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How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University

How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University

Jeffrey J. Williams
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University
    Book Description:

    Over the past decade, Jeffrey J. Williams has been one of the most perceptive observers of contemporary literary and cultural studies. He has also been a shrewd analyst of the state of American higher education. How to Be an Intellectual brings together noted and new essays and exemplifies Williams's effort to bring criticism to a wider public How to Be an Intellectual profiles a number of critics, drawing on a unique series of interviews that give an inside look at their work and careers. The book often looks at critical thought from surprising angles, examining, for instance, the history of modern American criticism in terms of its keywords as they morphed from sound to rigorous to smart. It also puts in plain language the political travesty of higher education policies that produce student debt, which, as Williams demonstrates, all too readily follow the model of colonial indenture, not just as a metaphor but in actual point of fact. How to Be an Intellectual tells a story of intellectual life since the culture wars. Shedding academic obscurity and calling for a better critical writing, it reflects on what makes the critic and intellectual the accidents of careers, the trends in thought, the institutions that shape us, and politics. It also includes personal views of living and working with books.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-6384-4
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Criticism without Footnotes
    (pp. 1-8)

    This book represents my effort to write a different kind of criticism from the academic mainstream. It fuses the techniques of literary journalism with scholarship to report on contemporary theory, intellectual life and culture, politics, and the university. One way to put it is that this book offers criticism without footnotes.

    Journalism and scholarship usually inhabit different planets, with different gods, languages, and forums. Journalism pays homage to Hermes, favoring speed over the lumbering pace of academe, the timely report over the arcane investigation, the straightforward account over tedious elaboration. Its language is colloquial and direct, and it typically appears...


    • [PART ONE: Introduction]
      (pp. 9-10)

      Criticism in our time seems subject to frequent change. This section looks at some of the turns in contemporary criticism, such as the rise and fall of literary theory, the institutionalization of cultural studies, the resurrection of the public intellectual, and the embrace of quantitative methods. One question that runs through it is the political relevance, or irrelevance, of culture.

      Sometimes the history of criticism is framed as a kind of relay race, with a topic handed from one runner to the next (the focus on the sign, for instance, passed from Saussure to Lévi-Strauss to Derrida to Butler). It...

    • ONE How to Be an Intellectual: Rorty v. Ross
      (pp. 11-24)

      In the fall of 1991, Richard Rorty published an essay inDissentmagazine called “Intellectuals in Politics.” It was not a profile of model figures but something of a jeremiad, castigating intellectuals in order to bring them back to their proper purpose. It upbraided American intellectuals for their disconnection from politics, standing by while the rich ripped off the poor, especially in the wake of the savings and loan crisis and recession of 1990–91. Rorty indicted two groups in particular: journalists and literature professors. Of journalists he charged that they failed the tradition of Lincoln Steffens by not properly...

    • TWO The Retrospective Tenor of Recent Theory
      (pp. 25-30)

      Literary theory seems caught in a holding pattern. Instead of the heady manifestos and rampant invention of the late 1960s through the early 1980s, it now has turned retrospective, still set on the theoretical platforms of poststructuralism and the work of its major figures, like Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, and so on. Once discursive bomb-throwers and banes of traditionalists, they are now standard authorities to be cited in due course.

      One sign of this retrospective stance is a recent wave of reprints and anniversary editions. Two of them provide bookends for the heyday of theory. In 2007 Johns Hopkins University Press...

    • THREE The Rise of the Theory Journal
      (pp. 31-36)

      In the 1970s, the journals in literary studies underwent a tidal shift. Before that, the major organs had been “little magazines,” like the legendaryPartisan ReviewandKenyon Review, or scholarly journals, such asJEGP(Journal of English and Germanic Philology) andSpeculum, a journal of medieval studies. But the 1970s brought a wave of new journals.

      In roughly a decade, more than twenty journals were founded in the United States, among themNew Literary History(1969),diacritics(1971),SubStance(1971),boundary 2(1972),Feminist Studies(1972),New German Critique(1973),Critical Inquiry(1974),Semiotext(e)(1974),Signs(1975),Enclitic(1977),...

    • FOUR How Critics Became Smart
      (pp. 37-41)

      It was recently recommended to me to read someone’s work: “You have to read it, it’s reallysmart.” And one typically hears things like, “I didn’t agree with anything she said in that book, but it’s really smart,” or, less flatteringly, “How did he get that job? He’s not very smart.” Imagine how damning a comment on an official evaluation would be that said, “Not especially smart, but competent.” In my observation, “smart” is the highest form of praise one can now receive in academe. While it has colloquial currency, “smart” carries a special status in contemporary academic culture.


    • FIVE Publicist Intellectuals
      (pp. 42-44)

      During the 1990s, there was a great deal of fanfare announcing a renaissance: Intellectuals were emerging from their jargon-insulated academic cloisters and taking to the streets, or at least to the magazine kiosks, made over as public intellectuals. Cultural critic Michael Bérubé offered a succinct formula for this alchemy in his bookPublic Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics(1994), calling for literary and cultural critics to “bite-size” their work to reach larger audiences.

      While it seems a virtue that academic critics cross over the public divide and occasionally grace the pages of glossy magazines like theAtlanticand...

    • SIX The Ubiquity of Culture
      (pp. 45-56)

      If you are building a house, the first thing you do is probably not to plant flowers. You dig the basement, pour the foundation, frame the building, raise and shingle the roof, put up the siding, and so forth. Then, if you have time and money left, you might put in a flowerbed. The flowers might give you pleasure when you see them, but they are not usually considered essential to the house; they do not keep you dry in rain or warm in winter or fill your stomach.

      The traditional idea of culture as high art conceives of culture...

    • SEVEN Credibility and Criticism: On Walter Benn Michaels
      (pp. 57-60)

      When I was growing up in the New York suburbs, there was an evangelist on every Sunday night named Reverend Ike. Reverend Ike’s motto was, “Money is not the root of all evil; lack of money is the root of all evil.” Walter Benn Michaels’s message to those in literary and cultural studies for the past several years has been similar to that of Reverend Ike: It is not race or gender or sexuality or any of the other permutations of identity that are the root of inequality in our society; rather, it is class, which is not an identity...

    • EIGHT The Statistical Turn in Literary Criticism
      (pp. 61-64)

      Humanists usually take to math like cats to water. But lately literary critics have been embracing statistics and other quantitative measures.

      One prominent example has been Franco Moretti. He is a leading critic of the novel, with books such asSigns Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms(1983) andThe Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture(1987) on modernism, the bildungsroman, the epic, and other forms. But more recently he has been amassing statistics on novels, notably in his influentialGraphs, Maps, and Trees(2007), as well as subsequent essays inNew Left...


    • [PART TWO: Introduction]
      (pp. 65-66)

      This section presents a series of profiles of contemporary critics ranging from the inventor of the firstNorton Anthology, M. H. Abrams, to the revisionary queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam. Profiles are a quintessential form of journalism, but they can offer a few distinct benefits over standard issue academic accounts. Most academic articles deal with a narrow issue or argument of a critic, whereas profiles aim to give a more synoptic sense of someone’s work and career, of its arc and how they got there.

      Moreover, these essays give a lived sense of what it is like to do criticism—...

    • NINE Prodigal Critics: Bloom, Fish, and Greenblatt
      (pp. 67-71)

      The rise of literary theory is often described in terms of an invasion. A commando team of French intellectuals landed on American shores in the late 1960s to infiltrate the leading universities and blow up literary studies. Twenty years later, after much ink and invective, French theory had conquered the field, supplanting the dominant mode of American criticism from the 1940s to the 1970s, the New Criticism.

      That story has some truth, but it obscures as much as it reveals. The rise of theory was not just a foreign intrusion but developed from the inside. The New Criticism was dismantled...

    • TEN A Life in Criticism: M. H. Abrams
      (pp. 72-76)

      M. H. Abrams is an iconic name in literary studies. It has appeared on nearly nine million copies ofThe Norton Anthology of English Literature, for which he served as general editor for nearly fifty years. In a detail that only scholars would know, it has also led the indexes of many a critical book. (In fact, one critic I know added a citation of Aarlef just to avoid that custom.) Besides the Norton, Abrams stamped the study of Romantic literature from the 1950s on. His bookThe Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition(1953), ranked...

    • ELEVEN Bellwether: J. Hillis Miller
      (pp. 77-81)

      Careers seem to follow an inevitable logic. Looking back on a critic’s career, we usually discern how the early work led to the later, and we connect the dots to explain how it developed and matured. But closer up, rarely are careers neat or straightforward. Like creative work, intellectual work tends to proceed in fits and starts, long plateaus sometimes sliding to a valley, sometimes interrupted by an unexpected turn, and intellectual careers are punctuated by shifts in style, method, or concern. Such turning points might testify to the lighting bolts of invention, but they also result from a strong...

    • TWELVE The Political Theory License: Michael Walzer
      (pp. 82-87)

      Michael Walzer asks big political questions in plainspoken ways. For instance, he begins his recent book,In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible(2012), asking of the Bible’s various books: “How is political society conceived? How should political power be used? … When is it right to go to war? What are the obligations of ordinary citizens or subjects?”

      Walzer has been asking these kinds of questions, about war, justice, community, and what it means to be an intellectual, for nearly sixty years, in books such asJust and Unjust Wars(1977; 4th ed. 2006), which has sold over...

    • THIRTEEN The Critic as Wanderer: Terry Eagleton
      (pp. 88-91)

      Literary critics might be divided into two types: settlers and wanderers. The settlers stay put, dwelling on a set of texts or issues. Their work, through the course of their careers, puts stakes in a specific intellectual turf. The wanderers are more restless, starting with one approach or field but leaving it behind for the next foray. Their work takes the shape of serial engagements, moving their stakes to new camps. The difference is not between knowing one thing like a hedgehog and knowing many things like a fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s dichotomy. That is effectively the difference between being...

    • FOURTEEN From Cyborgs to Animals: Donna Haraway
      (pp. 92-96)

      If each decade has its symbolic creature, the 1980s was the Age of the Cyborg. The cyborg invaded our cultural imagination in the now-iconic filmThe Terminator(1984), William Gibson’s novelNeuromancer(1984), and Donna J. Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985). The cyborg seemed to encapsulate advances in technology and biology, as PCs, artificial hearts, and other handy gadgets became widespread and permeated our lives. They were no longer alien to us but part of us.

      Published inSocialist Reviewand mobilizing a wide range of theoretical references, Haraway’s essay was an unlikely candidate to capture the zeitgeist. But...

    • FIFTEEN Intellectuals and Politics: Stefan Collini
      (pp. 97-103)

      We typically speak as if we choose our politics, but oftentimes politics chooses us. We might tick off a D or an R registering for an election, or we might declare in our academic work our position “as a Marxist” or “as a feminist” or “as a free marketer.” But sometimes a situation confronts us, and our politics take shape in ways we might not have expected or predicted.

      During the past few years, the British intellectual historian and critic Stefan Collini has been drawn into the thick of controversies over higher education in England. In 2010, the new Conservative-led...

    • SIXTEEN The Editor as Broker: Gordon Hutner
      (pp. 104-108)

      Editors work behind the scenes. They set up the show but rarely get to take the bow. They fill a variety of roles that make writing possible—like a producer, they might put together the funding and build the institutional structures; like a director, they might make the choices that shape the show; like an agent, they might promote particular authors; like a script doctor, they might improve the text; and like a stagehand, they might do the grunt work on the sets on which the actors play.

      Yet, if you look at accounts of contemporary criticism, you rarely find...

    • SEVENTEEN Gaga Feminism: Judith “Jack” Halberstam
      (pp. 109-114)

      Masculinity has a bad reputation. It is not entirely undeserved, and the strength of feminist criticism, especially as it arose in the 1970s and 1980s, was pointing out the masculine bias of our society and its cultural artifacts, such as literature. So it was something of a surprise when, in the late 1990s, Judith “Jack” Halberstam resuscitated masculinity. It was not the usual idea of masculinity, however: It was what she termed, in the title of her 1998 book, “female masculinity.” It turned to an aspect of gender that had been largely ignored in both feminism and queer studies, and...

    • EIGHTEEN Book Angst
      (pp. 115-118)

      Scholarly books seem planned, rational enterprises, but they are often ad hoc productions, arising accidentally and not always going according to design. They also induce mixed reactions from their authors, and how their authors feel about them might diverge widely from how those books are received. An author might favor his first book over his next twenty, or the offbeat one that got little notice.

