Caught In The Web

The internet has transformed how public intellectuals engage, as AC Grayling’s writings testify

Title: The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times
Author: AC Grayling
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price: ₹499

Democracy and technology nourish each other and are mutually dependent forces. Modernity brought in its wake the concept of nation-state and the notion of democracy. This required dismantling some antediluvian privileges, such as access to education, or barriers to simple tasks such as writing and reading. It also gave technology room to expand and explore.
In the late 20th century, this symbiotic relationship morphed into the form of the internet, a technological tool which can potentially democratise information and knowledge. The internet (through mobile technology) was the spark that fired a mini-revolution in North Africa and parts of West Asia in recent years. It fanned self-governance bushfires across artificial political boundaries, somewhat like the mistral on a hope-filled spring evening.

Change Agent

Facilitator, and perhaps agent provocateur , the internet is changing lives in science laboratories, school classrooms, farmer cooperatives and virtual chatrooms. It has even democratised the notion of a public intellectual: anybody with access to the internet and in possession of rudimentary knowledge of its content is qualified to comment on pretty much any subject in the universe. There are no eligibility requirements; no entry barriers. Have keyboard, can comment.
This does compel us to revisit the identity and role of the traditional “public intellectual”. Roughly sketched, a public intellectual is an academic, or a person from the creative pursuits, who reaches out to a non-specialist public on matters of importance, especially on issues related to public policy.
Names such as Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins spring readily to mind when pushed for examples. The past 20 or so years has seen a mushrooming of public intellectuals as the internet spread its web of influence across society and liberated sections of academia stifled by the suffocating cloisters of academe, as academic activity no longer restricts itself to classroom pedagogy but engages in a wider debate, as combative Op-Eds in newspapers fill the time and spaces between the arcane stuff written for turgid, specialist journals.
Philosopher AC Grayling is the consummate example of a modern-day public intellectual and thanks the internet for reviving the grand old Hellenic tradition of public debates, though elsewhere he even derisively calls it as “biggest toilet wall in history.”
Trained and schooled in philosophy and pursuing teaching as a full-time vocation, Grayling has also segued into the traditional adjoining spaces of public advocacy and public debate, through the use of modern media (print, radio, television, internet). A prolific writer, Grayling has authored over 30 books, including a series on Things: The Meaning of Things , The Reason of Things , The Mystery of Things , The Heart of Things , and The Form of Things . The 2015 addition to Things , under review here, is a collection of Op-Eds and articles from a variety of newspapers and magazines, including transcripts of conversations in television studios.
As such, this ragtag collection lacks a central theme, though Grayling’s grudging acknowledgment of the fact comes laden with a qualifier in the Introduction: “The essays that follow are a miscellany unified by the effort to do that: to explore, and to suggest perspectives upon, different facets of this time in our world.”
This fleeting, common thread is often lost; what comes across is the urgency of variegated ideas with the sharp (but evanescent) pungency of a wasabi-coated snack — quick to hit the roof of the head but forgotten in the next instant.

Short And Lost

An Op-Ed is the modern-day public intellectual’s weapon of choice in the battle for mind-space, but it also has a short range and illusory kill-power; it can zap but it doesn’t leave any lasting effects. This shortcoming is inherent in the nature of the beast: lack of space forces brevity and a disappointing lack of depth. Grayling’s collected Op-Eds in the first half of the book wrestle with some interesting ideas but never quite go beyond just the two opening rounds, leaving readers thirsting for more.
The essays in the second half of the book are more engaging, designed like a gourmet meal that runs through all the zones of the palate — rejecting popular notions, arguing a point, bargaining for recognition of grey areas, dissing shallow and popular beliefs, constructing a logical sequence of thoughts.
Grayling offers another interesting but slightly disquieting distinction between the two segments: the first half deals with some of the “negatives” of our circumstances and the second with some “positives”.
But there is another distressing trend creeping up on internet-heavy public intellectuals: a tendency to view the non-Western world (including Russia) through cracked and grime-caked lenses.
This is a recurring flaw with most Op-Eds in the western media: they perpetuate highly prejudiced views, implicitly implying that Western society is superior, rational and developed. Grayling too succumbs to this unipolar and monochromatic view occasionally.
But he seeks redemption almost immediately: in grappling with history and the history of ideas, Grayling adopts a humanist approach to most issues tormenting this fragile world, places ethics in the middle of the room.
But, more importantly, Grayling performs one exemplary service: he initiates a pubic debate on multiple vexed topics, forcing people to think, search for answers, question established canons. That, and that alone, makes this book worthwhile.

This book review was published in the Business Line:


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