intellectualism: culture (?) vs. politics (?)

We could start this article like an “at lunch with…” section from the Sydney Morning Herald’s Saturday Paper: News Review…

After being told we’d have to wait 45 minutes for a table at Manly’s latest trendy Mexican restaurant, my friend and I wander over to the old Mexican restaurant on Belgrave Street. The phrase ‘dinner in Manly’ is increasingly being synonymous with ‘Mexican in Manly’, having chosen one of the potential five Mexican restaurants on the suburbs of Northern Sydney. We are welcomed into the room, where butter yellow walls are coloured with Mexican rugs and sombreros. We are led to a tiny table in the corner that hidden behind a wall, it is intimate. We joke about the fact this table seems set for a couple (awkwardly set up on an internet date), and the waitress laughs with us, explaining that it had recently been the last table left for two (sizable) men. We squeeze in, sit down and order a margarita- though really the atmosphere was as warm and cosy as needed.

My friend is a ‘writing and cultural studies’ major, I’ve almost finished a Bachelor of International studies. We’re interested in words and stories, journalism and being published. We’re interested in culture. We’re interested in politics. And we are looking for a (happy) medium. My friend’s recently been doing a subject on the regulation of the media. I’d been looking at what sort of journalism I’d like to go into. We identify two worlds: culture, intellectualism and analysis; politics, reporting and hard-line journalism. The question is asked (passive language because I don’t remember by who): how does one stand at the nexus between these two worlds?

How does one apply critical thinking, the theories of philosophers, all the symbolism and imagery we’ve learned from literature, and not get stuck gazing into our navels? How does one engage with politics (be it Australian or world), nonbiased reporting and ‘the real world’? How do we look at the world from above as well as below? How do we stand at this jucture and bring these worlds together?

We see pockets of knowledge: caught up in hierarchy. Inaccessible and difficult to transcend the walls they are kept in. How can the news be digested, analysed and thought about critically? And how can it be engaging, interesting and creative?

From my French studies of the Dreyfus affair, I have come to know about active writers: Zola, Mirbeau, France. I tell my friend about “J’accuse” and the way Zola uses the medium of the press, to accuse the press, to defend Dreyfus  (a Jewish, Alsatian captain, falsely accused of betraying the French army) and to write critically and creatively. I tell her about (what I believe) is the most stunning prose. And I tell her my recent studies of intellectualism where the word intellectual, according to Nelson was first used during the Dreyfus affair to speak of the political active academics, writers and philosophers.

For Zola, “to be an intellectual meant speaking out in the name of justice; and for Zola to speak of justice was to speak in the name of the Republic” (Nelson, 2007, p. 15), and he did that using the medium of the press. The intellectual stride the middle line between the two worlds. Intellectualism was less about academic naval gazing (sorry) and more about bringing critical thinking to the news of the jour (Hamster wheel…).

On the other side of the Dreyfusards (Zola…) stood whom we would now call the intellectuals, Maurice Barres and Charles Maurras. Representing the state, the military and all things nationalistic, Barres in fact denounced the intellectuals.

He spoke of them as “as a self-appointed pseudo-elite who erroneously believed that society should be ordered according to the dictates of abstract, universal reasons rather than according to traditions rooted in place and custom.”(Paulson, 2003, p. 147).

He believed in the collectivist and conformity. He believed intelligence was superficial. He believed truth was found in collective patriotism.

It was during this time that “engaged literature” became known as intellectualism. Yet I wonder if the meaning of intellectualism has drifted…

Writing of the intellectual versus the journalist, Rieffel writes of the recent phenomenon where intellectuals have displaced their influence via a certain type of journalist. The two constitute two worlds and “the interdependence of the[se] two worlds, contrary to an idea that has gained a little too much currency nowadays, is nothing new in itself.”

He says; “What could be called the mediatisation of the scholars on the one hand and the intellectualization of the journalists are two sides of the same coin: that is, the manifestation of a history that has already seen much interchange between the two worlds”

Yet this is absolutely necessary. The two sides need to be redefined. How two students see it, there is a great divide between culture and academics; and politics and journalism; between bottom up and top down writing and analysis; between a Hamster Wheel and the Navel Gaze. Where is Emile Zola?

Perhaps what will emerge at this stage is long-form journalism and creative digest. Bobbie Johnson here writes of the re-emerge of long form due to the constant sharing of ‘short-form’- twitter.

We continue our own spoken long-form: whilst working through tacos, a nachos and several other topics. We’re glad we didn’t wait forty-five minutes for a table.


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