When Susan Sontag died recently, she was mourned as America’s leading female intellectual. So the question naturally arose: Is there anyone to take her place? If you can’t come up with many names, you’re in good company. The list is short.
This wasn’t always the case. Ironically, during that part of the 20th century when overt discrimination barred many women from advanced educations, lucrative fellowships and prized teaching and editorial positions preparatory for the world of public letters, there were many brilliant, highly articulate female writers who combined a rigorous mind with a willingness to engage broad political, social and literary issues for an audience beyond academia. We still read their books (or at least their epigrams), and we remember their names: Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt and Sontag, to name several.
Some of these women possessed glittering scholarly credentials. But most did not, because a public intellectual is more than simply an intellectual. Unlike the academic version who speaks mostly to fellow scholars, public intellectuals pitch their ideas to the general reading public — and their writings appear in newspapers, magazines and books. Garry Wills is a public intellectual; Berkeley’s jargon-laden postmodern theorist Judith Butler is not.
Public intellectuals also explore the implications of ideas, which distinguishes them from sharply observant journalists. When Sontag wrote about camp — or Tom Wolfe about customized cars as kinetic sculpture — they joined writing about popular culture with the long tradition of writing about high culture.
One possible explanation for the dearth of Sontag successors is our electronics-saturated age that is inexorably diminishing the number of people who read. Our hyper-specialized higher education system is another candidate. Academic postmodernism, with its contempt for the general public, has largely replaced the core liberal arts curriculum that once created a shared literary culture and an appetite for serious ideas.
Still, there is no shortage of well-known male intellectuals. Besides Wolfe and Wills, we have Richard Posner, Louis Menand, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Buruma and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name some, along with scientists who write provocatively for a general readership: Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. In books and magazines, these intellectuals, who represent a wide variety of ideological perspectives, debate a broad spectrum of topics: science and politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq war, campus sexual mores, the origins of the universe.
There are female intellectuals with stellar credentials and bestselling books: Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Deborah Tannen, Natalie Angier. But there’s a big difference between these women and their forebears. They are all professional feminists. They don’t simply espouse feminism; they write about little else. Feminist ideology forms the basis of their writings, whether it’s Greer on the infantilization of women by a patriarchal society, Tannen on how the sexes are socialized to communicate differently, Faludi on how white men have reacted to women’s progress, Ehrenreich on how the male medical establishment intimidates female patients, or Angier on how humans ought to be more like bonobos, the female-dominated, sexually liberated cousins of chimpanzees.
Greer of “Female Eunuch” fame has lately taken up memoir-writing and a fascination with adolescent boys, and Ehrenreich similarly has branched out into socioeconomic topics (“Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”). Even then, Ehrenreich looks mainly at the plight of female workers — but the other women have stayed even closer to home, exploring subjects of interest mostly to like-minded women: gynecology, the backlash against feminism, dysfunctional families, marriage versus career, eating disorders, the beauty industry, pornography (does it victimize women or empower them?), guys who can’t share their feelings, the professor who put his hand on your knee back when you were in college. That kind of parochialism disqualifies them as public intellectuals.
A typical example is Laura Kipnis, rising literary star and professor of media studies at Northwestern University. In a recent article for the online magazine Slate, she wrote: “For some reason, the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of beautification, even those armed with feminist theory.” The topic of Kipnis’ article was playwright Eve Ensler’s new one-woman show, “The Good Body,” whose subject matter is the author’s potbelly. Is this what female intellectuals have come to — women writing about women writing about getting fat? If you think it’s unfair to target a single essay by Kipnis, be reminded that her oeuvre consists of books about sex and gender (“Ecstasy Unlimited”), pornography (“Bound and Gagged”) and the miseries of marriage ( “Against Love: A Polemic”).
Ideological feminism has ghettoized and trivialized the subject matter of women’s writing. As a successful ideology, it has foreclosed debate — and debate is the hallmark of the public intellectual. The idea of a public intellectual gained momentum in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, when the conflict between Marxism and fascism was fierce. Both ideologies were totalitarian — they claimed to embrace not only politics but also art, literature, scholarship and everyday social relations. And each side, for that reason, had its share of engage intellectuals: Martin Heidegger on the right; De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Malraux and Albert Camus on the left; and Arendt on neither side. English and American thinkers — George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Aldous Huxley — followed their continental counterparts into the agora.
It was this world, with its habits of mind and deep interest in an array of intellectual pursuits, that nurtured Sontag’s mind. She was always a woman of the left, and many of her pronunciamentos — her fawning over North Vietnamese regulars who tortured American POWs, her characterization of the “white race” as a “cancer upon history,” her insistence that the U.S. was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks — can make you wince. But she refused to embrace ideological feminism, though she came to fame at a time when she could have remade herself into a Kate Millett or a Greer. She eschewed turning the personal into the political, preferring subjects of universal interest: aesthetics, the role of writers and critics, the meaning of photography, the place of art in a totalitarian society.
Ideological feminism has failed to produce successors to Sontag not only because of its thin range of interest-group concerns but also because it has tried to systematically shut out — and shout out — dissent. This is why, when I think of female intellectuals today, only Camille Paglia comes to mind. Like Sontag, she writes boldly and forcefully on art, literature and politics. Trailing her is Gertrude Himmelfarb on the right and maybe Greer on the left. The vast majority of women who might otherwise qualify as public intellectuals would rather recite the feminist catechism or articulate some new twists and refinements on it than carve out a place for themselves in the larger public world.