are witnesses to here is not a public being summoned but a public being dismissed.

Set against Sunstein’s nudge, Wickard v. Filburn reads like the lost script of an ancient civilization. Across-the-board mandates like that farm quota, which affect everyone regardless of individual circumstance, are the other of nudge politics precisely because they affect everyone regardless of individual circumstance. But that is their public power: They create a commons by forcing a question on everyone with no opt-out provisions of the sort that Sunstein is always on the lookout for. By requiring economic actors to think of themselves as part of a class “of many others similarly situated,” by recasting a private decision to opt out of the market as a choice of collective portent, mandates force men and women to think politically. They turn us into a public.

That’s also how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.” So are reading publics. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the targets identified by the writer: Think of the readers of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the writer: Think of the readers of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Regardless of the fallout, the public intellectual forces a question, establishes a divide, and demands that her readers orient themselves around that divide.

It is precisely that sense of a public — summoned into being by a writer’s demands; divided, forced to take sides — that Sunstein’s writing is in flight from. And not just Sunstein’s writing but the vast college of knowledge from which it emanates and the polity it seeks to insinuate.

On Ta-Nehisi Coates

Anyone familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates will come to Between the World and Me with great expectations: of not only its author’s formidable mind and considerable gifts but also of a public not often present in contemporary culture. From his blog, articles, and engagement with critics high and low, we know that Coates is a writer with an appetite and talent for readers. And not just any readers but readers hungry for the pleasure of prose and the application of intelligence to the most fractious issues of the day.

Anyone who has read Between the World and Me will find those expectations fulfilled. The first page opens with the body, the last closes with fear. From Machiavelli to Judith Shklar, the body and fear have been touchstones of our modern political canon. Given this marriage of talent and topic, we have every reason to receive Between the World and Me as a major intervention in public life and letters, as perhaps the signal text of today’s civic culture.

Yet it is the very presence of those political themes — the body and fear — that should make us wary. For Coates writes against the backdrop of a long tradition replete with cautionary tales about what can happen to public argument when the terrorized body becomes the site of moral inquiry.

At one pole of that tradition stands Hobbes, who more than anyone made that body the launching point of his inquiry; the end point, as readers of Leviathan know, was the obliteration of politics and the public. Only a sovereign capable of settling all questions of moral and political dispute, and enforcing his judgments without resistance, could provide the body the protection, the relief from fear, it needed.

At the other pole of that tradition stands Marx, who understood the body, laboring in the factory, as the site of a civilizational conflict over human domination and the ends of human existence. Where Hobbes saw in the body a set of claims that might annihilate politics and the public for the sake of peace and security, Marx saw in the body a set of claims that might launch an entirely new form of politics, a new public, into being.

Where between — or beyond — these poles does Coates stand?

For some, the very question will seem like an offense. Here is an African-American writer navigating the African-American experience of white despotism: What has he to do with Hobbes or Marx? Surely a book that begs to be read outside the white gaze has earned its right to autonomy, to be free of the judgments of the white Euro-American canon.

We should resist that move. There’s an unsettling tendency, particularly among white liberal readers, to treat black writers, and the black experience, as somehow sui generis, as standing completely apart from other parts of the culture.

Despite Coates’s atheism and the science of global warming that underlies this vision of destruction, it’s hard to escape its theological overtones. Baldwin derived the title of The Fire Next Time from the couplet of a black spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign./ No more water, the fire next time.” The couplet is a more menacing rendition of the original story in Genesis 9. After the Flood, God promises Noah that he will never again destroy humanity and that the rainbow will be a sign of God’s covenant with humanity. But the spiritual Baldwin cites warns of a different ending: This time, it was the flood; next time, it will be the fire. Though The Fire Next Time was written in 1962, it’s hard not to read it as a premonition of the urban fire that would consume America later that decade.

Coates writes out of an even stronger atheism than Baldwin, yet he conjures a catastrophe more biblical and otherworldly than anything Baldwin, who was reared and steeped in the teachings of the black church, imagined. Baldwin envisioned not a flood but a fire, a fire set by men against men. For Coates, it is the opposite: no more fire, the water next time.

So there will be a rescue from the sky, of sorts. Black America will be delivered by a sovereign from above. Its suffering will come to an end. Only it will end the way all living things come to an end: by death. The answer to black suffering is not a public roused, but as was true of Hobbes, a public annihilated.

Whither Public Intellectuals?

We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear in the face of state repression or social intransigence but instead will dig in and charge forward. And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today. Not tenure, not the death of bohemia, not jargon, but the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.

You can read all of it here.


  1. Librarian (@klmccook) January 24, 2016 at 11:30 am | #

    Q. What is a public intellectual?
    A. I know, I know. Mostly a man.

  2. Bill Barnes January 24, 2016 at 5:46 pm | #

    Corey — This is a bit over-written at points, but overall an exceptional piece, quite brilliant in bringing Sunstein and Coates into juxtaposition in the way you do, and in your reading of Coates. I hope it’s part of a larger project on the issues.

    You might be interested in: I spoke to Sunstein after he made a presentation on his experience in the Obama administration at the APSA meeting in (I think) 2013. He had presented his experience leading a cabinet-level regulatory office as entirely positive, full of people doing great work in defense of the public interest. I said that I’d been reading and teaching American national government texts for fifty years and they all said that “regulatory capture” was par for the course. I asked, were they all wrong? He responded that he hadn’t seen any of that at all. What I found most telling was that he appeared completely uninterested in the question. He just shrugged his shoulders. I asked, “might you just have been unable to see it, blind to it in some sense?” He shrugged his shoulders. It was just him and me talking, and he wasn’t defensive. He just didn’t find his own possible epistemological problems or ideologicalness to be an interesting question.

    You say: “the public intellectual forces a question, establishes a divide, and demands that her readers orient themselves around that divide.” Are you familiar with E.E. Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People ?

    Bill Barnes

  3. yastreblyansky January 24, 2016 at 7:26 pm | #

    This is such a big piece! I’ll need to reread it. It’s funny to think of Sunstein competing to be the “public intellectual”, but it’s not crazy.

    One tiny but significant detail, the “fire next time” wasn’t invented by the authors of the spiritual, it’s a reference to the New Testament, II Peter 3:10-11:
    “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.[a]

    11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.[b] That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
    It’s significant because it underlines the intellectual continuity of the black church with “liberal” theological streams of Christianity (the activist letters of James and Peter rather than quietist Paul, the prophecies of Amos rather than Jeremiah). Baldwin the atheist pins his own thought within respect for the tradition. (I just learned that Martin and Coretta King were Unitarians when he was studying in Boston, Baptists only when it was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that called him, and I can’t get over the feeling there is something really important about this.)

  4. jonnybutter January 24, 2016 at 10:11 pm | #

    I just learned that Martin and Coretta King were Unitarians when he was studying in Boston


    • yastreblyansky January 24, 2016 at 10:37 pm | #

      Source here if you feel like following it up. Embarrassed to pimp my own relatively trivial piece in the context of Corey Robin’s today, but it’s here.

      • jonnybutter January 25, 2016 at 9:43 am | #

        Your comments and posts are always well done and interesting yastreblyansky. I am always grateful when you take the time.

        I fear the fact that MLK was not a hardcore Baptist is only going to seem important to scholars and/or people who argue in good faith, and not to the Fightin’ Wolverines Debate Club at National Review.

  5. John January 24, 2016 at 11:06 pm | #

    Thank you for undercutting that Prince Metternich of Neoliberalism, Cass Sunstein. A nice guy in public persona, a real Malamudian fixer at heart, and a person who defines the difference between polymath and dilettante.

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