The Chronicle Review

The New Intellectuals

Is the academic jobs crisis a boon to public culture?

November 13, 2016 Premium

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle Review
Clockwise from top left: Sarah Leonard, Nikil Saval, Jon Baskin, David Marcus, Rachel Rosenfelt, Remeike Forbes, Bhaskar Sunkara, and Peter Frase.

O ne night this spring, the New York Institute for the Humanities hosted a gathering to discuss, as the title of the event put it, "new public intellectuals." At the front of a crowded room, seated at a rectangular table, were three paragons of this ascendant breed — Nikil Saval, co-editor of n+1; Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation; and Jon Baskin, co-editor of The Point. All are under 40, not pursuing careers in academe, and integral to what the event’s organizers hailed as a "renaissance in cultural journalism."

It is a notably upbeat claim, especially when compared with the hand-wringing that typically accompanies talk of public intellectuals in America, who seem always to be in the act of vanishing. The few who remain pale in comparison to the near-mythic minds that roamed the streets of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, when rents were cheap, polemics were harsh, and politics were radical. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. What happened? Intellectuals who couldn’t survive as freelance writers — and as New York gentrified, who could? — became professors. By the 1960s, few nonacademic intellectuals remained. Careerism and specialization gradually opened up a gulf between intellectuals and the public. The sturdy prose of Edmund Wilson and Irving Howe gave way, by the mid-90s, to the knotted gender theorizing of Judith Butler and the cult-studies musings of Andrew Ross.

Bhaskar Sunkara

If an intellectual renaissance is underway, the catalyst has been the spate of little magazines that have appeared in the past decade or so: Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, The Point, Public Books. At the same time, older publications, like Dissent, have been rejuvenated; dormant magazines, like The Baffler, have been resurrected. James Livingston likens the present moment to the first few decades of the last century, when magazines including The Dial, The New Republic, and Modern Quarterly, reoriented intellectual life in America. "Between 1900 and 1930, those little magazines defined the literary canon and came up with all these ideas of how to reform the market " says Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. "It was an incredible time of intellectual ferment. Our time is similar in that everyone knows we have to do something radical."

Like their early-20th-century predecessors, today’s new public intellectuals are almost uniformly on the left. They mostly came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, a period marked by the post-Cold War triumph of capitalism and a sense that the big questions had been settled. To the extent that they share a political agenda, it is to challenge neoliberalism. When the economy nearly collapsed, in 2008, they embraced Marxist and structuralist critiques. In 2011 they rushed to the banner of Occupy Wall Street. The two months that the Occupy encampment stood in New York’s financial district represented one of the most hopeful and significant experiences of their lifetimes — the first time that things seemed up for grabs politically and intellectually.

Many of the new intellectuals are, or were until recently, graduate students. They arrived on campus long after their professors and professors’ professors had retreated from the public sphere, estranging the academic left from the political left. Campus politics had supplanted larger politics. Bruce Robbins, a professor of English at Columbia University and a prominent combatant in the PC skirmishes of the ’80s and ’90s, looks back on that era with regret. "I sometimes feel like I threw away 10 years of my life fighting the culture wars," he says. The new intellectuals, he adds, have ushered in a more substantive conversation. Samuel Moyn, who was a graduate student in the ’90s and is now a professor of law and history at Harvard University, describes his generation as quiescent. "There was never a thought that we could or should reach a broader public," he says, noting that graduate students today make no such assumption. "This is a generation that refuses the vocation of mere scholar."

In his 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby argued that the generation of writers and critics who came to political consciousness in the 1960s had been absorbed into the university and disappeared from public life, precipitating "a withdrawal of intellectual energy from the larger domain to a narrower discipline." For Jacoby, the implications were dire. "The transmission belt of culture — the ineffable manner by which an older generation passes along not simply its knowledge but its dreams and hopes — is threatened," he wrote. "Younger intellectuals are occupied and preoccupied by the demands of university careers. As professional life thrives, public culture grows poorer and older."

