What Is a Working-Class Intellectual?

Larry Busk and Billy Goehring
University of Oregon

[1] "Working-class intellectual"—the term has a peculiar ring to it, paradoxical and even bordering on the oxymoronic, like "calculated error" or "conspicuous absence." What it names is indeed a paradoxical and almost oxymoronic circumstance, though its significance is more than semantic. Both components are political categories, and so their combination is a paradox of a political nature. The purpose of this essay is to develop an understanding of the antinomial but politically important meaning of this curious-sounding conjunction. This will first require accounts of "intellectual" and "working-class" as individual terms.

[2] A methodological note is necessary before proceeding: If we take up the question of the working-class intellectual, it is only as self narration and self disclosure. We regard the intellectual and the working-class not from the vantage point of detached or aloof observers, but from the inside looking out—that is, not only as objects but also as subjects. Our perspective will not encompass a vision of "the intellectual" or "the working-class" as some immutable essence. Every gesture will instead be a shibboleth for the intellectual and/or the working-class of a particular time and place, bounded by a specific situation and confronted by problems that are indeclinably historical problems.

I: What is an intellectual?

[3] One is an intellectual by virtue of one's difference from other people, from others who are not intellectuals. By itself this does not mean much, as it is also a criterion whereby we could define any quality or appellation; one is a mathematician by distinction from others who are not mathematicians, one is left-handed by distinction from others who are not left-handed, and so on. But "intellectual" is a label of a singular kind. One is not an intellectual by birth, by training, or by pedigree. It is a mistake also to equate the intellectual with the "person of above average intelligence," as this does not capture its unique signification. The intellectual's difference (from non-intellectuals) is her defining feature, prior to any positive determinations. We could therefore say that one is an intellectual by situation. But what is this situation?

[4] In his famous notes on the subject, Gramsci resisted the notion that intellectuals constitute an autonomous social category independent of the prevailing socio-economic system. The intellectual, in one sense, is one who fulfills the societal function of the intellectual. These may be of the "traditional" (i.e. vocational) or the "organic" kind; the latter emerge "spontaneously" from socio-economic formations to articulate the ideology of their particular class. In another sense, everyone is an intellectual insofar as they exercise intellect at certain times and to a certain degree. [1] This understanding, however, does not account for the unique position indicative of today's intellectual. Those who "serve the societal function of the intellectual" in Gramsci's "traditional" sense would include technicians, accountants, and engineers, and this conception does not coincide with the way in which the word is taken up in contemporary parlance. This is not to say that the present essay is content to conceive of the intellectual only in a colloquial or dictionary sense, but it is clear that when we say "intellectual" today we do not mean a certain social role, an occupation (even if it be a university professor), or a function, nor do we mean an expression of the position of a certain class (more on this later). More dissonant still is the conception according to which "[a]ll men are intellectuals...but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals." [2] What "intellectual" names now is a condition and not, as Gramsci speaks of it, an activity performed by some vocationally and by all occasionally. A list of "intellectual activities" will not lead us to a satisfactory account of what it means to be an intellectual. This view does not necessarily commit us to a pre-Gramscian account of the intellectual as an autonomous category divorced from socio-economic formations; it means only that the term denotes a particular circumstance in the midst of these formations. As innovative as his analysis is, we must go beyond it to characterize the condition, the situation, that defines the intellectual today.

[5] We can find no better expression of this condition than one articulated in Barthes's Mythologies. "Myth," for Barthes, is the kind of discourse wherein a socially constituted, contingent, and historically determined concept is made to appear as a natural, necessary, eternal truth. The ambiguities, complexities, and cultural-historical dimensions of the object of discourse are erased, and the object emerges in a reified, hypostatized air of obviousness, immediacy, and self-evidence:

In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves. [3]

Those whom Barthes characterizes as "myth-consumers" mistake the movements of interpretation represented by myth for concrete realities:

[W]hat allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one. Where there is only an equivalence, he sees a kind of causal process [...] any semiological system is a system of values; now the myth-consumer takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system. [4]

