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Date Published: 12/1/2004
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Intellectuals and Democracy

The Three Figures of Knowledge and Power

Brian C.J. Singer


By way of introduction, I want to take a brief look at what I consider a fairly conventional understanding of what intellectuals are, or ought to be. Turn to Edward Said's short book, Representations of the Intellectual (Said, 1996). Without entering into the details of the argument, Said claims that the intellectual is someone who "speaks truth to power." Now the first and most obvious thing to note about this definition is the separation between truth and power that it supposes. There are truth-tellers, i.e., intellectuals, on one side and there are power-holders on the other. The truth-tellers do not have power and the power-holders' primary concern is not with the truth; they may even be positively mendacious. This disjunction of power and truth, or power and knowledge (to nod to the Foucaultian formula), is the central claim of this paper. And no doubt this claim speaks to how intellectuals or would-be intellectuals represent themselves, and represent the duality of their condition. They see themselves as being at a distance from power and, oftentimes, from society itself (Said has much to say about their exiled or marginal condition). Thus they represent themselves as having little influence, and even as having difficulty getting their voices heard. However, this disjunction also speaks to the one "advantage" of the intellectual condition. For the distance from power is compensated by a proximity to truth. Indeed, the one appears to act as surety for the other, the separation from the powers-that-be (or powers-that-would-be), and from their narrow interests and partisan intrigues, appearing as a necessary condition for the intellectual's privileged relation to knowledge. It is this privileged relation, this epistemological advantage, that constitutes the very definition of the intellectual mission: to speak the truth even when most would prefer not to listen because it is tainted by power relations.

I don't want to address the "factuality" of Said's claims. Is it really true that intellectuals never hold positions of power, or never have the ear of power?[1] Is it true that intellectuals' only resources are of the epistemological variety? Or that questions of power have no relevance to the relations among intellectuals?[2] But I am not sure that Edward Said's book is really concerned with the reality of the intellectual; the book is, after all, entitled representations of the intellectual, and reality and representations never fully coincide. I too am going to situate my analysis at the level of representation, or better, of the imaginary, and it is with respect to this level that I am intrigued by the claim of the disjunction between knowledge and power. This separation is not, as Edward Said tends to present it, a brute fact. In truth, this separation, or rather its apparent "normalcy" appears only under a very specific regime, a democratic regime, understanding the latter in its broadest, historical sense.

The historical regime of the early modernism of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries reveals that the absolutist monarch did not countenance any such separation; indeed he presented himself as the embodiment of the very conjunction of truth and power. For as God's vicar on earth, he modeled himself, if at a distance, not just on God's omnipotence, but his omniscience. As such, the absolutist monarch's words were simultaneously true and powerful; they bore power, a symbolic power that, even as it communicated with its objects, acted upon them; in contemporary terms, they had "truth effects." To be sure, there were those who specialized in the different branches of knowledge, but their words could find their truth only with his authorization. Indeed, if one were to believe the apologies for absolutism, things themselves would drift from their anointed places if they could not find confirmation within the orbit of the monarch's will. For he represented himself as the conduit of the ultimate principle of order, on which the felicity, integrity, stability and even identity of his kingdom, and all those within it, directly depended. In this respect, the history and pre-history of democracy suggest very different understandings of how knowledge, power and the socio-political order were related. Questions concerning the liberty of thought, the free circulation of ideas, the growing autonomy of the arts, not to mention the secular perception of the fallibility of power, are but the tip of the iceberg. The democratic revolution was and is inseparable from a global restructuring of knowledge and power, and one that had enormous effects on both the significance of each of these terms taken separately, and of their relation with each other. This is an enormous topic, far beyond the scope of this paper. Here I simply want to make the point that the separation of knowledge and power must be related to the democratic imaginary. And that, in consequence, intellectuals, whatever their individual politics, must be seen as a product of the democratic imaginary, and situated relative to this imaginary.[3]

This is my first claim, but I am going to qualify it. As it stands now this talk of the disjunction of truth and power is too simple. When Edward Said speaks of power he really means "power-holders." However, as Claude Lefort has taught us, within a democratic regime the power-holders (those at the top of the various socio-political hierarchies) do not -- and cannot without changing the nature of the regime -- fully occupy the positions of power (Lefort, 1986 and 1988). Their power is conditional, derived from and dependent upon another, more general, sovereign power, that of the nation, the people, public, or majority. And they can never entirely eliminate their distance from this latter power in the attempt to base their legitimacy on an identification with the collectivity's very existence. Indeed, I would argue that because the power-holders cannot fully embody this more "originary" power, their relation to the latter is, in the last analysis, irreducibly contingent, so too their relation to the truth is also contingent, and even contrary.

What this means, relative to our analysis of the intellectual, is that there is a third term. Intellectuals do not just speak truth to power, they speak to the general public -- and not just because the power-holders don't want to hear, but because, as intellectuals, they are aiming their truths at another, ultimately more important power. The question then is: what is the relation of this other, sovereign power to truth? Do the people (and I speak of the people here, not without hesitation, as synonymous with the nation, the public, the majority, etc.) possess some privileged understanding, if not of matters natural and supernatural, then of matters social and political, that is, the matters that most concern them. Are they to be seen not only as the source of political legitimacy, but as the bearer of some "truth" such that the democratic exercise of power can be pointed, as if by definition, in the proper direction? If the people are sovereign, must this not mean that they are epistemologically inclined to be the best judge of the collective interest?

If one wishes to signal a principled opposition to democracy, one will claim that peoples' opinions are almost always false. But if one supports democracy, one will claim the opposite, locating the tendency to falsehood with the power-holders, who because of their interests, and by virtue of their distance from the people, are not only in opposition to the general interest, but are prevented from understanding what that interest is. However, if within the democratic imaginary, the people bear a privileged relation to knowledge as well as power, doesn't this contradict what I said earlier about the separation of knowledge and power? Here I must qualify both my earlier claim that they are separated, and my present claim that they tend to be conjoined within the generality of the people. As regards the first claim, I would argue, that there is a tendency to both separate truth from the power of the power-holders, and to associate it with the more general power that underlies the institutions of power.[4] Such contrary tendencies are possible only because the two forms of power are so very different, so that what appears as a conjunction (or disjunction) at one level, when transposed to the other level, has a completely different significance. In order to explain this I will limit myself to a few general points that will clarify the second claim.

Power-holders are people of flesh and blood, and so can be identified without difficulty. The same is not true of the "Public". Though the latter never completely loses all reference to flesh and blood, he is abstracted from a multiplicity, and thus who he is, and what he holds to be true, are never certain. He is more an "imaginary" than a "real" power, even as his imaginary power has an incalculable number of "reality effects" on the real power of the power-holders. This is not to say that the absolute monarchy was not without an imaginary dimension. However, because the body of the monarch was the very embodiment of the ultimate principle of power and truth, it enjoyed what might be called, with apologies to Jacques Derrida, "a metaphysics of presence." In other words, there was, in principle, no uncertainty about the bearer of this power, and about the truth of his "speech"; as a symbolic system, the monarchy was designed to produce a surfeit of certitude. By contrast, there is little certainty relative to the people; they rarely present themselves directly, becoming manifest instead through a metaphysics of "re-presencing," or what is more commonly called representation. As such -- the people almost always appear at a distance from themselves -- a distance that cannot but entail refraction and distortion, as well as reflection. One might claim something to be true because it is what one thinks everyone thinks (or would think if they were truly free to think). But if the generality of a belief serves to provide epistemological collateral, one is hardly ever confronted with this generality in "the flesh", but only with its always vulnerable representation. Thus nobody can say with any certainty (except, perhaps, of the most transient sort) who the people are, what opinions they hold, and whether they really hold the opinions attributed to them. Power and truth may be conjoined within the people, but neither the people, nor the truths they are said to possess, can be identified without contestation. The result is that the expression of both power and truth are fundamentally open.

The relation to truth, however, can be said to be more open than the relation to power. The power of the power-holders appears at a distance from that of the popular sovereign, but there is a relation between the two powers, a relation that is institutionally controlled and sanctioned: political institutions have been devised to ensure that the distance between represented and representatives remains limited. By contrast, there are no real institutional mechanisms, let alone institutional sanctions, to establish the relation between the "truths" of the people (concerning matters social and political) and those of the "knowledge-holders" (i.e., intellectuals); there are certainly no such mechanisms to ensure that this relation is articulated in terms of representation, and controlled accordingly. The claim that the people are a source of truth is without institutional recognizance; many a constitution claims the people to be the ultimate source of power, none declares them to be the ultimate source of wisdom. In other words, the relation between people, power and power-holders is both imaginary and institutionally regulated, while that between the people, truth and knowledge-holders is simply imaginary. The relation of power-holders and knowledge-holders to the people may bear many of the same ambiguities; both engage in activities that are simultaneously specialized (thus, at least in part, self-regulating) and "general" (and thus, in relation to the people, fundamentally reversible[5]). However, because their relation to the people is not institutionally regulated, knowledge-holders, unlike power-holders, are able to say almost anything they like, independent of whether it can claim to be in the peoples' interests, or meet with their approval.

