Haus der Kulturen der Welt

The Public Intellectual after History
Remembering Said’s “Speaking Truth to Power”

Boris Buden is an author and cultural critic. He teaches culture theory in the Faculty of Art and Design at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. He writes on topics of philosophy, politics, culture theory and art, and has taken part in various international art projects, including “Documenta XI” in 2002.

Boris Buden

There are no given truths on which an intellectual can rely when speaking out publicly. Yet this claim, although it might sound like a truism, had for Edward Said a very particular historical meaning. It was grounded in the critique of history as the objective knowledge of the past. After having asked in one of his lectures on representations of the intellectual, what “truth and principles one should defend, uphold, represent?” (1994), Said argues that the objectivity of our knowledge, and accuracy of the facts on which it is supposed to be based, no longer provide the stable ground upon which the intellectual can stand today. As paradigmatic for his argument he takes the example of historiography, concretely a book of an American historian, Peter Novick (1988), in which the author showed how the ideal of objectivity, which led historians in grounding their investigations on facts, has finally ended in a chaos of competing claims and counterclaims that were lacking any objective validity. Not only were the objective truths of historiographical research politically misused, but they were then adapted to the ideological narratives of the opposing sides of the Cold War, splitting apart into American versus communist truths. The production of historical knowledge also followed the pattern of identity politics, which resulted in each identitarian community—from women and African Americans, to gays and other cultural minorities—claiming its own historical truth. Finally, the historical knowledge was shaped according to different schools of thinking like Marxist or deconstructionist or cultural. This all led Novick to the conclusion that the discipline of history, seen as a broad community of discourse and of scholars united by common aims, standards, and purposes, had ceased to exist.

It is not by chance that Said chose precisely the crisis of historiography as the best example to illustrate the impossibility of intellectuals’ reliance on professional knowledge when raising their voices in public. He already assumed that the fate of public intellectuals was to be decided in their relation to the past—no longer in relation to what we vaguely call society, meaning some sort of social reality; politics, state, nation, etc. It is precisely in relation to the past that our knowledge has failed to attain objective validity to provide us with reliable orientation in the world. This is why the general condition of the intellectuals’ public involvement today, implies, in a paradigmatic way, a total disorientation in what once was historical time—a disorientation of the subjects who are supposed to understand the past, the historians—or, as Novick writes, “professors of history,” not those who are supposed to act, i.e. to make history.

The difference is crucial if we want to understand what this transformation is actually about. First, we shouldn’t confuse it with those disorientations in historical time, which the enlightened spirits experienced in the age of revolutions, and is best described in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his seminal work on Democracy in America (1835/1840): “As the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.” (Le passé n’éclairant plus l’avenir, l’esprit marche dans le ténèbres.) Reinhart Koselleck (1979) explains this condition as the consequence of a change in our understanding of history that was brought about by modern revolutions. It was the French Revolution that disconnected the past and the future and disrupted the pre-modern continuity of historical time. The obscurity about which Tocqueville talks is the result of a history that has become the generator of its own time and space in its own particular experience. Moreover, history has become a subject in itself. In other words, historical events themselves started to tell their own stories, making those who were telling the stories about the historical events obsolete. This is the reason why historians, as Koselleck explicitly emphasizes, have abandoned story-telling and let the facts write history—a constellation that, as Said quoting Novick warns, has come into crisis at the end of twentieth century. And this is the reason too, why Said’s public intellectuals wander again in obscurity. However, it is an obscurity that is essentially different from Tocqueville’s who meant by it the general openness of historical time toward the future, i.e. the contingency of historical reality that was intrinsic to the creative power of history itself, a history that has become the subject of action and transformation, able to create the new. This is why Tocqueville’s “mind of the man” (l’esprit) had to wander in darkness. What it knew from the past was old and obsolete. About the new, on the contrary, it knew nothing since it was yet to be created in the future. So the past no longer was throwing its light upon the future.