Remeike Forbes

Thirty years later, that process shows signs of reversing itself. Younger intellectuals don’t see the academy as a refuge. They see it as an institution in crisis. They’ve never known a healthy academic job market or a time when the humanities wasn’t in a defensive crouch.

But as academic life deteriorates, public culture grows richer and younger. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books and a visiting instructor at Claremont McKenna College, argued last year in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, that the hiring crisis has weakened incentives to produce peer-reviewed scholarship. Intellectual energy that in a previous era went toward filling a CV and trying to land a tenure-track job is now, for a small but influential clique, being channeled toward public debate. "The reward structure of academic life has quite obviously broken down," the n+1 co-editor Nikil Saval, who is 33 and has a Ph.D. in English from Stanford University, told the crowd at the New York Institute for the Humanities. "A lot of graduate students are like, … why should I participate in this? And they write for the places they want to."

And they’re finding an audience, aided by social media and the low barriers to entry afforded by the internet. Jacobin, for instance, a radical anticapitalist magazine that began in a George Washington University dorm room in 2010, now has 20,000 print subscribers, nearly a million monthly visitors to its website, and more than 80 reading groups, from Chicago to Calgary to Copenhagen. That’s a big following for a little socialist magazine.

The new intellectuals are "the biggest rebuttal to Jacoby’s argument," says Corey Robin, a political theorist at Brooklyn College who was himself deeply influenced by reading The Last Intellectuals in graduate school in the ’90s. "The entire premise of Jacoby’s narrative is a story of corruption: Intellectuals get absorbed into academe, corrupted, and lose their edge," Robin says. "We’re now at the other end of that tunnel."

U ntil recently, David Marcus spent most of his days holed up in a small cubby atop Butler Library at Columbia University as a graduate student in American history. His dissertation is on American political theory in the 1950s. He taught a seminar of "Contemporary Civilization," a Columbia core great-books course. On a cloudy afternoon in March, his desk is crowded with a stack of student papers in need of grades. But his morning was spent working on the editorial essay for the next issue of Dissent, which he edits with Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University.

Marcus, who is 32, joined Dissent in 2006, a "glum and morbid" time at the magazine. For one thing, it was getting old. Founded in 1954 by Irving Howe and a circle of writers that included Norman Mailer, Meyer Schapiro, and Lewis Coser — "When intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine," Howe wrote at the time — the average age at editorial meetings had long since been well north of 50. "I don’t think people in the Dissent orbit anticipated there being another generation," Marcus says.

Sarah Leonard

Over the past decade, however, the democratic-socialist magazine has undergone something of a generational reset. The masthead now includes several younger writers and scholars, including Tim Barker, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sarah Leonard, Jedediah Purdy, and Nick Serpe. When Dissent celebrated its 60th anniversary at a gala dinner in Manhattan, The New York Times marveled at the "notable contingent of people in their 20s" in attendance.

Dissent’s circulation has never topped 10,000 (today it stands at roughly 5,000). Still, it’s always been a respected incubator of talent, a place where young, left-leaning intellectuals could begin to make a name for themselves. Among those writers were Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, and Benjamin Kunkel; in 2004, along with Marco Roth, Chad Harbach, and Allison Lorentzen, they founded n+1, arguably the most celebrated of the newish crop of little magazines. Appearing the year after Partisan Review, the flagship journal of the postwar intellectuals, ceased its 69-year run, n+1 offered a blend of high literary seriousness and political aspiration that was greeted as a changing of the guard, a "generational struggle against laziness and cynicism," as A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times Magazine. Bruce Robbins, "instantly smitten" by n+1, organized an event for its editors at Columbia. To his surprise, hundreds of people showed up. "The young people knew right away something significant was happening," he says. Within six months, the first issue of n+1 had sold out.

