Nineteenth-century representations of the intellectual tended to stress individuality, the fact that very often the intellectual is, like Turgenev’s Bazarov or James Joyce’s Dedalus, a solitary, somehow aloof figure, who does not conform to society at all and is consequently a rebel completely outside established opinion. With the increased number of twentieth-century men and women who belong to a general group called intellectuals or the intelligentsia – the managers, professors, journalists, computer or government experts, lobbyists… – one is impelled to wonder whether the individual intellectual as an independent voice can exist at all.
This is a tremendously important question and must be looked into with a combination of realism and idealism, certainly not cynicism. A cynic, Oscar Wilde says, is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. To accuse all intellectuals of being sellouts just because they earn their living working in a university or for a newspaper is a coarse and finally meaningless charge. It would be far to indiscriminately cynical to say that the world is so corrupt that everyone ultimately succumbs to Mammon. On the other hand, it is scarcely less serious to hold up the individual intellectual as a perfect ideal, a sort of shining knight who is so pure and so noble as to deflect any suspicion of material interest. No one can pass such a test, not even Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who is so pure and fiercely ideal that he is in the end to be incapacitated and, even worse, silent.
The fact is that the intellectual ought neither to be so uncontroversial and safe a figure as to be just a friendly technician nor should the intellectual try to be a full-time Cassandra, who was not only righteously unpleasant but also unheard. Every human being is held in by a society, no matter how free and open the society, no matter how bohemian the individual. In any case, the intellectual is supposed to be heard from, and in practice ought to be stirring up debate and if possible controversy. But the alternatives are not total quiescence or total rebelliousness.
…the problem for the intellectual is to try to deal with the impingements of modern professionalization…, not by pretending that they are not there, or denying their influence, but by representing a different set of values and prerogatives. These I shall collect under the name of amateurism, literally, an activity that is fueled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization.
The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies. In addition, the intellectual’s spirit as an amateur can enter and transform the merely professional routine most of us go through into something much more lively and radical; instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts.