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15/05/2006

The medium is English

By Naomi Buck

Naomi BuckNaomi Buck
Timothy Garton Ash, historian, academic, journalist and commentator, not to mention great mind, thinker and expert, wrote a piece in The Guardian recently, explaining why "intellectual" is missing from this list. The British, he explains, are loath to identify themselves as intellectuals. The term carries unpleasant whiffs of the continent, convoluted theory and all things impracticable.

While the British deny their own intellectuality, Mr. Garton Ash goes on to argue, they in fact possess more of it than their European colleagues. The south bank of the Thames, he claims, is home to more intellectual activity than the left bank of the Seine.

Mr. Garton Ash will not have been surprised nor disappointed that his lob was returned in the form of a French smash. It came from Liberation's London correspondent Agnes Poirier, who politely points out that the term intellectual originated in France and refers to anyone, irrespective of class, for whom public debate is paramount - except in Britain. The British, according to Poirier, "feel they must apologise if they want to say something intelligent," are slaves to the "rampant imperialism of the English language" and live in insular delusions of their own grandeur. Ms. Poirier's riverside wanderings have revealed that the windows of the rive gauche are open to the world, while those of London's south bank are closed.

It would be helpful to know more about the intellectual seismograph and ruler that Mr. Garton Ash and Ms. Poirier carry in their respective pockets. After all, quantifying intellect seems to be an increasingly popular pastime. Last fall, Prospect and Foreign Policy published a list of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. The list was charged with being occidentalist, sexist, racist and totally random. The easiest bias to demonstrate, however, was for English-speakers.

Somehow embracing the complexity of Egyptian-born, American-educated, British residents (with Portuguese spouses and tri-national children), the list identified 39 Americans and 14 British among the world's top 100 public intellectuals. France and Germany were assigned 4 and 3 respectively.

Does this reflect anything more than the addresses of the publisher's head offices? Does it accomplish anything more than a glut of comment from those people whose names were, were almost or were nowhere to be found on the list but who – in the intellectual tradition – care about public debate?

Perhaps not. But, a few months later, Mr. Garton Ash was likewise gratified with not only a French smash but also a week's worth of volleying among Guardian readers.

In the discussion forum that follows Mr. Garton Ash’s article, salient data is brought forward, such as how thickly French and English living rooms are lined with books. Rushing to Mr. Garton Ash's defence, one forum member advances the thesis that for centuries, the world's greatest ideas have been born in English pubs but because their conceivers have been totally pickled by the end of the evening, this intellectual heritage has simply effervesced into the British night. Unlike Europeans, who content themselves with cafes and cigarettes.

In the course of the Guardian discussion, the culture of debate morphs into a debate of culture. A performance of "The Vagina Monologues" in a provincial French town is cited as evidence that the French are indeed open to the world and a "homeless chap who occasionally reads poetry at an open mike night in Leeds" is presented as one of the greater intellectuals of the day, who would doubtless "give Noam Chomsky a good run in an open debate."

Such discussions may seem about as illuminating as the bottom of the thankless receptacles in which they inevitably land. But the fact that the pulp keeps coming suggests that there’s more to them than that.

On the one hand, they prove that despite all the talk of our globalised, trans-national, post-modern world, there are still a few buttons which, when pushed, elicit responses solidly situated in the nation - even from our most enlightened citizens, whatever they choose to call themselves. These buttons pertain to football, beer brands, the relative sexiness of politicians and intellectual clout. Forget all that anthropological hogwash about hybrid, self-constructed, post-national identities, here we're dealing with French intellects and English eggheads.

Or are we? Are these national categories or linguistic and cultural ones? Mr. Garton Ash writes: "Through the English language, and the intensity of cultural exchange across the Atlantic, we are also plugged into the big debates not just in the United States but throughout the English-speaking world. The Internet and the blogosphere provide extraordinary opportunities for any thinking person to try their hand at being a (public) intellectual. If they have interesting things to say, a public will find them -and not just a British public but a worldwide one."

Here Mr. Garton Ash hits a nerve, and it's a sensitive one in an increasingly wired universe. While the Internet lacks the sensual appeal of the papyrus scroll, alpenhorn or printing press, it is the fastest and widest-reaching media that the world has ever known and as such, provides a stage for public debate of a quality previously unknown. Maybe the British are having to get comfortable with the term intellectual because they’re bumping into more and more outed ones in their peregrinations through cyberspace.

The lingua franca of the internet is English. Leaving aside the question of what combination of historical circumstance, capital flow, political hegemony and technological pillaging may or may not have lead to this state of affairs, it has to be recognised as such. As a result, we find ourselves talking about a culture, and not Kultur, cultura or kuultturi of public debate.

This puts people who don’t speak, work or publish in English, but who want to be players on centre stage, at a serious disadvantage. There is no reason to think that cultural production and intellectual activity in the non-Anglo world is any less lively, creative, or relevant than what's going on in English, but every reason to believe that it's reaching a smaller audience. It's definitely not occupying much space on the radar screens of those institutions that have the means to shape public opinion in a significant way - see the Prospect list.

As someone who was fitted with English flippers before being thrown into the sea of languages and cultures that make up Europe and the world, it's hard to know what to suggest. The not very profound saying "if you can't beat them, join them" comes to mind. Maybe some comfort can be taken in the fact that English has been sashaying, reconnoitring and kowtowing its way around the world for a long time. It knows how to beg, borrow and steal but also how to integrate, share and age - with grace and not. George W. Bush, who is said to have once remarked that it was no coincidence that the French have no word for entrepreneur, should not be taken as typical; most of us understand what a smorgasbord, pastiche, salmagundi English – and the ideas it conveys – is. And much that is de rigeur has come from Ms. Poirier's neck of the woods. The "rampant imperialism" she refers to has not all been for the worse. English is, after all, the idiom in which she has chosen to work.

If nothing else, Mr. Garton Ash's article gave some much needed exposure to the word "pleonasm", which, according to the author is what "public intellectual" is, namely a terminological redundancy. The claim stands, along with all the others, to be contested. At best in English.

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Naomi Buck is a British and Canadian freelance journalist, an editor of signandsight.com and is based in Berlin.

The German translation of this article is available on the Perlentaucher website.
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