Idols of the forum: Why an intellectual middle class is to be prefered to a public intellectual “elite”
Authors: SORIN ADAM MATEI,, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Editura Corint (Corint Publishing House), Bucharest, 2010
ISBN: 144143951X – Romanian Edition for US distribution
ISBN: 9789735580 –Romanian Edition for Romanian distribution
Sale site: https://www.createspace.com/3368618
Idolii forului [Idols of the Forum] is a Romanian-language edited book that offers a collection of fresh insights on Romania’s intellectual and cultural trajectory after 1989. In its first 20 years of post-Communism Romania has seen the emergence of a dominant intellectual model that proposes an amateurish-encyclopedic, pundit-like approach to knowing. Some of the volume contributors view this model as the symptom of a nostalgic yearning for the certainties of pre-modernity. Some of the arguments and conclusions of the book reach past Romania’s borders, suggesting new ways to understand the intellectual evolution of other Eastern European societies with a similar social and intellectual make up.
The core arguments of the book focus on the issue of intellectual legitimacy, which can be summarized as the following set of directive questions:
- What type of intellectual discourses are to be heard in the Eastern European public arena?
- What cultural models or values are supposed to inform public conversation about major issues of the day in post-Communism?
- What philosophies or ideologies are considered valuable, central, and “true” and which of them are considered fringe or illegitimate?
- What type of knowledge—theological, scientific, or literary—is seen as “more” legitimate in Romania and Eastern Europe?
- What role should specialized versus non-specialized knowledge play in legitimizing intellectual power?
- Is the Romanian dominant intellectual model dominated by a polymath model?
- Can this hinder Romania’s intellectual development?
, Associate Professor of Communication at Purdue University, the project initiator, first raised these questions in The Mind Boyars, a book that investigates the relation between the birth of Romanian intellectual class and the mechanisms of what he calls “paramodernity” (http://matei.org/boyars). The Mind Boyars, published in 2004, triggered both enthusiastic and angry reactions. Sorin Adam Matei realized then that the issues that have emerged since the publishing of The Mind Boyars are too complex, both in their historical and contemporary dimensions, and that they need an interdisciplinary examination. Mona Momescu, Associate Professor of Literature at Ovidius University, Constanța Romania and Lecturer of Romanian Language at Columbia University, was one of the first Romanian scholars to respond and independently advocate for expanding the boundaries of this emerging field of inquiry. The two scholars decided to join their efforts to further promote a public dialogue about the genesis and evolution of the idea of public intellectual in Eastern Europe. They invited thirteen leading Romanian scholars and media professionals to broaden the conversation about the role of public intellectuals in shaping the collective discourse of post-Communist Romania and Eastern Europe. The resulting book represents a fascinating multidisciplinary exploration of a largely ignored problem.
The final research agenda of the volume Idols of the Forum, which was commonly agreed with the co-authors, included the following topics:
- Does the idea of an encyclopedic/polymath intellectual still hold currency?
- In which way the ideas presented to the public as having been sanctioned by know-all, polymath intellectual authority figures may form or deform public opinion?
- Can public intellectuals be ideologues? Are they only ideologues? Can they also be philosophers, in the Socratic sense (seekers of wisdom)?
- Do public intellectuals aspire to be “philosopher kings”? If they do, is such a status desirable in the context of contemporary democracy?
- What is the position of Romanian public intellectuals towards democracy?
- Is there an optimal ratio between encyclopedic and specialized intellectual knowledge and expertise?
- Can public intellectuals be political partisans? Can they hold political offices?
- Can they be criticized? On what basis and under which circumstances?
The volume is opened by, chairman of the International Relations Department at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, and a world-renown authority in the field of Central and Eastern European Studies. He questions whether Romanian public intellectuals who hold public offices can still retain the aura of arbiters of the public conversation. For example, can they still criticize the authorities that nominated them, as public intellectuals should, if need be, and also serve the mandate they were tasked to fulfill? If they hesitate to express critical views, can they be amended by the public opinion for abandoning their moral obligation to voice collective concerns?