Let us at this place leave the imagination of the reader to sketch out the role of a public intellectual in the age of revolution and history, which at the same time was also the age of history as knowledge of the past based on objective facts. This history, as Said and Novick argue, ceased to exist. But what about history as subject. Has it also ceased to act?

Only one year after Novick’s book on the end of history as objective knowledge, in the summer of 1989, the American magazine the National Interest published Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?”—with a question mark, though. Three years later the title of his book, The End of History and the Last Man, no longer expresses a question. Rather it declared authoritatively that we have reached the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and that the Western liberal democracy is the universal and, therefore, the final form of human government. This is what Fukuyama meant by the end of history. It is, in his own words, a sad time in which there will be no more ideological struggles like those of the past that have shaped modern history and mobilized the power of the masses, their social and political imagination and their willingness to fight, to die, and kill for abstract ideals. It is a time in which not all societies will necessarily become successful liberal democracies, but whatever the regime or system, it will no longer claim any ideological superiority over the Western-type liberal democracy. What then follows after history are, as Fukuyama writes, the centuries of boredom marked by rather banal economic calculation, the endless solving of technical and environmental problems, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands (1989, p. 18).

Since then, Fukuyama’s diagnosis has been refuted many times. Already, in 1990, Misha Glenny published a book on the so-called democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe under the title: The Rebirth of History. Under the same title, there appeared, in 2012, Alain Badiou’s book—as its subtitle reads—on Times of Riots and Uprisings, referring concretely to the events of the “Arab spring.” Or, published in the same year, the book of Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, The Revenge of History, which challenged Fukuyama’s claim in a similar way.

In fact one doesn’t need philosophers, historians, critics, or those clever and competent opinion-makers (once called public intellectuals) to tell us that even after the proclaimed end of history something is still happening in the world. But is what is happening around us, what looks so significant that one even openly talks these days—it is the Spring 2014—of a new Cold War emerging on the eastern fringes of Europe, really that history, which Fukuyama at the end of his article put explicitly in the museum, imposing on us an obligation to take care of it in a way one cares for a piece of properly stored and well protected cultural heritage?

Or would we be better advised to take Fukuyama’s claim on the end of history seriously? Indeed, his vision of the history in the museum and of us as its caretakers doesn’t seem, at least in one sense, entirely wrong. What structures our relation to the past now according to French historian Pierre Nora (2002), is memory, not history. This turn from history to memory he dates back to the so-called collapse of communism, the historic event that happened in the same year that Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” was published. Since then, he argues, we have been witnessing “a world-wide upsurge in memory.” What for Fukuyama is seen as the post-historical period and the general condition in which we live today, for Nora is the “age of commemoration,” in a similar post-historical sense. It is a time of memory, a time in which memory has dethroned history from its sole rule over the past. According to Nora, the meaning of memory has broadened so much that, nowadays, it is used simply as a substitute for history. The study of history, he argues, is now at the service of memory. If once there was collective history and individual memories, now it is memory that has acquired collective meaning.

But there is one more change brought about by the turn from history to memory. The production of our knowledge of the past, as Nora clearly points out, has been significantly democratized, i.e., it has escaped the control of qualified historians and become a concern of various non-professionals. In the creation of memory everyone is now invited to participate. This is obviously one of the consequences of the crisis of history-as-discipline diagnosed by Novick in the late 1980s. But it also, remarkably, coincides with Edward Said’s praise of amateurism, intrinsic to his model of the public intellectual. He believes that having the attitude of an amateur instead of a professional, for an intellectual, is a better way of maintaining independence (1994, p. 64). Amateurism is a choice. By intervening as an intellectual in the public space one chooses the risks and uncertain results over the insider space controlled by experts and professionals. Precisely as an amateur, Said’s public intellectual is also an outsider. Both figures are indispensible in preserving critical distance from the institutions of power. And both make sense only against the background of a historically particular social imaginary. An amateur is amateur only in relation to the position of a professional that is generated, reproduced, and protected by certain types of social institutions. And, however estranged and excluded, one becomes and stays an outsider only within a given society. In other words, amateurism and outsiderhood are forms of intrasocial dislocations that can be perceived and conceived of only within the image of society as a coherent unity, which automatically implies control and totality.

