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Writing, speaking, and public intellectuals

A few thoughts on Michael Eric Dyson's intellectual eulogy of Cornel West.

This photo of Dr. Cornel West arriving to the Time 100 Gala in New York May 5, 2009 should really be the photo for every Spoiler Alerts post ever. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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As someone who is working on a book entitled The Ideas Industry, I kinda had to read Michael Eric Dyson’s TNR essay on Cornel West. And by Dyson’s essay, I mean, Dyson’s intellectual eulogy/no-holds-barred-deconstruction of Cornel West’s output.

The Dyson-West contretemps is pretty far afield from my normal area of interest, and it’s worth noting that what Dyson is saying now echoes what Scott McLemee wrote some years ago: “Cornel West’s work was once bold, challenging, exciting. The past tense here is unavoidable.” So a lot of this is about the rupture of the personal relationship between two powerhouse African-American public intellectuals.

That said, Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted something that caught my academic eye:

And sure enough, in arguing that West’s post-1993 career was one of a “paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work,” Dyson wrote the following about West’s two “talk books”:

West’s off-the-cuff riffs and rants, spoken into a microphone and later transcribed to page, lack the discipline of the written word. West’s rhetorical genius is undeniable, but there are limits on what speaking can do for someone trying to wrestle angels or battle demons to the page. This is no biased preference for the written word over the spoken; I am far from a champion of a Eurocentric paradigm of literacy. This is about scholar versus talker. Improvisational speaking bears its wonders: the emergence on the spot of turns of thought and pathways of insight one hadn’t planned, and the rapturous discovery, in front of a live audience, of meanings that usually lie buried beneath the rubble of formal restrictions and literary conventions. Yet West’s inability to write is hugely confining. For scholars, there is a depth that can only be tapped through the rigorous reworking of the same sentences until the meaning comes clean—or as clean as one can make it.

This is one of those paragraphs that makes me wish that I could write as well as Dyson, because I’d like to think he stepped back after his last revision of that paragraph and thought to himself, “nailed it.”

I’d add two emendations to Dyson’s excellent point. The first is that for a scholar, the spoken and the written should ideally complement and not substitute for each other. The “on the spot turns of thought” that Dyson references about spoken presentations are very, very real. The key is that they should be written down soon as possible and then examined with an astringent bulls*** detector before putting them into something approximating scholarship.

The second thing is that good scholarship — hell, just good writing period — requires a curious alchemy of seclusion and feedback. In this day and age, good writing mostly comes from a solitary wrestling match between the writer, the keyboard, and the online distractions just waiting to sap one’s writing ambitions. So the seclusion matters.

Speaking from personal experience, however, feedback matters as well. And the best ideas I’ve had when presenting don’t come from the presentation per se but from the back-and forth that comes the question-and-answer period. It’s always the challenging questions that inspire the best responses.

As Dyson’s essay makes clear, it seems that West suffers from elevation into a public intellectual stratosphere that makes it hard for critical feedback to survive – and easy for the public intellectual and his/her defenders to dismiss as jealousy. I suspect West will read Dyson’s essay as a personal feud gone public. This is a shame, because it is precisely this kind of feedback that is useful in a career stage where someone is used to nothing but sycophantic praise.

The worst thing an academic can hear is, “you know, you’re much more impressive on paper than in person” — except, of course, for the reverse statement.