Public Intellectuals

July 23, 2000

I thought I might briefly elaborate on my comment, "Where are the Adorno's of American musical thought?" Obviously we do not want to rehash Leftist ideals of the 1950s. I refer to the tradition of intellectual generalists who explore and integrate diverse contemporary topics of culture, politics and the arts in their writings. 

In the middle of the 20th century, New York intellectual culture was receptive to intellectual generalists, such as those centered around the _Partisan Review_. These writers included luminaries such as Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy. It has been suggested that Susan Sontag was the last writer of that tradition. (See: Liam Kennedy, _Susan Sontag: Mind As Passion_ (Manchester University Press, 1995.) These generalists shared a desire to exhibit intellectual range. They found a way to pay attention to specific intellectual topics and yet comment on the larger cultural context in which those topics appeared. Noam Chomsky might be the most recent example of a writer related to that group.

This Met discussion shows the value of such thought, since the idea of a commission for a woman raises so many related themes that must be addressed about culture, politics, aesthetics, history, and the arts. 

There has been a good deal of political writing in the "new musicology" of the last ten years, but the focus is often placed on relatively specific issues such as feminism, sexuality, ethnicity or race without carefully examining (much less seriously questioning) the larger cultural and political paradigms in which those issues exist. Is deconstructionism alone adequate for addressing these larger perspectives? Is the tradition of American intellectual generalists, especially those who are politically oriented, no longer relevant in a Postmodern world? 

What are some recent musicological writings that examine specific "texts" or topics while also carefully considering the broader cultural atmosphere in which they exist? 

William Osborne