JR’s Saturday Review: Is the Internet the Enemy of the Intellectual?

Adam Soboczynski tries to explain why the Intellectual is hounded with hatred on the internet.

The deluge of disgust onto the last bastions of professional opinionmaking wears an unmistakenly revolutionary complexion: the newspaper in crisis just as its pendant on the internet are antiquated oligarchical botches; forums, blogs, and even platforms like pirate bay from which copyrighted material can be obtained stand for anti-authoritarian liberty and counter public which is therefore morally refined. The suppressed underground, at last, ripped through the establishment. It was the victory of pace over inertness, spontaneity over professionalization, the unpaid over the paid. A journalist employed by a publisher is always wrong face to face with the blogger, just like the ancien regime sovereign face to face with the townsman, the latter of which having moral and progress on his side.

Soboczynski’s article is apparently motivated by comments on the German weekly Die Zeit‘s internet pendant – comments written by readers who agitate against anything that may somehow come across as aloof, especially on the feature (or feuilleton) pages.
“An author who doesn’t go beneath a certain level simply failed, simply couldn’t make up his mind to see his work as a service for the average consumer,” Soboczynski writes ironically.

The author’s main points, technically put, seem to be that a newspaper’s authority derives from a blend of political scandals, red-top issues, and the current-affairs analytical feature – the latter of which adds weight to the papers’ prestige, even if only a minority may care to read the features. Even those who don’t want to read them, or who find them too complicated or hard to subsume, may agree that it is something to take the paper serious for – and possibly something to think of as an incentive to work on his or her own cultivation.

Contrary to that, “the internet doesn’t know a concurrence of texts of different standards within one platform.” An internet article, Soboczynski argues, is found by its keywords – which makes its vendors (which probably refers to the authors or providers, depending on the article’s nature) choose the most popular keywords. An article on the internet is attractive when it finds many readers, while an article is attractive for a paper when it fits into the blend – when it helps to make the paper attractive or pleasant as a whole.

Soboczynski also provides an example as to how many opinions lumped together may obscure a picture, rather than explaining a topic. Assessing a medical practice in town on a public platform, Gaby decorates its rankings with one (lousy) out of five (excellent) stars because she had to wait for half an hour, “even though she had an appointment there”, and Max is as kind to provide two stars, because, after all, his hip trouble was professionally cured, although the doctor’s halitosis made him suffer. The author then quotes late German playwright Heiner Müller saying that “ten Germans are more stupid than five Germans”.

Soboczynski also touches on a central problem – the question of class relations, really.

To the others, the intellectual is a parasite. The others sense that the business of an intellectual – happily scrutinizing and interpreting his environment – can hardly be considered to be work.

But this is something Soboczynski only takes into account at the end of his article, with a short and fragmentary paragraph, and that’s unfortunate. Because this was and is a central problem. An employee squeezed by his boss, the market, or both, may not find the energy and time to deal with matters beyond his individual (or not so individual) life. A man or woman without much education may not have developed a sense of things beyond commercialized monkey conditioning. An intellectual mainly brings happiness into the life of occasionally relaxed people.

To be clear, the intellectual shouldn’t be blamed for that, just as the non-intellectual or anti-intellectual can’t escape his own responsiblity of cultivating himself, with the simple excuse of his or her tough childhood. But Soboczynski  shouldn’t leave the matter out of the account. Mentioning it but not keeping to it is a distinctive feature of Soboczynski’s article. This approach might be a central motivation for the quarrel between the intellectual author and his “hateful” commenters. An intellectual who really wants a broader readership shouldn’t lower his standards. Not at all. But he should try to understand who his readers are, and why they are taking aim at him, rather than exploring his texts.

In general, I’d say that Soboczynski is fighting the good fight of intelligence. I can only agree with what he writes about pirate bay, blogs, and forums. The way many bloggers take photos from other sources and adorn their opiniated re-hashes of news originating from otherwise disdained mainstream sources is a nuisance (sorry to possibly offend some people on my blog roll whose posts I do respect in general).

The enmity against education (in the sense of cultivation of mind, I seem to understand) had many heydays, according to Soboczynski, most recently within the two socialist totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.

Maybe it would be too easy to make fun of this invocation. For sure, Neuschwanstein Castle stirs revulsion rather than admiration within me. It seems to epitomize to me the beautiful things Soboczynski celebrates and defends in his article – which isn’t accurate on my part. Soboczynski doesn’t mention castles. He mentions rhetorical competence (seems to refer to the ability to understand and to make oneself understood clearly), poetry, and the arts and crafts. Things which seemed to be unusable for the Volksgemeinschaft, he writes.

To many Chinese, Soboczynski’s argumentation may look familiar. He’s referring to German, Russian and Chinese past forms of socialism alike. The cultural revolution smashed many Chinese Neuschwanstein Castles, and killed many people at home, whereas Germany’s Third Reich killed many people at home and abroad. Soboczynski is referring to both as socialist totalitarianism. Class grudges may indeed have been great drivers in both the Nazi and the Cultural “revolutions”. And the way Chinese intellectuals were hounded as the stinking ninth category (臭老九, chou lao jiu) is legendary.

But that’s also what makes the equation between the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution look questionable. Reich means Empire – which has little to do with socialism. And intellectuals in Nazi Germany weren’t hounded, unless they opposed the Nazis.

My impression is that Soboczynski wrote something with his heart in it. With his heart too much in it, that is. That usually doesn’t help to be convincing. The way commenters on Die Zeit are sometimes spewing their resentment may be an unpleasant indicator of the state of our society.

I don’t think that Soboczynski should question his own role as an intellectual media professional in his article. After all, he arguably meant to be a reaction to other intellectuals who are only too willing to compromise with angry amateurs where they’d better take an honest, professional stance against them. That’s absolutely legitimate.

But did he question his own role in private, before going public?

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Update / Related: Why are Mass Media Losing Relevance, Febr 26

10 Responses to “JR’s Saturday Review: Is the Internet the Enemy of the Intellectual?”

  1. In previous times the intellectual didn’t have any economical needs. A well written discussion of a topic could earn the writer good money. In todays world, where everything is trimmed to maximize gains, only those writers that produce mainstream articles can feed their families. Have a look at how our TV program changed over time. Meaningful discussion is pushed into the late night or totally abandoned.

    If You get paid by how often Your articles are read by readers, or by how long a reader viewed Your text, then it is obvious that intellectuals want to push their texts to the mainstream as well, to hold their income at the same level as before. This doesn’t work really and the results are shown by Mr. Soboczynski.

    Soboczynski can either lament about the situation, or he can arrange himself with the situation. Write mainstream garbage to earn money and once in a while join an intellectual discussion for personal enjoyment.

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  2. Hehe. Actually, I think Mr Soboczynski is doing reasonably fine in terms of income. Obviously, one might suspect that he fears income loss if papers like Die Zeit or Der Tagesspiegel can’t afford his contributions any more, and that this is a motivation for his article (or rant). But that may be the case or not – although I think he could have done much better with his article, I respect (and to some extent share) his views on the internet. He’s exaggerating, yes. But he has a point. Intellectual discussions aren’t only for people like him. If quality media continue to go under, it will be everyones’ loss, don’t you think so? I’d expect no progress from that, but rather further regression in public intelligence.

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