The myth-consumer contrasts with what Barthes calls the "mythologist," and what we will call the myth-critic, i.e., one with the inclination to interpret discourse otherwise than that which the discourse immediately signifies, one who critically resists the tendencies characteristic of mythology to "immobilize the world" [5] and "transform history into nature," [6] one who rejects the "insidious and inflexible demand that all men recognize themselves in this image [of the myth], eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them one day as if for all time." [7]

[6] The myth-critic is the intellectual. An intellectual is one who regards mythologies as mythologies; a "non-intellectual," then, is one for whom the mythologies constitute reality (the myth-consumer). This allows us to understand the term irrespective of official intelligence levels, skill, function, or any particular activity. An intellectual is one who sees through the façade of necessity as presented by mythological discourse. When the argument is made, for instance, that "marriage is an unchanging and sacred concept," the intellectual knows better. When one appeals to the perennial features of "human nature," the myth-critic smirks. While non-intellectuals forcefully cling to so many entrenched cultural mores, institutions, conceptual frameworks, and political practices, the intellectual will read or conduct critical histories and analyses of the same phenomena. The phrase "X is a social construction" is now a well-worn cliché amongst intellectuals, but for the non-intellectual X is not a social construction; it is a force of nature, an elemental aspect of existence with ontological substance—it is "the way things are" (examples include "gender," "family," "race," et. al). That which for the non-intellectual is a sacrosanct quality of human nature is for the intellectual a particular socio-historical structure, contingent, ever-changing, and always subject to reinterpretation.

[7] The way we have presented the distinction above leaves us open for a possible objection. One might say that the intellectual or myth-critic is just as beholden to myths as the consumers who mistake them for immediate qualities of the world, and that we are all the more blind to our own mythological horizons insofar as we claim that the intellectual "knows better" and is able to see myths for what they "really are." To this we respond that the intellectual, by virtue of having a critical regard towards myths and their historical constitution, is well aware of these horizons, and is for that reason—at least potentially—open to the possibility of a reflectively self-aware relation to myth. This possibility is by definition not allowed to the myth-consumer; thus, the distinction stands, regardless of the mythological conditions for any critique of mythology. [8] The myth-critic/myth-consumer distinction does not portray the world as divided in two; both the critic and the consumer share in a common world of myth. The distinction is made on the basis of the angle of approach toward the same phenomena. [9]

[8] The condition that defines the intellectual, then, is the condition of not being at home in the prevailing mythologies, of being unable to reconcile oneself with the discourse of necessity, "human nature," and "the way things are." The intellectual thus embodies a condition of alienation. Barthes was well aware of this consequence: "The mythologist cuts himself off from all the myth-consumers, and this is no small matter." [10] This "cutting off" does not mean that the myth-critic becomes a hermit, ceasing all intercourse with the world and withdrawing into some circumscribed sphere of interiority. She must still engage in a concrete way not only with particular myth-consumers, but also with a world bounded by the horizon of particular myths. The alienation embodied by the intellectual, the severance that Barthes speaks of, consists of the disinclination to recognize such a bounded horizon on its own terms, to accept this engagement as a static given. While the myth-consumer lives the world as a matter of course, the myth-critic lives it in conscious and articulate discontent. That historically speaking intellectuals have tended toward misanthropy is therefore no great accident. It is also not surprising that they typically fall on the progressive side politically. [11]