Now to say that the relation between the "knowledge" of the people and that of the knowledge-holders is weak, and that it bears no visible, institutional imperatives, is not to say that such a relation does not exist. Indeed, I will argue that one cannot understand the position of the intellectual without considering such a relation. It is easy to oppose, in the manner of Said, the intellectuals' truths to the power-holders' power, particularly when one believes that such power distances itself from the truth because of its distance from the people (and from the truths the people would affirm if not constrained by a system of domination). By contrast, it is extremely difficult for the intellectual to oppose his truth to the people (if not the people as it is, then as it ought to be) if he believes the latter to be the ultimate source of legitimacy. If such an opposition does not quite entail a logical contradiction, it does suggest the most pessimistic of perspectives relative to the possibilities of both truth and power. Admittedly, it is no longer fashionable to associate democracy with the linking of universal truths to a general subject. Nonetheless, no one who is democratically inclined would want to deny democracy all pedagogical content.

All this is not to say that every intellectual will agree that truth is or can be associated with the people; many have spoken of the masses' ignorance, and have spoken of it as ineluctable. If it is difficult to speak of a history of intellectuals independent of a history of democracy (possibly ancient, most certainly modern), this hardly means that all intellectuals are democratically inclined. Intellectuals are to be found on both sides of the line. They cannot, however, ignore this line; they must define themselves in relation to it, and that is because this line troubles their very self-definition. Intellectuals, by definition, bear a relation to the truth, and their truths, if they are to be the truths of intellectuals, cannot immediately be those of the people.[6] As such, when seeking to justify themselves, intellectuals must speak to the difference between their knowledge claims and those of the people, whether to affirm, deny or, in some manner, mediate this difference. Still, the burden of the democratic imaginary is such that this difference cannot be absolute. Even the most elitist intellectuals must claim to address their claims to a (preferably general) public. In addressing this public, they must admit, however implicitly, that the public has a desire to listen, a capacity to understand and, ultimately, a right to respond with their own alternative truth claims. The relation to knowledge, however restricted in practice, cannot be exclusive in principle.

One is tempted to say that, by disjoining truth from the position of power-holders, democracy served to establish an autonomous position for intellectuals; but by conjoining an imaginary general power with a general access to truth, democracy simultaneously rendered this position rather awkward. The awkwardness of this position is underlined by the fact that the intellectuals' truths, unlike those attributed to the people, are without any immediate relation to power. When the politician speaks in the name of people, he is not only making a claim relative to some truth, he is seeking to claim a relation to power such that he is authorized to act on that truth. By contrast, the speech of intellectuals is without power and, thus, without an immediate relation to action; such speech is composed of mere words, whatever its truth content. This is in contrast to a true clerisy, whose knowledge participates in a higher, exclusive power, and whose words have, by their very utterance, a force that, even as it maintains the people in its thrall, lies forever beyond their ken. A clerisy is no longer possible after the democratic revolution. One might argue that, by virtue of the esoteric, specialized character of their language, intellectuals, whether individually or as a "class," seek to accumulate their own particular brand of power or "capital." But where the "originary" power appears immanent and general, intellectual power, like intellectual capital, though based on a seeming discursive monopoly, proves more metaphorical than real. Without at least a pretense to general resonance, the claims of intellectuals will appear, independent of their relation to the "truth," purely private and, therefore, without legitimacy. As such they can and will be largely ignored.[7]

What this suggests is that the position of the intellectual is highly unstable because trapped, relative to the "people," between the polarities of identity and difference. And the implication is that each and every intellectual will have to situate him or herself in relation to these polarities. How he or she does so will vary because the conjunction between knowledge, power and people can be variously represented. I will attempt to describe this variation in terms of three major "figures": the general will, common sense, and public opinion. Each of these "figures" presents a "diagram" of the people as a source of knowledge about socio-political matters; and each of these figures associates, according to its diagram, this knowledge with the exercise of power. All three figures have been present from the beginnings of the modern democratic revolution; at the same time their articulation and respective weight have varied by time and place. In what follows each of these figures will be examined in turn in order to delineate, if only schematically, the specific nexus of knowledge and power that each articulates in relation to the "people," and the implications of these nexuses for the positioning of intellectuals.

The General Will

Consider first the general will. In its "pure" form, it may never have existed outside the heads of a few revolutionaries. Nonetheless, it is my belief that it cast, and still casts, a large shadow over the democratic imaginary. Originally the general will was represented as responsible for the transition from the state of nature to the social state proper. Indeed, it was represented as authoring the social contract that established, at a stroke, both society and polity, that is, both the association that gathered together the scattered individuals existing in the state of nature, and the government that maintained this association within the terms of the general interest. As such, the general will formed both a figure of knowledge (it specified the terms of the "good" or "just" society) and a figure of power (once its terms were specified, the general will was to constitute and maintain that society). Moreover, the "generality" of the general will sought to guarantee both the "truthfulness" of its terms (for the latter being agreed to by all, cannot be contradicted) and the effectiveness of its power (for in its inclusiveness this power has no limits but those that it imposes on itself). Of the three figures to be discussed, this one presents a maximal image of the fusion of the three terms: people, power and knowledge. As such it tends to elide a number of divisions that we might otherwise consider as simply given: the division between society and polity alluded to above; the division between words and actions (there being no barrier between the expression of the general will and its realization)[8]; and between the normative contents of the social contract and the reality of the social entity established by the latter (for these contents are the very "raison" and "raison d'être" of that entity, such that any corruption of these contents implies a move from the social state back to the anarchy of the state of nature). Elsewhere I have sought to show how, when the figure of the general will appears to have a literal hold on the imaginary, the elision of these divisions results in the exacerbation of much more real divisions -- divisions within society, and amongst its representatives, and between society and its political representation (Singer, 1986 and 1996). Here I want to examine the general will only in relation to the topic at hand, intellectuals and their positioning.

Such an examination requires a consideration of the one division that this figure does not elide, but articulates in a radical and radically modern form. I am referring to the separation of the individual from society, as implied by the division between the state of nature and the social state. In effect, in nature the individual is self-sufficient, being radically "separated" from a not-yet-existing society. To be sure, once the contract has been established and the state of nature superceded, the "separation" between individual and society is eliminated, the individuals fusing themselves into the general will.[9] There is, however, a potential ambiguity here, one whose importance must not be underestimated relative to the imaginary construction of a "society of individuals." In effect, it is never certain that the original distance between the individual and society is, can or ever should be overcome.[10] And when the terms of the contract are not fully actualized, when everyone cannot give their complete and full allegiance to the constitutive order, when, that is, the latter appears, to one degree or another, divided and even corrupt, then something of the individual must remain outside that order. And even if the terms were to be fully actualized, in order to maintain such a state, the contract would have to be -- or would have to appear to be -- constantly reiterated, which is to say that the individual would have to constantly be placed in what Rawls would call the "original position," at a remove from all existing social arrangements, even if only to reaffirm submission to the general will and its law. In a related sense, this distance is enacted in elections; for the political collectivity is momentarily dissolved into its constituent units, with each individual deciding, in the face of conscience alone, how to vote...[11]

Within contractarianism everyone appears as existing both inside and outside society. Asked to give their assent to the general principles constitutive of society, everyone has a license to question and criticize the "actually existing" society (and its political representation) relative to those principles. In principle, everyone is (intellectually) autonomous. The critical distance that one oftentimes identifies with the position of the intellectual is actually deemed general. Every citizen is, in a sense, an intellectual.