This, however, is nothing new. But what Edward Said has originally contributed to our understanding of public intellectuals and what we, reflecting critically upon its role shouldn’t ignore today, is its relation to the past.

Said’s Culture and Imperialism begins with his saying that appeals to the past are among the commonest strategies in our interpretations of the present (1994, p. 1ff.). He quotes T.S. Eliot’s words that “the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” The idea is that the past cannot be, as Said writes, “quarantined” from the present and that both inform each other; that each implies and co-exists with the other. Concretely, for Eliot, a writer must be conscious of his or her place in time, of his or her contemporaneity. But this is possible only if the whole literary past, not only the national, for the writer, is in the form of its timelessness, simultaneously present. This is crucial for Said too: our representations of the past shape decisively our understanding and views of the present. And, we might add, our relation to the past, quite generally, shapes our relation to reality in all of its manifestations, social, political, cultural and, of course, intellectual. This, again, sounds like a truism but today it implies a significant dislocation. The past we are talking about so much here has abandoned the place it occupied for so long on the time line of history. Not only are we helplessly confused trying to find its proper location again, but the change went deeper than that, and the past has ceased to exist altogether as a dimension of the historical temporality. When we refer to it today, we no longer refer to history but directly to the whole spectrum of our existence, before all, to our social being. If some 100 years ago Maurice Halbwachs discovering the social meaning of memory put our mental relation to the past, considered before as purely individual, into a social frame (1952)—precisely at the time when social imagination almost completely turned to the “opposite” direction of time, to the future—now, in the age of post-history and commemoration, we should reverse the move and put society in the frame of memory. Precisely by framing our relation to the past, memory also frames our social being. This reversal necessarily implies a different perception of the past. It becomes now a temporal dimension of the post-historical sociality.

What then, in this context, does the phrase of the social role of the public intellectual mean? The public intellectual is a social figure, and there is no doubt about it, but its social character can be understood only from a post-historical retrospective. A retrospective, I repeat, not a perspective. Our entire social imaginary today is haunted by an overall retrospectivity. The past is not simply a dimension of time, especially not in a historical sense. Rather it is the general modus of our understanding of the world and taking our stand in it as social beings, political animals, or cultural identities. It is not possible for us today to enter a social conflict, to fight a political struggle, or to occupy a cultural location without stepping into the past as a platform of social activity, as a political battleground, as a stage of cultural articulation, as a screen of utopian imagination and, last but not least, as a museum in which we take care of history. The same, of course, applies to the critical practice of public intellectuals. Its social topology today presupposes its temporal localization in a post-historical world. An outsider to whose past, an amateur to whose memory? Those who still dare to speak truth to power cannot avoid these questions. So the good news is that the public intellectual is not a social figure of the past. Rather it is the figure of a past sociality, a role whose social meaning can be articulated only retrospectively, in our relation to the past, or better, to the society that speaks its truths to us only from its own past.


Books and Articles

Badiou, A. (2012) The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. London: Verso Books.

Fukuyama, F. (1989) The End of History? National Interest, 16 (summer issue).

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.

Halbwachs, M. (1952) Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Koselleck, R. (1979) Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten. Frankfurt Main: Suhrkamp, 46ff.

Glenny, M. (1990) The Rebirth of History: Eastern Europe in the Age of Democracy. London: Penguin Books.

Milne, S. (2012) The Revenge of History. London: Verso Books.

Novick, P. (1988) That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nora, P. (2002) Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory. Eurozine. [Online]. April 19. [Accessed May 5, 2014].

Said, E. W. (1994) Speaking Truth to Power. In: Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. London: Vintage Books, 63–75.

Said, E. W. (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage Books.

de Tocqueville, A. (1835/1840) Democracy in America. [Online]. Available from: <> [Accessed May 5, 2014].