Intellectuals, culture, policy: the technical, the practical, and the critical (1).

Author:Bennett, Tony
Position:Essay

There are now ample signs that cultural policy is emerging as an increasingly important area of theoretical and practical engagement for intellectuals working in the fields of sociology and cultural studies. This has occasioned a good deal of debate concerning the roles of intellectuals and the relationships they should adopt in relation to the bureaucratic and political processes through which cultural policies are developed and put into effect. It is with these debates that I engage here with a view to distinguishing the light that might be thrown on them by different accounts of the social roles and distribution of different kinds of intellectual function. My concerns here will centre on the relations between two traditions of social theory. (2) The first derives from Jurgen Habermas's classic study of the public sphere (Habermas 1989) and theorizes the role of intellectuals in terms of the distinction between critical and technical intellectual functions which characterizes Habermas's construction of the relationships between different forms of rationality. The second comprises the tradition which, following in the wake of Michel Foucault's essay on governmentality (Foucault 1978), has concerned itself with the roles of particular forms of knowledge and expertise in organizing differentiated fields of government and social management.

My starting point will be with the Habermasian tradition. The concept of the public sphere is, of course, one that now need no longer be constrained by its Habermasian lineage. In its post-Habermasian history, moreover, the concept has made positive contributions to both the theory and practice of cultural policy. It has supplied the language through which governments have been called on--with some success--to develop forms of media regulation that will inhibit the oligopolistic tendencies of media industries by providing for at least some semblance of democracy and diversity in the role of the media in the organization and circulation of opinion. (3) The differentiation of Habermas's singular public sphere into plural public spheres--feminist and indigenous, for example--has also been important in legitimating claims on the public purse which have helped in winning new forms of public, and publicly educative, presence for groups excluded from the classical bourgeois public sphere. (4) My concerns, however, are less with these adaptations of the Habermasian concept than with Habermas's own account of the public sphere and the role it has played in subsequent debates, when viewed in the light of the splitting of intellectual work between the differentiated functions of critique and praxis which he proposes. (5)

My engagements with this tradition of work will be of three kinds. First, I shall argue that Habermas's polarizing procedures do not offer us a cogent basis for debating and assessing the politics of contemporary intellectual practice. Their main weakness is that of dividing reason into two without then being able to offer any means of reconnecting its severed parts except through the endlessly deferred mechanism of the dialectic. Second, I shall argue that Habermas's account of the development and subsequent deterioration of the bourgeois public sphere seriously misunderstands the role that the main institutions of public culture have played in the development of modern practices of cultural governance. A Habermasian theoretical world-view, to come to my third concern, also fails to see how the roles played by the personnel of culture in managing cultural resources involve attention to questions of a technical kind in ways that do not automatically entail that such personnel should be cast in the role of critical reason's bureaucratic other.

The vantage points from which I pursue these three concerns are ones supplied by different branches of the post-Foucauldian literature on governmentality. In developing the first argument, I draw on work which stresses the ethical comportment which characterizes the conduct of bureaucratized intellectual functions. This aspect of my argument serves to undercut the view that the exercise of practical intellectual functions within bureaucratic contexts can serve as an "ethics-free zone" in counterpoint to the ethical purity of the critical intellectual. The second point is developed by looking again at Habermas's historical account of the public sphere through the lens of post-Foucauldian inquiries into the development of modern forms of government and culture. In developing my third argument I draw on Foucauldian perspectives on the relationships between expertise and government to identify the wide range of functions performed by the personnel of culture as parts of governmental programs aimed at deploying cultural resources as a means of acting on the social.

The Critical and the Practical

Jim McGuigan's Culture and the Public Sphere offers a convenient point of entry into the first set of issues. This closes in posing two questions: How can critical intellectuals be practical? And how can practical intellectuals be critical? By critical intellectuals McGuigan has in mind intellectuals whose work is academic in the sense that the conditions in which it takes place disconnect it from any immediate practical outcomes for which those intellectuals can be held responsible. The problem for such intellectuals, then, is that the opportunity for critically reflexive work which such conditions make possible is purchased at the price of a loss of any immediate practical effectivity. The practical intellectuals McGuigan refers to are cultural workers "engaged in some form of communication and cultural management" in practical contexts where, as he defines them, "the possibilities of critical knowledge ... have already been closed off" by the need for "recipe knowledge" (McGuigan 1996, 190). Two kinds of intellectual, then, each of whom, at least at first sight, seems to lack what the other possesses. It becomes clear on further inspection, however, that the relations between these different categories of intellectual are not, and cannot become, relations of exchange. Rather, they take the form of a one-way street in which the task enjoined on the critical intellectual is that of dislodging the forms of reasoning--the "recipe knowledge"--which govern the contexts in which practical intellectuals do their work. The most that can be asked of practical intellectuals--parties to a gift relationship in which they can only be receivers--is that they should be prepared to jettison those forms of reasoning which spontaneously characterize their work in favor of the essentially different forms of reasoning represented, and selflessly donated, by critical intellectuals.

How is it that these lowly servants of a mere "recipe knowledge" find themselves placed on the opposite side of a divide separating them from the realms in which critical intellectuals operate? This separation is the local manifestation of a more fundamental division between critical and instrumental reason which has its roots in Habermas's account of the division between system and lifeworld and their opposing principles of rationality. In the latter, where communication is relatively undistorted by uneven relationships of power and where there is a common interest in shared horizons of meaning arising out of shared conditions of life, communicative rationality is orientated to mutual understanding. By contrast, the instrumental rationality which characterizes the world of system is one which displaces questions of human value and meaning in favor of a means-end rationality whose direction is dictated by existing structures of class and bureaucratic power. This opposition between system and lifeworld is most economically represented in the terms of Habermas's distinction between praxis and techne. The first of these, as Habermas glosses it, is concerned with the reasoned assessment of the validity of norms for action whereas techne is concerned solely with the rational selection of the best instruments for achieving particular outcomes once the normative goals for social action have been determined (Habermas 1974, 1-3).

When these broader aspects of the argument are taken into account, it is clear that the form of mediation that McGuigan proposes for overcoming the separation of critical and practical intellectuals would extend the sway of praxis, whose spokesperson is the critical intellectual, beyond the lifeworld into the world of system where it would ideally displace, or provide a superordinate context for, the application of techne. At the same time, however, the prospects of this actually happening are not good to the degree that the conditions of work of intellectuals located within the world of system predispose them to focus exclusively on narrowly technical forms of reason and action. Thus lessons of praxis, since they do "not tell us directly what to do," will "always be regarded as unsatisfactory by those who prefer to act without thinking; in effect, those who want recipe knowledge but not critical thought, information but not ideas" (ibid., 187). McGuigan seems not to notice the paradoxical effects of a body of theory which, on the one hand, holds out the possibility of universally valid norms of communication and mutual understanding arising out of the shared conditions of the lifeworld while, on the other, dividing reason into two antimonial realms--praxis and techne--whose separation, once established, cannot be overcome except by imposing the values of one on the other. What is perhaps more harmful, however, is the mapping of this opposition between different kinds of reason on to the relations between different kinds of intellectuals working in different contexts.

The dubious value of this procedure is all the more evident when it is considered that, in most other regards, the differences between these so-called critical and practical intellectuals...

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