The influence of n+1 extends to the way it marketed and financed itself, in part, by throwing parties. The first one took place at a school gymnasium on the Lower East Side. "I walk in and there are like 800 people excited about this little magazine that was serious and direct and unabashed about its elitism," recalls Jon Baskin. The basic business model — a few committed people, not a lot of money (n+1 began with an $8,000 investment from the founding editors) — seemed replicable. In 2009, Baskin, along with Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick, two fellow graduate students at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, founded The Point, a journal of philosophy, culture, and politics. (True to its University of Chicago roots, The Point is the least left-wing of the new little magazines.)

“This is the generation that refuses the vocation of mere scholar.”

 John Palattella, editor-at-large at The Nation and one of the organizers of the event at the New York institute, sees the fusion of intellectual commitment and entrepreneurial spirit as a trait unique to this new crop of intellectuals. They start magazines but also book imprints; they organize panels and are savvy marketers, promoters, and utilizers of social media. No one personifies this phenomenon more than Bhaskar Sunkara, the 26-year old founder of Jacobin, whom Vox recently anointed "the best socialist capitalist you’ve ever seen."

"Jacobin has become the darling of the professoriate," says James Livingston. "Bhaskar has recruited this younger generation of brilliant thinkers and writers who won’t compromise on their politics, which is so appealing in a world of splitting the difference." The magazine also stands out for its colorful and sleek design (its first paid employee was the creative director, Remeike Forbes). One glimpse at the cover and it’s clear this isn’t your father’s intellectual quarterly.

The brash look evinces the distinct generational sensibility of younger intellectuals, says Corey Robin. Its hallmarks are a lack of deference to professional, scholarly, and intellectual expertise. "They’re confrontational, argumentative, and don’t mind their manners," says Robin, a contributing editor at Jacobin. "They’re not respectful in any way — and that’s a good thing."

He contrasts this style with the polite and professional tenor of his own generation. "When I went to graduate school, I was told that the most important thing is to get a patron; it’s a feudal system, you need a protector. But nobody believes their adviser can protect them anymore, even at top programs. If in a feudal relationship the patron can’t protect you, the whole relationship of obligation and deference really starts changing."

Peter Frase

Peter Frase enrolled at the City University of New York Graduate Center with the goal of becoming a Marxist theorist. But he came to regard the culture of academic Marxism as arcane and insular. "By the time I started to draft journal articles and map out my dissertation, I became frustrated by having to write articles no one else would read that had to cite other articles no one else would read in order to satisfy peer reviewers and engage in a process that seemed internally self-justified to fill CVs and have an academic career but didn’t have much effect." He found more satisfaction writing his blog, which reached readers around the world.

One day he received an email from Sunkara. "I didn’t think Jacobin was going to go anywhere," says Frase, who is 36, "but Bhaskar seemed like a good kid." Frase contributed an essay about work ethic to the first issue. "Love of work does not come easily to the proletariat," he wrote, "and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class." In Frase’s best-known essay, published in 2011, he anticipated the end of capitalism and the emergence of new, more equitable social arrangements. That article is the basis of Frase’s first book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, just out from Jacobin’s imprint at Verso. Seven years into his Ph.D. in sociology, Frase walked away.

"There is a lot of fear among young academics because they’re trying to start careers and get jobs and so there can be a real reluctance to make bold claims or to ruffle feathers, which is understandable," he says. "Having a platform to make arguments outside of that context liberated us from having to mind our manners."

While disappointment has long been the traditional disposition of left-wing thinkers in America, the new intellectuals exhibit a measure of hopefulness. "For the first sustained period in generations," begins the editor’s note in a recent issue of n+1, "it’s an exciting time for the American left." This optimism stretches back at least to September 17, 2011, when a group of activists set up an encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Similar protests soon spread across the country. The little magazines coalesced around Occupy Wall Street, forming what they called a "writers and artists affinity group," organizing conferences and panel discussions and arguing about the aims of the burgeoning movement. "Intellectually those few months were the best time of my life," says Nikil Saval, the n+1 co-editor.

