February 19, 2002
On Intellectuals' Responsibilities

Two excerpts from two excellent books that I'm reading: Arundhati Roy's Power Politics and Edward Said's Representations of the Intellectual, which I originally typed up for a friend.

Arundhati Roy:

...In the midst of a bloody military coup, for instance, you could find yourself fascinated by the rituals of a purple sunbird, or the secret life of captive goldfish, or an old aunt's descent into madness. And nobody can say that there isn't truth and art and beauty in that. Or, on the contrary, in the midst of a putative peace, you could, like me, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable.

Today, perhaps more so than in any other era in history, the writer's right to free speech is guarded and defended by the civil societies and state establishments of the most powerful countries of the world.. The writer is embraced and protected... The artist, I imagine, is finally as free as he or she will ever be. [talks about the extent to which (famous) writers are lavished with attention and made into big time celebrities]

...There is very real danger that this neoteric seduction can shut us up far more effectively than violence and repression ever could. We have free speech. Maybe. But do we have Really Free Speech? If what we have to say doesn't "sell", will we still say it? Can we? Or is everybody looking for Things That Sell to say? Or the subtle twenty-first-century version of court eunuchs attending to the pleasures of our incumbent CEOs? You know -- naughty, but nice. Risque perhaps, but not risky.

Edward Said:

... Politics is everywhere; there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought or, for that matter, into the realm of disinterested objectivity or transcendental theory. Intellectuals are of their time, herded along by the mas politics of representations embodied by the information or media industry, capable of resisting those only by disputing the images, official narratives, justifications of power circulated by an increasingly powerful media--and not only media but whole trends of thought that maintain the status quo, keep things within an aceptable and sanctioned perspective on actuality--by providing what Mills calls unmaskings or alternative versions in which to the best of one's ability the intellectual tries to tell the truth.
posted by dru in good_articles