If everyone is an intellectual, then no one is an intellectual. If everyone possesses a critical distance from society, then it is going to be very difficult to specify, let alone justify, the existence of intellectuals in their difference. The frontier between intellectuals and non-intellectuals is not just porous; it is non-existent. For if the general will is truly general, then the will of intellectuals, in their difference, cannot but appear as particular, that is, as threatening to the will's generality -- above all, if that particularity bears the mark of a privilege. In the more extreme versions of contractarianism, where each individual will is to immediately coincide with the general will, a pall is going to be cast over all the intermediary institutional forms of (intellectual) sociability. Even in the less extreme versions, intellectuals still have to appear aligned with the principles of the general will, though, by virtue of their intellectual gifts, they may appear more proficient in the articulation of these principles than the "people" at large. Indeed, such proficiency entails a major temptation; for, in their claim to give voice to the general will, intellectuals can affirm -- while seemingly denying -- their importance as intellectuals. Such a fusion with the general will (and with the people who embody it) appears all the more tempting, because of the generality of the intellectuals' position. In effect, certain characteristics associated with the articulation of the general will tend to be characteristics general to intellectuals (at least if the seat of the general will is located in the head, and not, or not just, in the heart). I am not just thinking of their comfort-level with talk of the universal, their tendency to speak in abstractions, their discursive competence, etc. I am thinking of their critical autonomy, their "solitude," their purported distance from all "particular" social roles associated with the busyness of everyday life. In other words, because they are able to represent their position as being simultaneously nowhere and everywhere, intellectuals can deny the particularity of their traits by projecting them onto the general condition.[12] They become the representatives of the nation, the spokespersons of humanity, the voice of "everyman," that universal intellectual who has become the object of much recent criticism. In this manner, the position of the intellectual, despite and because of the denial of its specificity, acquires its maximal expansion.

This, however, is not the full story. If intellectuals are often seduced by the figure of the general will, it is not just because intellectuals like to speak in authoritative generalizations. The general will bears a claim to volition and, as such, an association with power. By virtue of the general will the people are sovereign; and the intellectual who successfully represents himself as the voice of the people, is in a position to represent himself as sovereign legislator. He need not be all talk; his theory can be translated directly into practice. The elision of the division between the word and the act noted earlier promises a very real power to those who would incarnate the word. One could even say that the figure of the general will promises to attenuate, and even eliminate the separation of knowledge from (the real institutions of) power characteristic of democratic modernity. In this sense, this figure, and that of the intellectual-as-legislator that accompanies it, bears the greatest equivocation: the intellectual represents his will as submerged in that of the people (or of the party that represents the people); but in order not to give up the (intellectual's) claim of a privileged relation to truth, but to reaffirm it all the more strongly in relation to a potentially very real position of power. In this way, while the figure may appear ultra-democratic, in its attempt to become the simultaneous incarnation of both power and truth, it threatens to become quite the opposite.

Historically speaking, it is no secret that many intellectuals have been attracted to this figure. And historically speaking, its is also true that they have often been the first victims of its more extreme forms, as their difference, given their penchant for thought, cannot but appear as dangerous. In effect, even as the fusion of the three terms provides intellectuals with a seemingly limitless space for the projection of their ambitions, it is the separation of these terms that ultimately provide the necessary conditions for their continued existence. Not all intellectuals are or were attracted to this figure, as if, as a category, they were dedicated to their ultimate self-destruction. They can situate themselves relative to the other figures I am about to discuss; and even those situated in the orbit of the general will often display, understandably, a mixture of attraction and repulsion. Some have tried to suggest that the figure of the general will belongs to the early history of the intellectual; Zygmunt Bauman (1987), for example, claims that intellectuals appeared first as legislators, and only later as interpreters.[13] My own reading suggests that the different figures have co-existed from the beginning -- though their differences only became evident with time. If there is a rational kernel to Bauman's chronology, it concerns perhaps less the precedence of the figure of the intellectual-as-legislator, than its apparent, present obsolescence.

Common Sense

Common sense has a long history as a political "trope" dating to the early days of modern democracy. The appeal to common sense already occurred during the American Revolution, as indicated by the most widely read pamphlet of the period, Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776). A reading of the very first page of the latter immediately suggests a difference with the figure of the general will; for it draws a sharp distinction between government and society. Government, Thomas Paine tells us, arises from the need to confront our vices; it is thus inherently vicious and should be kept to a minimum lest it repress our virtues. Moreover, government speaks a language that is artificially complex, as though seeking to confuse intelligence with cunning. Society, by contrast, is the seat of virtue and speaks its truths in plain and simple terms. Note the chain of associations: society equals the common people equals common sense equals plain truths equals virtue; government which, almost by definition, is at a remove from the people, is associated, by contrast, with an excess and abuse of both power and knowledge. It follows that, since the people are sovereign and, in their own modest way, wise, government should be reduced and, as far as possible, returned to the people who will then rule according to their own lights.

Thomas Paine was arguing primarily against British colonial rule.[14] But while the political uses of the appeal to common sense have changed, something of the basic schema remains very much a part of contemporary political rhetoric, not least because the argument is not directed against a specific government, but against government in general. All governments can be accused of being separated from common folk, particularly when the nature of professional politics seems to reward those with traits contrary to the people's purported simplicity and goodness. Thus the constantly renewed scandal claimed by this figure -- and which takes on a peculiar pathos when enunciated by power-holders or would-be power-holders -- of the failure of the majority to exercise its power. The people may be sovereign, but their sovereignty too often appears disarmed by the realities of institutional power. In effect, where the figure of the general will would diminish, and even deny, the distinction between society and polity, common sense would open a gap that, one suspects, can never be completely closed. And what applies to power applies to truth; although common sense has truth value, it appears to be at some remove from the institution of knowledge.

Since the 18th century the division between the truth of common sense and the institution of knowledge has become much wider. Thomas Paine believed himself to be speaking common sense, and did not see this as contradictory with the fact that he was -- though the term's use here is somewhat anachronistic -- an intellectual (as were many of America's "founding fathers"). In his view common sense, even as it belonged to the people, was like any other discourse, only simpler, clearer and truer. Today, however, common sense appears to differ from all other forms of discourse because it is represented as belonging to a different register. Thomas Paine was still influenced by contractarianism, and as such not far removed from the figure of the general will. In his view, the fundamental laws were to both speak to the people and, as a product of their accord, issue from their speech. In other words, the general contract, and its specification in the constitution, was to be drawn from common sense (and not from the complex, sophistical, and esoteric discipline of jurisprudence). [15] Common sense, then, was to articulate in a systematic, coherent and thus, reflexive manner, the basic institutional principles that were to structure the new nation, and not just its government (whose major function was to deal with breaches of the general law). Again note that there was no clear distinction between society and polity, for the essential structure of this society was to be made visible (or better, legible) within the terms of the fundamental (and all other, subsequent) laws.[16]

Now I want to argue -- though it is an argument that requires much greater elaboration than I can present here -- that in order for society to appear as distinct from the polity, society must slip from its discursive moorings in the representation of the law, and sink beneath the surface of clearly articulated principles, where it reappears as those half-hidden depths that resist any reduction to a general, conscious will. Continuing further, one would say that words and things, discourse and society, separate, such that the thing called "society" now appears as existing prior to words, and as continuously resisting their discursive embrace. At the same time, this division between society and the discourse on society is reproduced within discourse itself, with common sense coming to signify a sort of pre-discursive discourse, spontaneously bubbling up from the social depths, with neither the systematic coherence nor reflexive consciousness of discourse proper. Common sense may still be understood, particularly in a political context,[17] as being simple, but its simplicity belies a very real complexity -- a social thickness that seems to resist discursive articulation. Common sense is tied less to speech than to everyday acts, its truth value being rooted in a practical knowledge based in everyday experience. Sometimes, it is claimed that common sense is based in a specific, historical, class experience[18]; and sometimes, it is said to be based on and, indeed, constitutive of the experience of the societal bond.[19] But in both cases the knowledge imparted by common sense is not borne of ratiocination, and does not, therefore, speak the language of universals or abstractions. Practical knowledge refers to what one knows concretely, quasi-automatically; it is a knowledge so obvious and so deep that it barely requires expression (let alone debate). As such, there is no need for common sense to represent itself, and even less to reflect upon itself. It is a sort of unthinking thought, a seemingly "natural" knowledge immanent to "getting along" with others. When it speaks, it speaks directly, the immediate distillation of an experiential intelligence; but as a pre-discursive discourse, it appears at the very limit of language, and often doesn't bother to speak (thus, according to the political trope, it often appears to be the possession of "silent majorities").

Again the difference with the general will is striking. The latter, even if rooted in "natural sentiments," is a product of reasoned reflection, and speaks entirely in universals. The general will does not emerge out of the thickness of societal being, but produces society directly through the articulation of its terms -- which is to say that it produces a society that is transparent to itself, a society fully contained within its own representation. By contrast, the figure of common sense presents an image of society, and of its coherence, that resists containment within representation of any sort; it presents society as existing beneath all representational surfaces, where, however hidden, its presence is, nonetheless, an immediate given. In this sense, common sense tends to mark a difference between what society says about itself and what it "murmurs," between, that is, the official and unofficial "experiential" versions. This gives the figure of common sense a definite critical potential; for within the difference between surfaces and depths, it provides the epistemological leverage to counter claims made about society from positions of authority, whether from within the realms of knowledge or power. An important point when considering intellectuals. But it should be understood from the beginning that the intellectual uses of common sense do not themselves appear common-sensical. Not only do they translate somewhat murky intuitions into the clear but foreign light of representational claims, but with their translation these intuitions generally lose their commonality.

