I found Corey Robin’s article “How Intellectuals Create a Public” provocative. It addresses the activity of public intellectuals not merely to reinforce existing ways of thinking, but to compel people to reckon with new ideas. They break current conceptual molds and force you to think about matters in a new way. They do not merely feed the public the ideas and rhetoric they expect; they challenge them. Thus, they create a public.
They turn us into a public.
That’s . . . how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.” So are reading publics. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the targets identified by the writer: Think of the readers of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the writer: Think of the readers of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Regardless of the fallout, the public intellectual forces a question, establishes a divide, and demands that her readers orient themselves around that divide.