The corpse of the public intellectual has been much chewed upon. But only now is its full historical context coming into view. What seemed a death, we’re beginning to see, was but the larval stage of a metamorphosis. The public intellectual has been reborn as the public influencer.
The parallels are clear. Both the public intellectual and the public influencer play a quasi-independent role separate from but still dependent on a traditional, culturally powerful institution. Both, in other words, remake a private, institutional role as a public, personal one. In the case of the public intellectual, the institution was the academy and the role was thinking. In the case of the public influencer, the institution is the corporation and the role is marketing. The shift makes sense. Marketing, after all, has displaced thinking as our primary culture-shaping activity, the source of what we perceive ourselves to be. The public square having moved from the metaphorical marketplace of ideas to the literal marketplace of goods, it’s only natural that we should look to a new kind of guru to guide us.
Both the public intellectual and the public influencer gain their cultural cachet from their mastery of the dominant media of the day. For the public intellectual, it was the printed page. For the public influencer, it’s the internet, especially social media. The tool of the public intellectual was the pen; the product, the word. The tool of the public influencer is the smartphone camera; the product, the image. Instagram is the new Partisan Review. But while the medium has changed, the way the cultural maestro exerts influence remains the same. It’s by understanding and wielding the power of media to gain attention and shape perception.
Both the public intellectual and the public influencer play an instrumental role in shaping cultural ideals and tying them to the individual’s sense of self. When the public intellectual was ascendant, cultural ideals revolved around the public good. Today, they revolve around the consumer good. The idea that the self emerges from the construction of a set of values and beliefs has faded. What the public influencer understands more sharply than most is that the path of self-definition now winds through the aisles of a cultural supermarket. We shop for our identity as we shop for our toothpaste, choosing from a wide selection of readymade products. The influencer displays the wares and links us to the purchase, always with the understanding that returns and exchanges will be easy and free.
The remnants of the public-intellectual class resent the rise of the influencer. Some of that resentment stems from the has-been’s natural envy of the is-now. But there’s a material angle to it as well. The one big difference between the public influencer and the public intellectual lies in compensation. Public intellectuals were forced to subsist on citations, the thinnest of gruel. Influencers get fame. They get cash. They get merch — stuff to wear, stuff to eat, stuff to sit on. And, the final insult, they receive in abundance what public intellectuals most craved but could never have: our hearts.