      The analogy to children is inescapable, memorably expressed in early American literature by Anne Bradstreet in “The Author to Her Book” (1678), her reflections on her first published, which begins “Thou ill-form’d offspring of my...


    • [PART THREE: Introduction]
      (pp. 119-120)

      If you work in a college or university or if you just read the newspapers, you cannot escape the impression that higher education is going to hell in a handbasket. In other sections I talk about the influence of the American university on criticism and critics—how it has enabled and limited their work, how it has shaped criticism, and how it has made it “academic”—but in this section I focus directly on higher education, on its current troubles and also on our cultural imagination of it in fiction and film.

      When I was in graduate school, I thought...

    • NINETEEN The Pedagogy of Debt
      (pp. 121-133)

      I wrote the first version of this essay in the summer of 2005 and retain its original opening because it recounts my personal experience of student debt. Even though I have since paid the debt off—after twenty years and only the week before I turned 50—I thought it worthwhile to include because it’s the only place where I tell my own story, and also to lend some longitudinal perspective. Particularly after the Occupy movement, it sometimes seems as if the problem of student debt arose after the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Not true—its precipitous rise began...

    • TWENTY Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture
      (pp. 134-142)

      When we think of the founding of the early colonies, we usually think of the journey to freedom, in particular of the Puritans fleeing religious persecution to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But it was not so for a majority of the first Europeans who emigrated to these shores. “Between one-half and two-thirds of all white immigrants to the British colonies arrived under indenture,” according to the economic historian David W. Galenson, totaling 300,000 to 400,000 people. Indenture was not an isolated practice but a dominant aspect of labor and life in early America.

      Rather than Plymouth, Jamestown was a...

    • TWENTY-ONE The Academic Devolution
      (pp. 143-150)

      In 1968, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman published a book calledThe Academic Revolution. It tells the success story of American higher education, from small, sectarian colleges to the major universities of the postwar era. Its revolution is not that of students but the professionalization of faculty and the new stress on research. By 1968 Jencks and Riesman observe that, for the first time in American history, professors were more preoccupied with research than teaching, with their discipline than their campus, and with graduate education than undergraduate. Stressing “the rise to power of the academic professions,” Jencks and Riesman might...

    • TWENTY-TWO The Neoliberal Bias of Higher Education
      (pp. 151-157)

      At least since the culture wars first flared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we’ve been hearing about the “liberal bias” of professors. In books and op-eds by conservative pundits such as Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, and George Will (who asserted in 1991 that Lynne Cheney, then director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, had a more important job than her husband, then secretary of defense), we heard the charges again and again: the radicals of the sixties had ascended to positions of influence and power in our universities and were trying to indoctrinate our children with leftist...

    • TWENTY-THREE The University on Film
      (pp. 158-161)

      At the end of an afternoon of committee meetings and office hours, it was strange to walk out of my office onto a movie set. During the fall of 2006, Groundswell Productions was filmingSmart Peopleat Carnegie Mellon University, where I teach in the English department, and for several weeks the hallway outside the faculty office suite was filled with heavy electrical cords, lights that looked like huge operating room lamps, and bustling young people carrying clipboards and telling us to please speak quietly while the cameras were rolling. There were also occasional sightings of the lead actors, Dennis...

    • TWENTY-FOUR The Thrill Is Gone
      (pp. 162-166)

      Professors aren’t what they used to be—at least in film, if not in life.

      The professor has long been a staple in film, usually fitting a few types. One is the professor as snob, mocked in the Marx Brothers’ 1932Horse Feathersand recurring in characters such as the priggish business professor in Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986Back to School. Another is the bumbling but good-natured geek, made an archetype in the 1961 Disney classicThe Absent-Minded Professor. A third, appearing since the 1950s, is the expert, who is a voice of reason about science, medicine, or history, like the...

    • TWENTY-FIVE Unlucky Jim
      (pp. 167-174)

      The academic novel typically centers on professors—as opposed to the campus novel, which depicts student life. But since the late 1990s there has been a rising number of novels that have displaced the professor from his customary starring role, focusing instead on those in marginal teaching positions or working in a peripheral realm of the university. They show a new academic world in which faculty no longer compose its core, replaced instead by temporary instructors and administrators to keep the money flowing.

      This new wave coalesced in three well-regarded novels published in 2010, Sam Lipsyte’sThe Ask, James Hynes’s...