Sorin Adam Matei examines the interplay between two intellectual value sets, which dominate Romanian public discourse: the traditional (scholastic, encyclopedic) and the modern (relativistic, open-ended) one. He finds that the ideal of omniscience, cherished by many Romanian public intellectuals and by a significant segment of the educated public alike, is a sign of pre- or paramodernity, in that while it clothes itself in the language of modernity, it promotes values and intellectual models that are rooted in a pre-modern cultural ideology, which is inspired by the epistemological fallacies identified by Francisc Bacons in his famous theory of the “Four Idols” of knowledge. This cultural ideology proclaims the questionable unity and transcendence of one, “true” knowledge inspired by a very traditional Christian “truth,” which can explain everything, from morals to quarks. Another component of this ideology is the fascination for intellectual master/guru figures, who offer apodictic solutions and explanations for the chaotic dynamic of contemporary world. Contemporary Romania, Matei argues, needs a more relativistic, pluralist public discourse, supported by a “middle class of the spirit” made of specialists who experienced the limitations of human knowledge through professional encounters with intractable epistemic choices and value trade-offs. These intellectuals need to take intellectual relativism for granted, eschewing claims that one-size fits all responses to the challenges of modernity are still possible.
, Professor of Political Science at Bucharest University, and author of the seminal “The Absent Republic,” examines the way in which when not preoccupied with the “loftier” ideals described Matei’s chapter, Romanian public intellectuals appear to be rather shy when it comes to studying and giving solutions to stringent problems for contemporary Romanian society, such as the reform of the educational system. There is a great incongruence, Barbu argues, between the authentic democratization of education in Romania and the fascination of the public opinion with the purported natural “elitism” of the intellectual vocation.
Similarly preoccupied with the making of the modern Romanian academic elites, the historian Lucian Nastasă Kovacs, senior researcher at the Romanian Academy, examines how the very idea of “intellectual elites” in Romania is a questionable reality given the proliferation of doctoral degrees without significant credentialing and of university institutions without peer-reviewed accreditation.
, a logician and philosopher, Assistant Professor at Bilkent University, in Turkey, scrutinizes the international impact of Romanian “public intellectuals” or “philosophers,” such as Andrei Pleșu or Horia Roman Patapievici, whose public appearances are informed by a strident encyclopedism. He finds that by all standards of peer-review and academic impact these leading Romanian public intellectuals are virtually non-existent in the international scholarly arena.
, Professor of literature and literary theory at Bucharest University, dissects the snobbish and sometimes hypocritical regard Romanian public intellectuals have for popular culture. Although highly critical of popular culture, public intellectuals do not shy away from using the tried and true recipes for gaining mediatic celebrity, such as repeated and superficial televised performances. On the other hand, the Romanian cultural debate fails to recognize the importance of vernacular discourse in identifying and diagnosing the real problems of everyday life, such as the oracular ideology that proclaims with quasi-religious fervor that the only values that are worth worshiping are those of the “great culture” inherited from the past. He suggests that opinions expressed in popular culture performances can tell us much more about the world that surrounds us than the high-brow discourse of some public intellectuals.
Three of the contributions examine the political-moral status and ethical behavior of Romanian public intellectuals.
, Professor of Political Science at Bucharest University, a well-known advocate for human and minority rights and Communist-era dissident, examines what he calls “the junk-conservatism” of Romanian public intellectuals and the mechanisms that help those who declare themselves ”right-wing democrats” to occupy center stage in Romanian debates. Despite of having become part of the European Union, Romania has not become more cosmopolitan or more secular, believes Andreescu, who detects in the revival of a militant Orthodox Christianity, actively supported by leading public intellectuals, a real danger to a revival of 1930s-style theological suprematism.
, Professor of Ethics at Bucharest University, questions the claims of some public intellectuals that any type of leftist sympathy lacks the natural right of intellectual citizenship. He scrutinizes Romanian public discourse, trying to understand why it excludes all those who entertain leftist sympathies, even if their scientific contribution to various fields cannot be denied and their intellectual ethos is morally consistent with all ethical standards.
, Lecturer at Spiru Haret University, is wondering why the discourse of some public intellectuals appears more and more disconnected from contemporary issues and why it prefers to reiterate the same “anti-Communist” refrain after two decades of “post-Communism”? believes that many Romanian public intellectuals use the legitimacy of the past to eschew the issues of the present and to cash in on an “invented tradition” of resistance.
’s essay analyzes the Romanian social behavior of compulsory group solidarity. When ideas professed by some public intellectuals are criticized, the rest of the “intellectual elite” circles the wagons and either ignores the argument or shifts the conversation to personal, ad hominem attacks. He believes that this reaction is rooted in socio-psychological factors. Matters of principle and standards of truth are far less important than preserving the “espirt de corp.”
