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Intelligentsia

Challenges To Traditional Discourse

The studies outlined above emphasized the transformations of the intellectual sphere, the diversification of its principal practitioners, and changes in vocabulary, kinds of expertise, and institutional configurations or means of representation. Challenging the universality of the West's historical path (as much through racial as sexual distinctions) opened a space in which to deploy other narrations and different forms of intellectual engagement. Feminist, civil rights, and colonialist and post-colonialist social movements that have arisen in opposition to Western conceptions of universality and modernity have striven to set precise goals for intellectuals. The questions that preoccupy thinkers, in Africa as in Asia, are whether or not there will be, on the one hand, changes to accepted bodies of knowledge and the traditional role of indigenous intellectuals, and, on the other hand, the nativization of modern Western procedures and forms of learning and intellectual intervention in societies where Western modes of reference have been imposed. For Africa and the black diaspora, there are two excellent texts: Frantz Fanon's Les damnés de la terre (1961; The Wretched of the Earth) and Robin Kelley's Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. The latter succinctly captures the assault by newcomers on the universalist metanarrative:

Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression. For example, the academic study of race has been inextricably intertwined with political struggles. Just as imperialism, colonialism, and post-Reconstruction redemption politics created the intellectual ground for Social Darwinism and other manifestations of scientific racism, the struggle against racism generated cultural relativist and social constructionist scholarship on race. The great work of W. E. B. Dubois, Franz Boas, Olivier Cox, and many others were invariably shaped by social movements as well as social crises such as the proliferation of lynching and the rise of fascism. Similarly, gender analysis was brought to us by the feminist movement, not only by the individual genius of the Grimke sisters or Anna Julia Cooper, Simone de Beauvoir, or Audre Lorde. Thinking gender and the possibility of transformation evolved largely in relationship to social struggle. (p. 9)

Kelley is interested in the connections between intellectual practices and social movements, whereas Fanon is concerned with the mission of the colonized intellectual in the context of the struggle for national independence and social revolution. He shows how the man or woman of culture—the intellectual—in this context, using historical sources, strives to systematically counter the thesis of the barbarism of precolonial societies in order to re-create a community, his nation and state. Fanon shrewdly presents the different phases in the maturing of the nationalist intellectual, who begins by assimilating the colonial culture of his masters and ends with revolutionary combat, through which he or she is transformed into a guide of the people, producing a body of intellectual work that furthers revolutionary nationalist goals. Between these two poles, there is an intermediate phase of discovery of the self—a creative moment when the intellectual celebrates his or her people, history, and legends reinterpreted through the prism of an aesthetic and a worldview borrowed from the West. More sophisticated than the rigid orthodoxy of Fanon is the relatively soulful approach of Paul Robeson (1898–1976), which has given rise to a plan of liberation that takes into account emotion (exemplified by the West African poet Léopold Sédar Senghor) and poetic knowledge (as seen in the West Indian poet Aimé Césaire). Robeson transformed the idea of Western modernity by subverting the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment in order to restore Negro spirituality to the portrait of European civilization. In an article from 1936, "Primitives," Robeson—who, according to Kelley, blamed the Enlightenment for the rise of fascism—wrote that the Enlightenment's focus on rationality and intellect removed spirituality from European civilization and, in doing so, led to its ultimate failure. Robeson believed that to save Western civilization, spirituality and art needed to be restored to a central position in social life and that American Negroes, who knew Western culture yet retained the "core cultural values of their ancestral homeland," were uniquely qualified to do so.

Another noteworthy branch of later intellectual history is that of Chinese intellectuals who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, tried to respond to the challenges of Western modernity. At the forefront of this mission was a group who went under the name the May Fourth Movement. "In May Fourth discourse," observe Leo Ou-fan Lee and Merle Goldman in their introduction to An Intellectual History of Modern China, "The modern intellectual stands in privileged position vis-à-vis Chinese society and the Chinese people—as the former's moral conscience and reformist advocate and the latter's voice. Despite the May Fourth's revolutionary nature, the intellectual elite position vis-à-vis society resonated with that of their literati ancestors. Like them, they saw themselves as the rejuvenators of Chinese culture, which they believed was the key to China's salvation" (p. 4). Thus, Lee and Goldman point out that the balancing act noted in the West and in nationalist and postcolonial traditions also occurred in China from the beginning of the twentieth century up to the changing ideologies of the Chinese Revolution under various figures, a role pioneered by intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The reforms of the 1980s and the opening up of China to certain forms of capitalist production seem to have had similar overall effects on intellectuals there as in the rest of the world, namely enlargement and diversification of the kinds of intellectual activity being practiced. According to Lee and Goldman, "Chinese intellectuals at the end of the twentieth century had turned themselves into scholars, technocrats, cultural producers, business people, and entertainers, but they were no longer social prophets, the agents of national salvation, or visionary leaders of change as they had been throughout most Chinese history and even into the Mao era until Mao brutally suppressed them" (p. 8).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismIntelligentsia - Intelligentsia And Society, Definitions, Challenges To Traditional Discourse, Response To Orthodoxy, Bibliography