    • TWENTY-SIX Academic Opportunities Unlimited
      (pp. 175-178)

      Academe is in crisis. Young academics have been left out in the cold: according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statistics, only about 25 percent of new PhDs find full-time, permanent jobs. We are wasting the talent of a generation.

      There have been scattered proposals to redress the situation, such as cutting graduate programs, but none seems to have staunched the carnage. And it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; given current state and federal budget pressures, it will only get worse. Moreover, even if the situation turns around, professors, especially tenured professors, probably will not be...


    • [PART FOUR: Introduction]
      (pp. 179-180)

      This section enters more personal terrain. It includes several memoirs, although, as disappointing as it might be, there are no salacious confessions. Rather, several of the essays tell about jobs I’ve had, working as an editor, in a bookstore, and, a world apart from those bookish realms, as a correction officer. (Really, and not just as a metaphor.) I also include an essay about my mentor at Stony Brook, with whom I worked in graduate school and who died, far too early, in 1999, and a reflection on how I came to do criticism.

      Several of the essays in this...

    • TWENTY-SEVEN The Pedagogy of Prison
      (pp. 181-187)

      When I was twenty, I left college and took a job in prison. I went from reading the great books as a Columbia University undergraduate to locking doors and counting inmates as a New York state correction officer. Since I’m an English professor now, people never entirely believe it if it comes up, probably because of the horn-rimmed glasses and felicitous implementation of Latinate words. But I fancied I’d be like George Orwell, who took a job as a British Imperial Police officer in Burma and wrote about it in “Shooting an Elephant.” I thought I’d go “up the river”...

    • TWENTY-EIGHT Shelf Life
      (pp. 188-193)

      Bookstores, especially for the literary minded, have a kind of aura. Not the prefab chains, but the quaint used bookstore, with a tickle of dust in the air, piles of books crowding the aisles, and perhaps a cart of bargains out on the sidewalk. One might wistfully recall whiling away an afternoon leafing through this or that book, finding a hardcover you’d been wanting for $2.00, or the person you browsed with. The aura wears off, however, if you have ever worked in a bookstore.

      While I was in graduate school at SUNY–Stony Brook during the late 1980s, I...

    • TWENTY-NINE Teacher: Remembering Michael Sprinker
      (pp. 194-200)

      Michael Sprinker was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at SUNY–Stony Brook in the late 1980s and 1990s. Though he fought it against the odds for most of the 1990s, he died of cancer in 1999, at only forty-nine. He wrote several books, including“A Counterpoint of Dissonance”: The Aesthetics and Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins(1980), Imaginary Relations: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Theory of Historical Materialism(1987), andHistory and Ideology in Proust: À la recherche du temps perdu and the Third French Republic(1994). But his most prodigious scholarly work might have been his editing,...

    • THIRTY My Life as Editor
      (pp. 201-205)

      Nobody goes to graduate school to be an editor. When I was in grad school in English in the mid- and late 1980s, my cronies and I wanted to be great theorists, like Paul de Man or Edward Said, patenting the terms everyone used. Journals existed to publish us, not we to publish journals. We vaguely thought that journals were put together by elves, similar to the way that grocery store shelves got stocked at night.

      So, two years out of grad school, I was hesitant when I was offered the job of editingthe minnesota review, a small literary...

    • THIRTY-ONE Other People’s Words
      (pp. 206-209)

      It’s good that people can’t hear me when I edit their writing. “Blah blah blah.” “Is this a garbled translation from the Cyrolean?” “Did you actually read your writing?” “I’m not your mother.” “Urrrh.” It wouldn’t be polite. I’ve done a good bit of editing over the past twenty years, of the critical journal,minnesota review, of several book collections, and of students’ writing, and sometimes it seems like I pay more attention to other people’s words than they do.

      Of course, some writing is as elegant as the drape of Armani, and one cannot expect everyone to write as...

    • THIRTY-TWO Long Island Intellectual
      (pp. 210-222)

      By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I had decided I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t, as some writers report, an idea I had fixed on as a small child; then I wanted to be a cowboy or, a little later, a pro basketball player. When I got to high school, I would occasionally put “lawyer” in the box marked “future occupation” on official forms, because I had verbal skills and it seemed a natural default. I also saw the writing on the class wall—my father worked at a cement plant, but since I was a...