, a journalist and media analyst, argues in a similar manner that Romanian intellectuals practice an intolerant public discourse, which divides the world into “us” and “them.” This reflex betrays a guilt complex nourished by the recognition of their passivity during the Communist era. Because most public intellectuals were passive spectators to the Communist repression, after the fall of Communism some of its members tended to overcompensate by professing a “holier than thou” attitude. By insisting that moral rectitude is to be defined after the fact, such intellectuals contribute to a type of collective “neurosis” in Romanian society, which postpones the ultimate reckoning with what was and what was not morally justified during both the pre and post Communist era.
The relation between specialized and encyclopedic intellectuals is analyzed by two of the book contributors., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy of Science at Bucharest University, argues that Romanian academic community failed to communicate, and the Romanian community to recognize, that there is a specific and non-trivial merit in the modesty that informs the status of specialized intellectual. His or her research might be limited in scope, but its quality is hard earned through the scrutiny of peers. Scientists or specialized intellectual professionals are very little known, if at all, to the public, although their contribution to the development of academic disciplines or of social institutions is undeniable. then analyzes why only intellectuals that act in the name of an over-broad “humanities” perspective enjoy the public’s attention and what this says about Romanian society.
Bruno Ştefan, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bucharest Polytechnic University known for his public opinion research, discusses as well the divide between specialized and generalist intellectuals. He reaches the conclusion that while these two intellectual “tribes” secretly suspect each other, they also aspire to take each other’s place.
Two contributors examine how the widely recognized cleavage between the elitist public intellectual discourse and the rest of the society appeared. Mona Momescu examines the rift from the perspective of “paramodernity,” a hybrid theoretical and actional model that can explain Romanian public intellectual behaviors and attitudes. She investigates how “nostalgia for the Golden Age” (1918-1938) contributed after 1989 to a dramatic separation of a nostalgic public intellectual discourse from the broader societal concerns for the future of the Romanian community. Momescu also explains how intellectual nostalgia and elite divergence from public opinion can lead to institutionalized resistance to criticism. The more public intellectual refuse the concerns of their contemporaries, the more they attach themselves to the invented tradition of the 1930s, which further minimizes their chances to reconnect to the present. At the same time, this attitude leads to perpetuation of “interbellum cultural myths,” such as the innate “elitism” of culture or ethnocentrism, which still occupy a central position in the Romanian literary canon.
Stelu Şerban, a researcher at the South East European Research Institute of the Romanian Academy, offers a comparative analysis—Romania vs. Bulgaria—of the possible roots of the authoritarian and elitist Romanian public intellectual ethos. In his opinion, nostalgic fascination with the “total intellectuals,” such as Mircea Eliade, a former fascist ideologue and later religious scholar, can explain the lack of appetence for dialogue of contemporary public intellectuals who live in the past, unaware of the requirements of the time in which they live.
In brief, Idols of the forum proposes that the public intellectual model embraced by Romanian intellectual “elites,” one projected in the image of the encyclopedic, theologal, all-knowing, prophetic individual is outdated and in certain situations even pernicious by its lack of sympathy for modern values. Furthermore, public fascination with “encyclopedic” public intellectuals might block the attempt of Romanian society to align itself with contemporary discourse. The volume proposes, instead, that the public conversation in Post-Communist societies, such as Romania, be shaped by a “middle class” of specialized intellectuals who can engage in a sustained dialogue with the rest of the concerned public. Such dialogue should be a reflection on the limits of any particular solution to the challenges of modernity and an invitation to critical and self-reflexive dialogue.
The volume also represents an innovative approach to communication strategies. Following in the footsteps of a previous project, Ubimark, launched by Sorin Adam Matei in Spring 2010 ( http://youtube.com/ubimark ) the book is distributed worldwide, via Amazon.com and is associated with a social media platform, http://idolii.com. Each chapter is referenced to its own “Questions and Answers” page, on which readers can share their opinions, initiate new discussions, or rate the chapters of the comments related to them. Chapter discussion spaces can be accessed directly from the book, using any smartphone. The connection between print and digital realms is ensured by 2D codes, a relatively new technology, which turns physical objects into hyperlinks (see example above). Each chapter is associated with a specific 2D code. When scanned by an iPhone or smartphone, the discussion page for that chapter is called up on the phone in a format appropriate for mobile use. Finally, all activity that takes place on the site is broadcast to a number of social media sites, such as Facebook (http://facebook.com/idoliiforului), YouTube, and Twitter. To date, the site has been visited by more than 10,000 visitors, who have left about 400 comments. The best comments will be integrated in a future version of the book.Idols of the forum: Why an intellectual middle class is to be prefered to a public intellectual "elite",
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