The use of common sense is, of course, not restricted to intellectuals. It can be represented, and represented aggressively, in what purports to be common-sensical terms. In such a case, its representation will profess to be its direct expression, laying authoritative claim to the expression of incontrovertible social norms. Particularly when presented in terms of clarity and simplicity, the use of common sense turns to abstractions, but thoughtless abstractions, what too often appears as prejudices, platitudes, clichés and idées reçues. When common sense rises to the surface, it can become something quite different, even opposite to what it was when identified with the pre-discursive societal depths. This is particularly true of its entry into the realm of political rhetoric. For the political use of common sense would render the implicit explicit, turning tacit suppositions into emphatic polemics, and a semi-private, inchoate sense of "things being right" into a dogmatic, public certitude. The appeal to common sense in politics cannot but tend to demagogy. It suggests a populist appeal to the virtues of the ordinary, and a defense of some purportedly unrecognized status quo against those who, having been tagged as speaking in un-common terms, must be deemed as hostile to what we hold in common.

All this, of course, does not look particularly good for intellectuals. Unlike the figure of the general will, that of common sense has a place for intellectuals, but it is largely negative. Intellectuals are, by definition, at a distance from common sense; they speak in abstractions removed from everyday experience, and in ways that are often difficult to understand. Even if, as an intellectual, one is sympathetic to common sense, one cannot but manifest that distance: one speaks a different language, particularly when trying to render common sense into rational, meta-discursive terms. In political rhetoric intellectuals are almost always presented as the enemy of common sense, as obfuscating its home truths with unnecessary and dangerous complications. Intellectuals, in a sense, bear the same relation to truth as governments to power; they appear as the bureaucrats of knowledge, and as such become objects of considerable mistrust.

Self-identified intellectuals are liable to respond in kind. Like John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, they might plead for the right of ex-centric views to be heard. Or like Flaubert, they may openly mock common sense with its generic thinking, its moralizing sentimentality and brutalizing facticity,[20] even converting their opposition into a badge of honour. Intellectuals, after all, have little to gain from parroting what everyone else says (unless, of course, by the latter one is referring to intellectual commonplaces[21]). Intellectuals too must distinguish themselves, particularly when others reciprocate with their own threatening logic of distinction.

Still, it is too simple to speak only of opposition -- not just because intellectuals are a complicated lot, but because common sense too, with its mix of depths and surfaces, can be complicated. To be sure, when common sense is presented in terms of the strident tones of its representational surface, it cannot but repel the intellectual. But when presented in terms of its pre-discursive depths, as a reservoir of half-buried significations, common sense can prove rather attractive to intellectuals, as it points to alternative sources of truth. Once a division is established between reality as experienced and reality as represented in the "institutionalized" discourses of power and knowledge, the latter can be demonstrated to be, if not false then falsifying. They belie the experience they claim to represent. This figure, then, provides the intellectual with an opportunity to present an alternative, more truthful (and more representative?) truth, an entirely immanent truth, rooted not in reason (as with the figure of the general will) but in experience. In effect, different figures suggest different "regimes of truth." Where the one bases the critical distance constitutive of its claim to truth in a move outwards, from the real to the rational, the other bases its claim in a move inwards, towards the (experience of) reality from its (overly rational, abstract) representation.

With this, the "intellectual" appeal to common sense (as opposed to the anti-intellectual appeal discussed above), one often finds the associated claim that the distortions of the official discourses are necessary to society's functioning. Sometimes such functioning is perceived as particular to a given system of domination. Antonio Gramsci, for example, claims that the hegemonic block seeks, through its spokespersons,[22] to extend its world-view over the subordinate classes, and thereby prevent their "common sense" from developing into genuine, credible "truths" capable of articulating an alternative social order. At other times, the distinction between common sense and representation (between what people do and what they say they do, or between what they think and what they think they think) is perceived as necessary to the maintenance of any normative order. Here common sense is assimilated to the "natural attitude" said to prevent people from becoming too conscious of the "constructed" character of the normative order. From this perspective, that order would be endangered if people were to drop the natural attitude and begin to reflect on their common-sensical conventions. Either they would become too paralyzed by doubt and uncertainty to carry out their everyday tasks effectively, or too enamoured of general principles to comport themselves with the necessary nuance. Alternatively, some of them might, like con-men, no longer feel bound by general norms, using them only for their own personal advantage; some might even see themselves as Nietzschian supermen and engage in a potentially destructive experimentation with values.[23] The implication here is that an examination of the construction of common sense, if it were to become general, would prove destabilizing; its study, therefore, must not be allowed to leave a restricted elite of "sociologists."

With Gramsci, the reflexive elaboration of common sense can be considered dangerous, but only to a particular system of domination. For the subordinate classes, the intellectual translation of their "common sense" into a more coherent "good sense" is libratory; it enables them to understand the implications of what they already know but, in their intellectual alienation, cannot express. The task of the "organic" intellectual is to help them move beyond their "spontaneous philosophy" to the more systematic, critical philosophy that bears their truth.[24] The distinction between intellectuals and people (or subordinate classes) would dissolve with the becoming-intellectual of the latter.[25] The contrast with the previous perspective could not be starker: it advocates a strengthening of the distinction, with intellectuals becoming a corporation closed around what they perceive as a necessarily esoteric knowledge.[26] And yet, in both cases, intellectuals cannot actually speak common sense, despite and because of their dependence on it; at best they can represent common sense, and in representing it, translate it into a different register. Even in the case of Gramsci, the intellectual's claim to his truth removes him, at least at a first moment, from those who speak the spontaneous truths of common sense. And if the term "organic" would ensure that the difference between intellectuals and those they would represent is limited, by situating the latter within an essentially pedagogical horizon relative to the former, one cannot escape a certain whiff of paternalism. For those who would speak to common sense, the difference may be irreducible. Perhaps the only alternative is to seek truth more directly, not in an intellectual discourse, but in a performance that would circumvent reflexivity in the name of an intuitive, quasi-automatic, inspired understanding -- wherein the truth would be not so much represented as witnessed. Though the witness here would be less the audience than the performer; for in an ultimate twist, it is the audience that is obliged to make sense and interpret what they have seen. In effect, it is the audience that is forced into the position of intellection, and the ghost of the division reappears, even as its terms have (potentially) been reversed.

Public Opinion

The third figure I wish to speak about is "public opinion." It is not easy to speak about public opinion, for the term can carry different meanings, often interwoven with the other figures. Thus, for example, during the French Revolution there tended to be one usage by the "citras," and another by the "ultras." Amongst the latter (the left Jacobins, Hébertistes, etc.), public opinion was deemed unanimous (at least among true patriotes), something immediately given, blinding in its evidence, a sort of sixth political sense intuitively rooted in an innate "virtue" common to the common people.[27] As such it was to impact directly and imperatively on all political legislation. One recognizes here elements of both the general will (the emphasis on the visible expression of unanimity, the constant repetition of the founding moment, the conjunction of the three terms) and common sense (the spontaneous, immediate quality of people's knowledge, the suspicion of representation). Similarly, when we speak of public opinion today in the context of opinion polls, it too appears as a mixture, despite its more empirical, transient character. Like the general will, public opinion here appears as the sum of individual opinions, the assumption being that each person taken in isolation, is directly concerned with public matters, and that all opinions count equally in the determination of the final result.[28] Unlike the general will, such public opinion is not the settled product of a general consensus, but a transient statistical average, held by an imaginary Public. That public opinion does not here constitute a coherent discourse suggests a certain resemblance with common sense -- not least because, outside the polls, it is otherwise invisible, being tied to those who watch rather than make the news. However, unlike the other two figures, this representation of public opinion makes only the weakest of epistemological claims. It is too contingent to make a strong demand on the truth; at best, it can claim an ersatz truth, one based on relevance, itself narrowly defined in terms of an identification with the present moment. Public opinion here may still retain an indirect relation to power by virtue of its potential influence on government. And yet, because its truth claims are so flimsy, it is not particularly useful for thinking through the position of intellectuals.

