To The Editors
by David Beard
Kingsley Widmer's essay, "A Goddamn Intellectual" [SA #20] would benefit from a dialogue with other, recent discussions of "intellectuals." Widmer begins on the defensive, answering claims that "wayward" intellectuals like himself are "too alienated to achieve truly positive anarchism, and may be consumed by a self-regarding defensiveness which results mostly in intimidation and provocative verbal but otherwise inadequate reformism." (p.41)
Accusations of being merely a "damned undercutting intellectual" are met with claims of consistency "in my critical role." (p.42) Widmer's essay follows the failures of others who have responded to defining the intellectual: a sloppy application of terms. Widmer confuses the intellectual with the mere critic.
Cynthia Ozick approached the distinction between "Public and Private Intellectuals" in The American Scholar. Her description highlights Widmer's shortcoming: "Thinkers, after all, do not simply respond to existing conditions; in the buzz, confusion and chaos of the Zeitgeist, they strive to sort outnamely, to formulatethe cognitive and historic patterns that give rise to public issues." (p.355) Widmer's claim that pink undergarments illustrate "'put-on' petit bourgeois, erotic style" (p.41) demonstrates only Widmer's ability to criticize the symptoms of a cultural moment. Similarly, Widmer's activities in the armed forces identify faulty policy (and resist that policy) without identifying and resisting the larger issues of which that policy is symptomatic.
Widmer's activities may be reduced to "essential resistance" without much "institutional reform" (p.46) because Widmer positions himself external to the objects he criticizes. Widmer catalogs childhood events which he marks as "alienating, but also liberating" (p.42), rationalizing his critical isolation. That running away wit a senior professor's wife was considered a bit outre in those times"places Widmer outside his contemporaries, outside the things he would criticize.
This play for externality (as a valid position from which to criticize) is as false and counterproductive as the mere "resistance" it fosters. Ozick concurs:
I am sorry that Widmer perhaps lacked the literal family structure which might have nourished him and taught him moral reciprocity. However, people like his "ostensible friend, demi-intellectual social worker" may be there now to foster those values which bring the alienated critic inside society. Should he join their community, he may speak from a position where his criticism might foster institutional reform. With goals of identifying the systematic mechanics of our culture replacing goals of mere resistance to its symptoms, his work may achieve the changes that an Intellectual is capable of that a mere Critic never can.
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