Nikil Saval

 "For a long time, it seemed like there was no alternative to politics as it existed," says Sarah Leonard, 28, a part-time faculty member at New York University’s Gallatin School. "And so we kept on writing about socialism and inequality because that was the right thing to do, not because we thought our arguments were about to succeed. The optimism that came from Occupy meant that lots of people had the same feelings as us. Maybe we could succeed. Certainly these issues were live questions and live ideas. It was a big emotional shift."

Leonard and Saval helped start a pop-up publication, Occupy!, an early attempt to think through what was happening on the ground. The first issue featured a message from the New Left elder statesman Mark Rudd, an open letter to the police, firsthand accounts of protests in Atlanta, Oakland, and Philadelphia, and an Occupy songbook (Woody Guthrie, naturally, made the cut). Saval and his collaborators would transport stacks of Occupy! to the encampment. "I remember going around with the newspaper" — Saval adopts the voice of an early-20th-century New York paperboy — "get your Occupy! gazettes here, free!"

Whatever optimism was born with Occupy has been reaffirmed by the rise of Black Lives Matter and the surprising success of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. "For perhaps the first time in Dissent’s 60-year run," says David Marcus, "we are well positioned to the politics of the moment." In the wake of Donald J. Trump’s election, that means a politics of fierce opposition. “We have learned that the boundaries of American politics are wider than any of us imagined. The danger is greater, but so is the promise,” Timothy Shenk, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, writes on the Dissent website. “Our task isn’t to cling to fragments of a shattered liberal order, gathering shards before the barbarians arrive.” 

Seth Ackerman, 38, a member of Jacobin’s editorial board and a doctoral candidate in history at Cornell University, points to another lingering effect of Occupy: a surge of interest in political economy. "Young scholars whose previous work centered on Foucault or Barthes suddenly want to write about derivatives or off-shore tax havens." He cites historical precedent: "When you have a generation of intellectuals whose class standing is jeopardized, it’s likely there will be some kind of intellectual radicalization among young people."

Jon Baskin

That radicalization extends beyond the relatively remote archipelago of little magazines. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center found that a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism, which may help explain Sanders’s success in attracting young people to his presidential campaign.

The mood is captured in the introduction to The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century (Metropolitan Books), a 2016 essay collection and generational call to arms edited by Leonard and Sunkara. "We were told that in the knowledge economy good jobs followed higher education; there are few jobs, and we lock ourselves into miserable ones as quickly as possible to feed the loan sharks," writes Leonard. "You don’t need a college course to know when you’re getting screwed."

A t least once a month for the past 30 years, a stranger asks Russell Jacoby for advice. The advice-seeker is typically a grad student desperate to become a public intellectual, to carry on in the tradition of critic-essayists of old: Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, C. Wright Mills. The seeker wants affirmation from the author of The Last Intellectuals.

"I never know what to say," Jacoby relates with a sigh. "I hate to encourage them, because the economics are so daunting." He points out that even a successful writer like Christopher Hitchens had to teach part time at the New School. "Unless they have a rich partner or a rich family, it’s going to be very tough to survive." He knows from experience. Jacoby tried several stints as a freelance writer; none proved sustainable. When The Last Intellectuals was published, he was an unemployed 42-year-old journeyman academic and father of two who had taught at seven universities in 12 years. For the past 20 years, he’s had a position in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles on an annually renewed one-year contract. "I am what’s called a professor in residence," Jacoby says. "Whatever that means."

Asked about the new crop of little magazines and the writers congregated around them, he responds, "How do they manage?"