[9] There are other ways of conceiving the situation of the intellectual that amount to different articulations of the same social condition: when Arendt, for example, characterizes "thinking" as a dialectical, Socratic activity distinct from the intelligent processing of information and technical know-how, an activity that "inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements of good and evil"—in short, the practice of undermining "frozen thoughts." [12] Thinking is not only a "destructive" confrontation with such thoughts, but also with the condition of "thoughtlessness" that maintains and engenders them by "shielding people from the dangers of examination [and] teach[ing] them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society." [13] The moments of alienation and misanthropy are also present in her work, as when she characterizes "unthinking men" as "sleepwalkers" [14] and says that it is "better to be at odds with the whole world than be at odds with the only one you are forced to live together with when you have left company behind." [15] Another coextensive treatment appears in Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He makes a distinction here between "intelligence" and "intellect." Intelligence involves a practical, predictable manipulation for some narrow, immediate end, while intellect is "critical, creative, and contemplative." In other words: "Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole." [16] Both Hofstadter's "intellect" and Arendt's "thinking" turn upon a posture or orientation that problematizes the foundations of a certain discourse and refuses to acknowledge the unambiguous "givenness" of a given interpretation. Neither thinking nor intellect will countenance the hypostatization necessary for myth, and thus the Arendtian "thinker" and the "intellectual" in Hofstadter's sense are also myth-critics. The latter's work, which is of course an account of "anti-intellectualism," also underscores the extent to which intellect is forced to exist in spite of and over against a more general state of affairs—as Barthes would have it, the extent to which it must be "cut off," or as we would have it, the extent to which it embodies a condition of alienation. It is the condition of being a "thinker" or a practitioner of "intellect" in a larger context of thoughtlessness (or even "intelligence")—of being awake among the sleepwalkers—that defines the intellectual, and not the activity of thinking or the exercise of "intellect" as such. Likewise, it is not simply the act of myth-criticism that we were concerned with above, but the situation of being a myth-critic in a world animated by myth. We will cite one more expression of this situation, by Zourabichvili glossing Deleuze:

To the good wills that attempt to give sense to the present, the thinker opposes an exigency that appears to be both more modest and more formal: to think otherwise. Which does not mean that thought has no relation to the times, to their miseries and their urgencies; but this relation is not what we take it to be. To think is to think otherwise. We think only otherwise. [17]

[10] To return to Hofstadter for a moment, we wonder if his diagnosis of "anti-intellectualism" fully captures the present cultural atmosphere. Our situation is perhaps better characterized as non-intellectualism. There is no grand McCarthyist campaign against the intellectual. Its figure is simply absent from all forms of popular media, all mainstream political discourse, and from visible social space in general. It is true that intellectuals are, and always have been, in the minority; they have been a violently persecuted minority more than once. Today, however, their marginalization does not consist in persecution or repression (in the "developed world," that is), but in the conspicuous lack of any available room for expression, in a forced absence that is brought to bear in an unspoken stenosis rather than any official persona non grata decree. The intellectual constitutes an "other" for the prevailing system not as a "marked object" but only insofar as she has undergone what Barthes calls the process of "ex-nomination." [18] "Public intellectual" has thereby become an absurd and painful oxymoron. The condition of alienation that characterizes the intellectual is thus intramural: the myth-critic is alienated from the myth-consumers, but myth-consumers are not alienated from the myth-critic.

[11] In his conveniently neglected Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset reminds us that the non-intellectual outnumbers the intellectual by a vast margin, and that the former is firmly in control of society—a "brutal empire of the masses," [19] as he puts it. This fact is often forgotten in academic discourse; we said a few pages ago that Gramsci's notes on the intellectual are "famous"—but famous among whom? Intellectuals exist only in a world crowded by non-intellectuals, who are not always sure what the former are up to (if they are aware they exist at all). This situation is luminously obvious today, as gallons of intellectual ink are spilled over matters about which the general public (in every case this term is a sign for "the non-intellectual masses") is either largely ignorant or largely apathetic. We do not mean to point out here the esotericism of, say, knot theory or the history of Phoenician seafaring; we have in mind the critical turn the humanities have taken in recent decades. Think of the (relative) explosion of second and third wave feminist theory, de-and-post-colonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, radical environmentalism, "critical genealogy," "identity politics," along with critiques of "power relations" and "consumerism" and "anthropocentrism" and so on. [20] Yet the shrill, booming course of contemporary politics and culture has followed along its predictably destructive path despite the voracious disapproval of a handful of barely audible intellectuals who write only for each other. [21] There is consequently a creeping sense among us that we are not doing anything with worthwhile effect, that it is not possible today to do anything with worthwhile effect. [22] Perhaps Marcus Aurelius was right: "Even if you burst with indignation, they will still carry on regardless." [23]