For this reason I want to restrict my discussion here to what is sometimes called deliberative public opinion. Like the other figures, it too has been present since the beginnings of the modern democratic revolution. Most commonly, it is associated with the Enlightenment and its "republic of letters," the model for the more strictly political republics. It provides the basis of the public sphere, and its general functioning is well known: different voices present different arguments, a dialogue is engaged, ideas are refined in the face of contrary ideas, the conversation progresses, with the best argument eventually triumphing, as its superiority becomes evident to the general public and democratic power-holders.[29] One version of this figure places the emphasis on the final, consensual telos, the other on the dialogic, even conflictual dynamics. The one is deeply suspicious of either the practicality or desirability of a final accord in view of maintaining the conversation; the other doggedly clings to some notion of an underlying ethical community. Despite much contemporary sound and fury, one is tempted to say that the larger figure implies both horizons of commonality and difference, agreement and discord; that the quarrel ultimately concerns nothing more than questions of emphasis.

In comparison with the other two figures, that of deliberative public opinion is suspicious of all immediate relations. The general will seeks to establish an immediate identity (both real and ideal) among three terms -- power, knowledge and people. Common sense, having articulated a major fault-line between society and polity, would separate the people from the institutions of power and knowledge, while maintaining the same identity among the three terms, but hidden beneath the "official" public reality. In the figure of deliberative public opinion, by contrast, there is no immediate relation among any of the terms; their conjunction comes only at the end of a long process. As such, this is the only figure that emphasizes and, indeed, values institutional mediations; the purpose of the latter being precisely to establish the communication between the three terms that will ensure their eventual alignment. Within this figure one cannot assume that the people have an immediate relation to truth; they must be educated, and there must be institutions to ensure that education (including the public sphere). As they do not initially have an immediate relation to the truth, they cannot be permitted to have an immediate relation with power. Institutional mechanisms must be established to ensure that a not-yet-educated populace does not overwhelm the institutions of power, even as a relationship between power and the general public must be maintained.

When claiming that the figure of deliberative public opinion is the only one to mediate the three terms, I am not trying to suggest that it is the most "realistic," that it alone is somehow able to dispense with the symbolic commitments that are part and parcel of a social imaginary. On the contrary, such commitments are required precisely to prepare the way for the terms' eventual conjunction. At the very least, one must suppose a commitment to the generality of the human subject in its capacity to express its thoughts and comprehend the thoughts of others. And as this capacity also extends to feelings, one must suppose the subject capable of sympathizing with the feelings of others, independent of their circumstances.[30] In other words, one must suppose the generality of the subject, and the generality of the motivations that establish the bonds between subjects, before one can ever imagine either knowledge or power being general. Moreover, deliberative public opinion, in seeking to conjoin the three terms, seeks to strengthen each in itself and in relation to each other. In their initial, separated state the terms all appear enfeebled: ignorance is rife, the people are apathetic or vicious, and the exercise of power is arbitrary, inefficient and unsettled. By contrast, with the alignment of the terms, knowledge acquires increasing purchase, the people become increasingly reasonable, and power, being joined to the people's growing interest in the pursuit of justice and the general good, becomes increasingly legitimate and effective. In the end, one must believe that the three terms form a virtuous circle.

This brings us to the position of the intellectual. In the two other figures this position is highly ambivalent. Neither the general will nor common sense allow intellectuals to feel comfortable with their difference: the one minimizes this difference, threatening intellectuals with a homogenizing generality; and the other maximizes it, leaving them isolated. In both cases what distinguishes intellectuals condemns them in the eyes of the public.[31] With the figure of deliberative public opinion, by contrast, the position of the intellectual appears rather more comfortable. Given the initial separation of the people from knowledge, intellectuals do not immediately find themselves in a position of rivalry -- a "fact" that smoothes the way to their pedagogical stance. And given the initial separation of the people from power (and of power from knowledge) intellectuals are not immediately compelled to identify (or dis-identify) with power, or the power-holders. Indeed, with the people initially separated from knowledge and power, there is no imperative to provide, from the outset, a strong definition of the people.

Concerning this last point, it has already been suggested that, in a first stage, prior to the alignment of the three terms, the people have at best only a weak, insubstantial existence. It is only with the institution of the public sphere that they can take on a more substantial identity. For the people can only really become a people, when they become a public, that is, when they become aware of their generality, of the principles that underwrite this generality, and the "communicative action" that renders it effective. This means that, within this figure, and in contrast to the other two figures, the people are not a given, and that because they are not given with the existence of society. They only become a people when they acquire an awareness of themselves and a knowledge of their interests, at a distance from the immediacy of their existence in society.[32] The figure of deliberative public opinion demands reflexive autonomy, but not as a something that inheres quasi-naturally in all individuals (as with the general will), but as an institutional project that becomes the gauge of historical progress.

All this provides intellectuals with a number of reasons for feeling good about themselves. They are not excluded from the people in the initial stage, prior to the existence of the public sphere. They play a pivotal role in the formation of the people, and of the sphere in which the people becomes conscious of itself as a public. Moreover, as the people acquire a taste for reflexivity, an interest in general principles, and a willingness to discuss public affairs, its distance from intellectuals can only diminish. And assuming that this distance never entirely disappears, intellectuals will continue to play an important role in the public sphere's maintenance. In truth, they could not have a more important role! Not only do they help educate the public with regard their general interests and political responsibilities, they watch over the power-holders, alerting the public to any excesses. They are the "guardians" of the public sphere who ensure a place for knowledge in the relation between society and polity. They mediate the mediations, underwriting the communication among the three terms, and ensuring that their alignment is balanced. And even as they play such a crucial role, they remain comfortable in their difference. For this difference is neither too large nor too small; it is a flexible, inclusive difference relative to both the populace and the power-holders, demanding neither a strong identification nor disidentification with either. From the perspective of intellectuals, there is something utopian (and not just idealistic) about deliberative public opinion. All the more reason to remember that this figure, like the others, is inseparable from an imaginary...

Questions and Doubts

As intellectuals, it is difficult for us to imagine that deliberative public opinion should not be without purchase in the world. This figure maximizes our satisfaction with an identity in which we cannot but invest much of ourselves. Still, the habits of critique quickly turn to skepticism. The fact that this figure revives the intellectual's privilege cannot but produce second thoughts -- particularly when this privilege appears to produce, in real terms, rather meager results. One has questions, even doubts concerning its limits, independent of its hold on the imaginary.

In this concluding section, I want to explore a number of possible criticisms, grouped into three rubrics. The first concerns the relation between knowledge and power: to what extent can power become a place for the expression of general truths? The second concerns the relation between knowledge and the public: to what extent can public opinion be the site of genuine knowledge? And the last rubric concerns the coherence of each of the underlying terms: are we not, today, confronted with a multiplicity of truths, powers, and subject-positions (one hesitates to use the word "people" here) such that any belief in their conjunction appears quaint, even risible?

1. Consider the first set of doubts, that concerning the relation of knowledge to power. There is one set of criticisms, which one often hears, and another set that I want to explore. The usual criticisms claim that deliberative public opinion, whether considered relative to the production, dissemination or acceptance of ideas is, if not blocked, then distorted by the actual functioning of power. There are many reasons why the actually existing public sphere may fall far short of democratic ideals. The distortion of public opinion may be due to the instrumentalization of communication for political reasons, or its commodification for economic ones. Instrumentalization or commodification themselves may be reinforced by the homogenization of the public (its massification) or, alternatively, by its division, whether political, into irreconcilably hostile camps, or cultural, into multiple, life-style oriented audiences. Or again, the degradation of the public sphere may be caused by the decline of liberal education or by the massive development of the entertainment industries, both of which are deemed to have undermined the civic culture necessary to maintain public debate. Sometimes this critique is supplemented by a critique of the failure of intellectuals to live up to their own ideal, whether because they have failed to seek to be understood by the public, or to adapt to new technologies, or because they have withdrawn into their specializations, or simply succumbed to the blandishments of the existing powers. Note that in all these criticisms the imaginary of deliberative public opinion remains intact; it is the capacity of that imaginary to inform the reality that appears damaged, and not the ideal elaborated by the imaginary.