David Marcus

The answer: precariously. Employees at Jacobin — there are 10 — earn salaries in the range of mid-$30,000s to low $40,000s. Saval takes no salary as co-editor of n+1. He is the author of Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014) and writes about architecture and design for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, among other places. Frase makes most of his living as a statistical analyst. Ackerman, who is in the 10th year of his Ph.D. program, recently stumbled into a side career as the French economist Thomas Piketty’s English-language translator. He hopes the gig will float him long enough to finish his dissertation. David Marcus made no money as co-editor of Dissent and survived on his Columbia grad-school stipend and occasional freelance writing. "I’m 32 years old and making $30,000 a year," he said in March. "At some point I’ll need to find another form of remuneration for my work." In September he was named literary editor of The Nation.

The relationship between financial hardship and intellectual vibrancy is difficult to untangle. Still, most people see one. "The disappearance of academic jobs in the humanities undoubtedly has accelerated the resurgence" of little magazines by "denying so many talented young intellectuals a secure professional niche and forcing them to improvise alternatives," says Jackson Lears, a Rutgers cultural historian and editor of the quarterly journal Raritan. How sustainable are those alternatives? Not very, says Thomas Frank, founding editor of The Baffler. Culture workers are caught in a paradox: It’s never been easier to get published, and it’s never been harder to make a living. "This is the end of the road for nonacademic cultural criticism."

It's never been easier to get published, and it's never been harder to make a living.

In the meantime, little magazines continue to make inroads. Alyssa Battistoni, a 30-year-old graduate student in political science at Yale and a member of Jacobin’s editorial board, even worries that the new public intellectualism is creating onerous expectations of young scholars: "You should do public scholarship and writing on top of everything else, even though it probably won’t count for your job application or tenure file and might get you in trouble somewhere in the meantime." Even if you meet those demands and avoid a reputation for being difficult, the stipends, teaching assistant gigs, and fellowships eventually run out — and, odds are, the job prospects, too. And as generations of intellectuals have discovered, the romance of the struggle tends to wane as you draw nearer to your 40s. Then what?

Aaron Bady has thought hard about that question. A 37-year-old specialist in contemporary African literature with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, he spent five years on the job market, including two years as a postdoc at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a finalist for three tenure-track positions but never received an offer. "My generation is not in danger of mistaking the university for a refuge," he wrote this year in Boston Review. "Instead we know it as a vocation stripped of its profession, a devalued form of labor that we must nevertheless struggle to do." Bady says he never made a decision to leave the academy; one day the checks simply stopped coming. He suddenly had no institutional affiliation and no promising leads. He’d become an ex-academic.

Rachel Rosenfelt

In 2012, Bady fell in with the anarchic orbit of editors at The New Inquiry, which had begun a few years earlier as a kind of salon for critical-theory-soaked Brooklynites. It’s the brainchild of Mary Borkowski, Jennifer Bernstein, and Rachel Rosenfelt, friends from Barnard College who graduated into the teeth of the recession in 2009. "We had nowhere to go to do intellectual work," says Rosenfelt, now associate director of the New School’s master’s program in creative publishing and critical journalism. "Graduate school was a dead end. Publishing and journalism was a sinking ship." The result was a "surplus population of intelligent, interesting, and interested young people," many of them women, many of them increasingly radicalized by student debt.

Bady’s work for the magazine is eclectic, covering popular culture, higher education, Kenyan politics, Donald Trump’s penis, the legality of strip searches — that in an essay memorably titled "We Cannot Afford to Protect the Anuses of the Condemned" — and much else. "The emptiness of the name The New Inquiry means it can potentially embrace almost anything," he says.

Bady now lives in Oakland, trying to scratch together a living as a writer. He and his partner, also a former grad student, want to start a family and worry about being able to afford it. He thinks a lot about whether grad school was worth it, and about the meaning of intellectual work. "If eight years ago I told my mother I’m going to leave graduate school and become a freelancer, her response would have been, You can’t afford to take such a risk if there is a safer option. But the more it seems like there is no safe option, the less attractive any sort of compromise becomes."

Bady falls silent. "If I’m going to struggle, I need to make it worthwhile," he finally says. "I need to pursue the work I find most satisfying."

Evan R. Goldstein is editor of The Chronicle Review.