[12] We have sketched here an understanding of the intellectual as the embodiment of a certain condition, rather than a particular position, vocation, or function. The condition is that of Barthes's mythologist (which we have called the myth-critic), one who confronts mythologies as mythologies, and who in so doing "thinks" with Arendt and exercises "intellect" with Hofstadter. The consequence of this confrontation is a certain alienation from the prevailing mythological world and from those for whom this world constitutes a bounded totality. This alienation is not only a subjective temperament or an introspective melancholy, however, as the intellectual is also prey to a non-intellectual marginalization and ex-nomination, and must exist in the midst of a culture, a politics, and a society dominated by non-intellectuals. Again, it is this form of existence that makes one an intellectual and not the activity that generates this form.

[13] Many intellectuals are content (or even delighted) with their position of "enlightened superiority" over "the masses," even at the price of alienation. This orientation may have been defensible in certain historical situations, when the condition and therefore the meaning of the intellectual were different. Now, the intellectual can no longer accept this distinction as a privilege but must bear it as a burden, not only because "the masses" have the power and the means to destroy the very fabric of life as we know it, but also because (and here we return to Gramsci), if the intellectual is to be self-respecting, she must eventually come before the question of class antagonism. This will be taken up in the following sections of this essay, and will allow us to see more clearly the political significance of the intellectual. For now, suffice it to say this: We look forward to a time when intellectuals will no longer be an alienated minority, no longer a small group of people characterized by their difference from others. In this case the term "intellectual" would, of course, lose its particular signification. Today we are intellectuals. We hope we shall not have to be so much longer.

II: What is Working-Class?

[14] Clarifying what is meant by "working-class" is certainly requisite for the purposes of our project if we are to specify the character and role of the working-class intellectual. But a definition of class and of working-class is required, not only because we wish to adjoin "working-class" to "intellectual" and distinguish the working-class intellectual from other species of intellectual, but also because the political consequences to be drawn from the notion of class remain ambiguous so long as this notion remains ambiguous. From a Marxist perspective, we are concerned with class and with the working-class because we are "concerned with social change," because the "problem of how you define and how you view the working class is the problem of whether the working class is a viable instrument for social change." [24] What is class? It is not a series of different vocations or forms of labor, although it might involve these. It is not a defined range of income, or the access or lack thereof to political and economic opportunities, although these are often the consequences of one's belonging to this or that social class. If the working-class is defined in terms of vocation or in terms of income, we run the risk of getting caught in interminable controversy over exceptional cases. [25] The face of labor changes: employment rates fluctuate, the kind of work available changes, and certain forms of labor make more or less money. The people change, the work changes—the content comprising this or that social class might change—but class division as such withstands these variable elements. In fact, "class division" is a redundancy in terms; class is division. What is this division? To what does it refer?

[15] We shall first of all specify the order of operations with regard to this division. As a position concerning one's practices and subjective identification, working-class mobilizes different elements and aspects of social, political, and economic life without being instituted by these elements and aspects. Being or being associated with the working-class may suggest that one drinks beer rather than wine, but drinking beer does not make one working-class. Renting rather than owning one's home, writing with a Bic rather than a Montblanc, wearing a blue rather than white collar—these are not qualifying criteria as much as they are indices of class. Their oppositional character, their distinction as belonging to the working-class, is inaugurated in class division. There is nothing inherently working class about beer; there is nothing in drinking beer that makes it contrary to drinking wine in considerations of class. Social antagonism, class struggle, precedes the names and practices that it determines.