The other possible critique, the one that I wish to explore, concerns the failure to conceptualize the externality of power. In truth, in all three figures the externality of power is denied. With the first figure, the general will is a form of power, indeed its only legitimate form; in the second figure, common sense may be separated from power in reality, but ideally it should not. With the figure of public opinion, power appears, at a first moment, removed from general deliberation, but once the public has been enlightened and its opinion heard, power should be reduced to an instrument of execution subordinated to the institutions of public decision. Ideally, one will have a parliamentary (as opposed to a presidential) system, where the legislative body is itself conceived of as a public sphere at the apex of a pyramid of publics. Ultimately, it is the idea, duly arrived at, that is to be in the position of power, while power in its difference, both as a power of and a power over, appears without an independently valid position. It is here, in the claim that ideas should rule, that one can perhaps best measure the exorbitance of this figure's pro-intellectual bias. I am not speaking here of the age-old opposition between two forms of knowledge, an abstract, contemplative and philosophical knowledge, and a more contextual, prudential, more properly political knowledge. Whatever the merits of the prudential position -- and they are considerable -- my concern is less with the kind of ideas or knowledge deemed suitable to the exercise of power, than with the irreducibility of power to the "exercise" of ideas. A few, brief words need to be said about the externality (and thus irreducibility) of power, first, relative to the regulation of ideas, and second, relative to the formation and representation of identity.

The tendency in the figure of deliberative public opinion is to see the "conflict of ideas" as self-regulating. If one borrows the metaphor of a "conversation," there is no perceived need for an external third to regulate who speaks, when, for how long, with what content, tone, etc. There appears no need to orchestrate the many voices so that they do not end up in either a dogmatic full stop or a cacophony of incommensurables. Instead the regulation of ideas either raises the specter of an external constraint, which is immediately decried as censorship, or it is restricted to, simply, internal regulation by procedural rules and the internalization of their underlying moral basis.[33] Of course, in reality, the different voices in the public sphere are regulated externally, as well as internally, and often according to criteria foreign to the finalities of a strictly deliberative democracy. In this respect, it is worth returning to the Enlightenment. According to Dena Goodman's The Republic of Letters (1994), enlightened ideas were first produced within the context of a relatively intimate, oral sociability presided over by the salonnières. The latter, in a sense, occupied positions of "power," though being women, their power was "empty," for it could not extend to judgements about the validity of the philosophe's truth-claims.[34] Nonetheless, the regulative control of these women was such as to discourage certain kinds of ideas from emerging, notably those that, by their aggressive claims to truth, threatened to render further conversation impossible. The test case was the physiocrats' free market doctrine, which was attacked by the salon culture, first in the person of the Abbé Gassendi, and then Diderot, not for its truth-content (about which they remained agnostic), but for its dogmatic tone, which violated the norms of intellectual sociability. The decline of the salons (and salonnières) and the rise of more systemic, even ideological forms of knowledge, which resulted in part from the emergence of larger audiences for Enlightenment ideas, and the subsequent primacy of print media, produced a very different, and far less "conversational" public sphere, one, precisely, where ideas could claim for themselves a right to rule. Here, public spheres, as the forums of public opinion, are institutionalized in concrete situations, and in particular ways. And relative to such institutionalization, one cannot assume that the question of power can be evaded, or the externality of the position of power erased, without serious consequences.

Turn now to the question of identity. Deliberative public opinion tends to suppose that only individuals speak, and that their speech is abstracted from the affirmation of a particular individual or collective identity. The concern is with what is said, not with who speaks. Nonetheless, what is said often speaks to who is speaking; and sometimes speech directly concerns the representation of the speaker's identity.[35] From the perspective of a general public sphere, the expression of particular (collective) identities can appear to threaten the potential for a communicative accord. Thus the temptation to restrict the expansion of the public sphere to the group representative of the generality, in the hope that questions of identity remain background questions. Alternatively, and more consistently, one would have the frontiers of the collectivity be based on universal criteria, for example, on an explicit agreement concerning the procedural rules that underwrite the public sphere. This latter perspective prefers the clash of ideas to the struggle for recognition, because only the clash of ideas is clearly amenable to the finalities of pure and practical reason; if, however, the need for recognition must be accepted, it will be understood less as an end in itself than as a confidence-building measure preliminary to the real discussion. Now, the evasion of representations of (collective) identity, on the part of deliberative public opinion, is not unrelated to its denial of the symbolic dimension of the externality of power. For power in its representational externality, acts as the "mirror" whereby those that power represents become visible to themselves within the continuity of institutional life as a people, that is, the bearers of a coherent political identity. It would be naïve to claim that a people becomes a people simply through its participation in the public sphere. The identity thus formed would be far too fragile; it supposes not just that everyone is participating, but that everyone sees everyone else participating, while any contention produced by such participation cannot but appear to threaten the people's unity and, hence, its existence. In order to establish a secure sense of collective identity, the social bond must appear to lie beneath the public sphere, so as to remain relatively impervious to the divisions borne by public discussion.[36] It must appear less an object of politics than the latter's source, which means that political representation (and political leadership) must render visible not just a political relation of forces, but an underlying, pre-political, even pre-reflective, collective "giveness." In the mirror of power we look, beyond the evidence of all that divides us, for intimations of what we have in common; if political representation must sometimes appear above politics, this is because it would speak to what lies beneath politics, the sense of collective belonging necessary to our sense of who we are.

2. Consider now the second rubric, the one that concerns the relation between truth and people, and questions whether public opinion, even of the deliberative sort, can be a site of genuine knowledge. To be sure, the contrary claim has a long pedigree, particularly within a certain philosophical tradition where the truth is, by definition, opposed to doxa or opinion. Such a claim, however, has never sat well with democrats, who must, at the very least, hold that the fickleness of public opinion can save us from the damage done by those who would claim a monopoly on higher truths. The argument I wish to consider has different origins. It does not suggest that truth's (or reason's) empire cannot attain general dominion because the truth concerns an eternal, transcendent sphere removed from, and maladapted to, the everyday concerns of society and politics. I would prefer to advance a "Tocquevillian" argument that speaks of the limits of truth's empire from the perspective of the finitude of any deliberative process.[37] The argument begins with the fable of Enlightenment, which itself begins by imagining an initial state of dogmatic slumber in which the populace is entirely comfortable with the certitudes posited by superstition and prejudice. In a second stage, having been bitten by the bug of a "little knowledge," the populace is wrenched out of its slumber and begins to doubt everything. In order to overcome this ultimately unbearable state, a rigorous and exhaustive consideration of all existing opinions is embarked on in order to arrive at unshakeable certitudes. However, while it might be possible, by such an arduous process, for one person to establish a limited truth within a limited domain; it is unlikely that each and every person will do so for each and every domain, particularly as society becomes increasingly complex. Most of us will instead find ourselves with enough knowledge to suspect our prejudices, but not enough to proclaim an unvarnished truth. This is not to suggest that "knowledge" is incompatible with democracy. But it does suggest that public opinion will be made up of large doses of credulity and skepticism: skepticism because deliberative public opinion subjects received truths to general questioning; and credulity because, in the face of such incertitude, one puts one's "trust" either in what everyone else believes or, alternatively, the claims of "experts." But should one think that the growth of expertise represents an unalloyed victory for "truth," this same mix of credulity and skepticism quickly extends to expertise itself. And could it be otherwise when expertise cannot remove itself from democratic questioning, when experts disagree amongst themselves, and when members of the public have neither the time nor skills required to subject the full array of expert opinions to critical examination? Thus, even as the relation between public opinion and knowledge is constantly propounded, it is never really consummated. Such a situation proves frustrating for intellectuals: for though they may find themselves called upon to give "expert opinions," they will too often find that their opinions will be treated like other opinions, that is, with credulity and skepticism, and for reasons that may have little to do with the truth of their claims.

3. The third set of criticisms concerns the commonality that underlies each of the three terms that deliberative public opinion seeks to bring together. In effect, where once truth, power and the people were written in the singular, so as to signify that their respective idea(l)s demanded a common horizon, our present postmodern temper asks that we speak of a plurality of truths, powers and subject positions. The implications of such a loss of common horizons are enormous, and in what follows I find myself reduced to experimenting with the abrupt expression of a series of largely undeveloped affirmations. Let me begin with the question of the people, or as this term appears increasingly archaic, let me speak instead of a general subject.

It is by no means certain that "people" today have less in common; the most salient markers of difference during the recent past, those of class and "ethnos," are clearly in decline.[38] The postmodern claim, however, concerns less the reality of this commonality than its ideality, that is, how, as an imaginary social signification, it affects (or ought to affect) our understanding of and orientation to the world. And here the claim is that any notion of a general subject will prove less than helpful. This subject, it is said, is not really general; implicitly or explicitly it poses criteria that lead certain persons or groups to be either ignored or excluded (and thus denied the benefits of liberty, equality and, perhaps above all else, fraternity). The criticism is logically unimpeachable if somewhat simplistic. As a political category, the people, in its generality, was never really a determinate group,[39] though at any given moment, and in its concrete manifestation, the general subject is forced to take on the flesh of the particular. To think of something as common is, logically speaking, to pose the limits of that commonality. One may wish to render these limits as inclusive as possible, but if it includes all difference, if the commonality is limitless, then it is not just an empty abstraction, it is stricto sensu meaningless. One may then be tempted to exclude all talk of what is common, general or universal. But if there were only particulars, they would lead a strictly monadic existence, unable to communicate with each other, without a horizon of shared meanings, without the horizon of shared expectations that the latter proposes. Sometimes when reading the "radical" multi-culturalist literature, one has the impression of everyone holding hands, while speaking from their own experience, in their own languages, according to their own modes of expression and from their own world-views. Without commenting on the truth of this image as a representation of existing multi-cultural societies, it brings to mind the image of the Tower of Babble, although it denies the need for the newly constituted multiplicity to disperse. My own sympathies lie with those who would reintroduce a horizon of commonality, but reintroduced from the perspective of the articulation of difference (Laclau, 1996). I understand such a position, however, as elaborating a political possibility rather than a semiological necessity (or, better, rather than reducing the political to the semiological imperatives of the friend-enemy distinction). It is an exaggeration to claim that identity can exist only in relation to a "constitutive outside" itself formed in opposition to an antagonistic other.[40] Different collectivities, instead of confronting each other -- or allying with another group because confronted with a more threatening difference -- may ignore each other and live within their multiple solitudes. If the Latin res publica can be translated as the thing that we have in common, and politics defined as deliberation, contention and division over what we have in common, the republic is not a given. Radical deopliticization is possible, understood here less as the retreat of individuals into private life than as the dispersion of collectivities into the semi-private world of a "civil society" devoid of even the horizon of a general power.

A general power supposes not only a general subject but a common space within which the sovereign exercises its power. Again no power has ever been really sovereign in the sense of being able, within its borders, to exercise absolute authority to the exclusion of all undesired foreign influences. Still these borders did provide a "container," even as the common space established by these borders provided the social ballast that underwrote the development of a properly political life. Today we are told that the nation-state is no longer sovereign, by which is meant a dispersion of powers across and beyond increasingly porous national boundaries. In this respect one hears much talk of networks. Now the latter may be quite dense and extensive, enabling the intersection of a multiplicity of identities that can be indefinitely combined, but they involve nodal points, and not common spaces. In other words, relations in networks are freely chosen, whereas in the common space of a political community one is thrown together with others by the mere fact of relative contiguity. In a republic one gives one's accord to the law of the community, but one does not choose one's fellow citizens. In the fable of the social contract, one contracts not just with friends, but with potential enemies. Within a true "network society," by contrast, one can be plugged in up to one's eyeballs, and have nothing in common, either in principle or fact, with one's neighbours. The intensification of communication associated with networks is entirely compatible with the growth of multiple solitudes and, consequently, with the decline of political citizenship.[41]

This brings me to the dispersion of the last of the three terms. All three of the figures I have discussed seek, each in their own manner, to link together a common space, a general subject and a universalizable truth. But within the discourse of postmodernism it is, above all, the last of these terms that comes under question. Again, the claim to universal knowledge was, no doubt, always excessive; and there never was a single meta-narrative (if there was, it would have been largely invisible because uncontested).[42] But contemporary discussions about the fragmentation of knowledge concern less the reality of the evolution of knowledge than its future ideal. For the recommendation is that, at least relative to the socio-cultural world,[43] the search for ultimate coherence is neither practicable nor desirable. When the multiplicity of subject positions appears to preclude a common language, and when power no longer appears capable of constructing a space for the emergence of common issues, should one be surprised at all the talk about relativism, both as an epistemological position and ethical imperative?

All this ultimately renders the situation of the intellectual (or would-be intellectual) quite difficult. It is not so much that the coherence of intellectuals as a category has been undermined by the apparent proliferation of discursive positions. Intellectuals as a group never had much in common, at least when it comes to substantive issues. Nor does it make sense to argue, after two centuries of disciplinary specialization, that the latter is at the root of present-day fragmentation. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that, even as specialization is proceeding apace, the disciplines appear far less self-contained than previously.[44] Intellectuals, moreover, are specialists of the universal, and not specialists proper. What defines intellectuals is not what they say (they say many things), nor the self-assured, authoritative way they have of saying it. What defines intellectuals is the relation they would establish between what they say and the other two terms, power and public, in both their real and imaginary dimensions. Thus the iconic image of the intellectual has always been that of Emile Zola bringing his considerable intellectual authority as a novelist to bear, in the blazing headlines of a major newspaper, on the Dreyfus affair. But what happens to the intellectual when there is no longer (the idea of) a general public? What happens when there are no genuine common concerns for the intellectual to address? Is it any wonder that some of the most renowned postmodern intellectuals have prophesied the death of the intellectual? One will reply, ironically, that when those who make the prophecy are widely read and discussed, they themselves are proof that intellectuals are not entirely without life. Nonetheless one cannot, in good conscience, uphold the existence of intellectuals while declaring the fracturing of the terms that structure the space within which they have operated (however ambivalently). The premise of this essay is that intellectuals are (or were), willingly or unwillingly, the creatures of a democratic imaginary whose contours are (or were) formed by the attempt to align, at a distance from the real, power and truth with the general population. This perhaps explains why intellectuals have been able to strike the most heroic poses where the existence of democracy appeared most questionable. It is, after all, easier to speak truth to (the) power(holders) when they present themselves as the arbiters of a truth that no one any longer believes in. Matters could prove much more difficult, however, when the terms and contours of the democratic imaginary begin to crumble from within, whether because of an extension of certain of democracy's dynamics, or a hollowing out of certain of its key meanings. These, I have tried to suggest, are the terms with which intellectuals orient themselves as intellectuals, and the loss of these terms, one suspects, would be more than just an intellectual loss...


[1] Sociologists who have recently held power, or have had the ear of power, might include, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, Commandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, the wife of Slobodan Milosovic, who presided over one of the parties in the Yugoslavian parliament, Anthony Giddens and, to choose an example from my own backyard, Gérard Bouchard, the brother of Lucien Bouchard, who until recently was the leader of the Parti Québécois in Quebec. When confronted with such a list, as motley as it is, the usual reaction is to deny that these people are really sociologists/intellectuals, or to claim that, having sidled up to power, they have betrayed their vocation.

[2] Much of the work of Pierre Bourdieu can be read as answering these last two questions in the negative.

[3] In totalitarian (or post-totalitarian) societies, power speaks in the name of "science," and "science" cannot speak unless sanctioned by power. As such it becomes impossible to separate the scientist cum intellectual from the apparatchik. That this is a matter not simply of "opportunism" or "repression," but of a very different imaginary, was illustrated by the experience of a colleague who tried to conduct a survey in a post-totalitarian country with the aid of her homologues at the local university. The latter treated the survey's results not as the "raw material" of an independent truth, but judged the individual responses as either true or false, and corrected them accordingly. Truths concerning society look very different when that society's order, coherence and sense cannot be imagined independent of its relation to (a visible) power, and to the claims articulated by the latter.

[4] To borrow the terms (if not quite the analysis) of Castoriadis (1975), we might say that the power of the power-holders belongs to the realm of the "instituted," while that of the "people" concerns the "instituting."

[5] If the relation of the knowledge of the knowledge-holders was not reversible relative to the knowledge of everyone else, free speech would have little meaning.

[6] Even "specific" intellectuals must retain a minimal (and still privileged) relation to (a specific) truth.

[7] I am not speaking of "technocratic" knowledge. Technocratic knowledge, and technocratic language, are specialized by definition. Because it studies people as objects, it does not seek to be understood by the populace at large, and bears no necessary relation to the democratic imaginary.

[8] The fusion of word and act echoes earlier forms of power that were deemed sacred; and indeed something of this latter quality inheres in the more successful constitutional documents.

[9] Depending on the version of contract theory involved, the individual may or may not preserve something of his autonomy. And where he does preserve something of his autonomy after the contract, it must be considered an autonomy within, as opposed to an autonomy from, society.

[10] I am considering contractarianism (and the "methodological individualism" it implies) not as a real description of the individual's being-in-society, but as a central moment in the "imaginary institution" of democratic individualism. If understood as a real description, then all the criticisms leveled against it, most recently by communitarians, are valid. If examined, however, as an element of a symbolic regime, these criticisms are largely beside the point; for one must judge less the truth of its claims, than the quality of its "reality effects."

[11] Even as contractarianism, in its original forms, often pointed to elections (as a re-enactment of the contract), it feared their results (for they tended to reveal that the will was not general but divided -- a serious threat when the political and social bond did not yet appear separated).

[12] Pierre Bourdieu claims that Sartre thought that he could speak for all humanity because he projected the solitude that marked his own condition as an intellectual onto the human condition at large. (1996: 209-212).

[13] It is curious to note that where Bauman locates the historical break between legislators and interpreters in the 1970's, in the transition from modernity to post-modernity, Pierre Bourdieu (1996) locates a similar break around 1848. In his view Flaubert (and the aesthetic movement that he inaugurated) wanted to interpret rather than change society, because he felt as alienated from revolutionary politics as from the desiccated horizons of bourgeois society.

[14] Lest one too hastily distinguish the Anglo-Americans from the French, it should be noted that Thomas Paine, like the French revolutionaries after him, was arguing against mixed government, which in his view rendered the relation between people and government unnecessarily complex.

[15] No doubt, as the previous footnote also suggests, he would be disappointed.

[16] If there was a distinction between the social and the political -- and it was a distinction that had less force in the common law tradition -- it was between the laws that regulated (social) life, and the (political) laws that regulated the institutions that make the laws. Note that the distinction implies that society, like the polity, is constituted by laws, and that both are immediately dependent on the legislative will.

[17] Margaret Thatcher, for example, claimed her politics were based "on the homilies of housekeeping and the parables of the parlour." Even housewives, and particularly housewives, could understand it, though the use of alliteration, for North American ears at least, suggests a certain intellectual pretension. Here one would just say: "Keep it simple, stupid!"

[18] As with Antonio Gramsci (1971: 323-31), who understands common sense as the "spontaneous philosophy" particular to each major "social stratum."

[19] The phenomenological strand in sociology that culminates in symbolic interactionism and, above all, ethnomethodology can be characterized as the study of common sense, understood in just such terms.

[20] One thinks most obviously, but not exclusively of his "Dictionnaire des idées reçues."

[21] See Bourdieu' s characterization of the right-wing, anti-intellectual intellectual (1996: 278-282).

[22] Gramsci would speak of "intellectuals" here, but his definition has been much broader than the one that we have been using. By intellectuals he understands all those engaged in mental labour, and since no labour is purely physical "(a)ll men are intellectuals...but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals." (1971: 9) Note, first, that all men are intellectuals, not because of their capacity for intellectual autonomy (as in the figure of the general will) but because they are capable of thinking, even if only in terms of the generic, disjointed, and episodic "spontaneous philosophy" associated with common sense. And second, that he terms intellectuals all mental labourers, including priests, scientists, engineers, investment bankers and white collar workers.

[23] Such a perspective can be gleaned from, amongst others, Peter L. Berger (1981). Note that the capacity for "ecstasy" (i.e., the capacity to symbolically exit society), which is viewed as abnormal (except among sociologists), is supposed general in the figure of the general will.

[24] One is tempted to say that "organic intellectuals" are the representative of their stratum's "common sense," in the same way that politicians are the representative of a more general, inchoate "class" power. Note that the "truth" here tends to be relative, if only because there are as many common senses as there are classes -- and with the exception of the peasantry, each class has its own organic intellectuals. Or if not relative, the ultimate truth lies with history, even as the adjective "organic" ensures a relation to truth, because it attaches classes of intellectuals to classes proper, the real subjects of history. Inorganic intellectuals, those who refuse a relation to an "external" common sense, are destined to irrelevance and untruth. As such, the most self-destructive and self-deluded claim intellectuals can make is that they form a class in themselves, and that, as a class, they are autonomous.

[25] In truth, the people can never become fully intellectual. Gramsci may criticize the autonomy of intellectuals as a group, but insists on their autonomy as individuals. Only an individual can "work out consciously and critically [his] own conception of the world" and thereby refuse "to accept passively and supinely from outside the moulding of one's own personality." (Gramsci, 1971:323-24). The implication is that genuine intellectuals do not form a group, or that, as a group, their thinking tends to degenerate into its own generic "common sense."

[26] This position contains the grains of a certain right-wing paranoia. For the claim is not that people are (intellectually) incapable of becoming intellectuals (i.e., the bearers of intellectual truths concerning their own activities), but that they are indeed capable, and it is just such a capacity that is to be feared.

[27] For a general discussion of the invention of public opinion during this period see Baker (1990), as well as Jürgen Haberma's classic work (1989).

[28] Pierre Bourdieu claims that "Public Opinion Does Not Exist" (1993:149-57) because based on a series of illusory claims: that everyone has an opinion, that all opinions are of equal weight that there is a substantive consensus concerning the questions and, at the very least, a statistical consensus concerning the answers. And they are illusory because the majority (i.e., women and the lower classes in particular), being immersed in the practical knowledge associated with their different habitus, are unfamiliar with the discursive abstractions parlayed by opinion polls. In effect, Bourdieu turns certain elements of common sense, which he believes to be factually true, against the elements of the general will, which he believes to be false. I would argue that even if what he says is true, public opinion would still exist, for its existence is, above all, imaginary.

[29] I am speaking here of the public, collective level, but such deliberation is underpinned by a homologous process occurring at the level of the individual: for the individual is under the obligation to consider all relevant opinions, judge their merits or lack thereof, and make up her own mind. One could say that she becomes her own public sphere before giving voice to her opinion in the public sphere proper.

[30] That "pity" is central to the modern world was recognized by Hannah Arendt (1965). That it is central to the constitution of the modern public sphere (with its horizon of universal justice) is suggested by Luc Boltanski (1999).

[31] There is a certain overlap between the three figures elaborated here, and the three historical stages -- the philosophe, the aesthete, and the intellectual proper -- proposed by Bourdieu (1996: 341-2). In a sense the figure of the general will corresponds to the philosophe, that of common sense to the aesthete, and that of deliberative public opinion to the intellectual proper (the philosophe seeks to express the general will, the aesthete seeks to distance himself from common sense). However, even as I have followed Bourdieu's order, I would suggest that the progression here is more "logical" than chronological, for all three figures existed from the beginning, and if in different forms, are still with us today.

[32] With the other two figures the people appear as given with society. In the case of the general will, because the people are co-substantial with the social contract that produces "society"; and in the case of common sense, because the people are, as it were, immersed in the social. Let it also be noted that in establishing the public at a distance from society, this last figure opens onto a distinction between society and polity without, however, immediately opposing the two terms.

[33] Habermas is the person most associated with this position. And as if to finesse the question of the possible transgression of these rules -- which might pose the need for an external authority -- he claims that their moral basis, being implicit in communicative action itself, is always already internalized.

[34] And which did not prevent the complaint being made -- and not only by Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- that France was ruled by women

[35] At best a Habermas refers here the expressive dimension of speech, as if it was merely a problem of "subjectivity."

[36] These ideas have been explored in part in Brian C.J. Singer (1996).

[37] I am calling it such because I will be drawing from F.R. Ankersmit's discussion of Tocqueville in chapter 6 of Aesthetic Politics (1996).

[38] The reality of multiculturalism suggests the increased contiguity of decreasing differences, which is to say that we experience difference more, even as the differences we experience take on a more subjective, floating character.

[39] To claim by definition, as it were, that the people are such, and that what they want is such, would be to rig the democratic game in advance. The latter supposes that the definition of who we are and what we want remains fundamentally open.

[40] Again see Ernesto Laclau, or Chantal Mouffe -- though this claim was already articulated by Sartre (1965). My position here is that Jew does not owe his existence to that of the anti-Semite, though the existence of the latter, needless to say, inflects the identity of the former.

[41] The incompatibility of the "network society" with democracy is discussed by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, La fin de la démocratie , mistranslated as The End of the Nation (1995).

[42] One is tempted to claim that today, with the collapse of communism, we are truly entering the era of the one big meta-narrative, that of liberal democracy, which precisely because it is largely uncontested, provides room for the multiple, little narratives of post-modernism).

[43] I dare not include here knowledge of the natural world when at least some physicists believe that they are on the threshold of arriving at TOE, or the Theory of Everything.

[44] One can now go to conferences in vastly different disciplines, say English and Geography, and discover that, if the papers are not, or not always, interchangeable, they will almost certainly overlap, particularly in their bibliographies -- which is to say everyone is reading the same postmodern authors.


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Brian C.J. Singer is an Associate Professor in Sociology at Glendon College, York University, and has been a Director of the Graduate Programme in Social and Political Thought. He is the author of Society, Theory and the French Revolution: Studies in the Revolutionary Imaginary; and has translated Jean Baudrillard's Seduction and Claude Lévi-Strauss' Look, Listen, Read.

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