[16] Class division is first and foremost a differential relationship, and this accounts for its shifting borders and the protean nature of its determinations, with regard to the material conditions and practices of those groups and individuals that class division determines. This differential relation between members of society, owing to hierarchizing social institutions and the autokinetic forces of capitalism, has a further consequence for thinking about society and belonging to it. If class division is not instituted on the basis of the discrete identities and practices of the members of society, it is because these members are of the same society. There are no separate worlds or pre-existent types of people—if class division precedes its determinations, then no one is naturally working-class or bourgeois, and there is not a world for workers on the one hand and a world for the bourgeoisie on the other. Rather, because class is a differential relation, different members of society conceive of society and of each other differently depending on their position within society. This position or situation in which members of society find themselves—as working-class or otherwise—thus determines their practice and its oppositional character vis à vis other positions or situations and practices; their class mobilizes a particular set of vocations, values, merchandise, lifestyles, and territories, and these elements are articulated as contrary to other sets of vocations, etc.

[17] The differential and differentiating force of class division, as well as the consequences it brings to bear on our analysis, is demonstrated by Lévi-Strauss in his famous commentary on Radin's work with the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), a Great Lakes tribe. The Ho-Chunk were then composed of two exogamous clans or moieties: they were thus divided into "those who are above," and "those who are on earth." Radin, investigating the influence of this division on the structure of the village and the larger Ho-Chunk community, "noted a curious discrepancy among the answers of the old people who were his informants." [26] When asked about the layout of the village and its makeup, the informants from the "upper" moiety claimed that the village was arranged in a large circle that was cut in half between the upper and lower moieties. Those from the lower moiety, however, denied this view, and claimed that the chiefs of the moieties were lodged in the center of the village, with the other village members living on the periphery.

[18] This discrepancy would have led anthropologists before Lévi-Strauss to posit a "dual organization," which Lévi-Strauss vigorously denied. One problem lies in our approach to the discrepancy in village plans; Radin was less interested in the discrepancy itself than he was in the actual layout of the village—he regretted that he could not get a more "objective" view of the village's structure so as to get a clearer insight into the influence of moiety division on Ho-Chunk society. For Lévi-Strauss, however, it is not a question of determining which moiety has the more accurate view of the village:

[The versions of the village's layout] may also correspond to two different ways of describing one organization too complex to be formalized by means of a single model, so that the members of each moiety would tend to conceptualize it one way rather than the other, depending upon their position in the social structure. For even in such an apparently symmetrical type of social structure as dual organization, the relationship between moieties is never as static, or as fully reciprocal, as one might tend to imagine. [27]

The beliefs of each group with regard to the village's organization result from its division. The discrepancy in belief does not pre-exist the social structure that positions the tribe members who find themselves at various distances from each other. If one is after the influence of this division on Ho-Chunk society, one simply misses the point if one dismisses this discrepancy in favor of some "truer," less biased account. The true account of this division's influence lies precisely in the discrepancy of accounts itself.

[19] Imagine a small town in the heartland of America, dominated by a large, sprawling family: the Bonnets. Like the Ho-Chunk, this family is divided into two moieties. The Bonnets on one side of town are more in line with what we would consider "bourgeois"—their children are more educated, they earn salaries and not wages, and they spare no expense to maintain their well-manicured lawns. They pronounce their surname by Francophone standards: Boh-ney. The other Bonnets are stereotypically working-class. In contrast to the more upscale Bonnets, their children may not graduate from high school, they live paycheck to paycheck, and more than a few of them reside in trailers and housing projects. These Bonnets pronounce their name as spelled: Bon-net. If we want to trace the division between groups of Bonnets and its influence on their practices and material conditions, we would, with Radin and his work on the Ho-Chunk, miss the point if we were to inquire after the real pronunciation of "Bonnet." The discrepancy in pronunciation results from the Bonnets' position in society, from their being determined by class division.

[20] What is the working class, then? We might define them as those who sell their labor and who do not own the means of production. We might define them as those who, in our society, lack certain specifiable advantages and avenues for social mobility. It hardly matters—the least we can say is that they are determined by social antagonism, and that they are opposed to what one might call the "bourgeoisie." We can say that they are, in whatever sense of the term, dispossessed; they are distinguished from the bourgeoisie, not owing to any orthodox Marxian analysis, but because they are lacking in social, political, and economic currency, and because this discrepancy is a necessary consequence of certain politico-material relations.

[21] If talking about our backgrounds—our childhoods, our old neighborhoods, the vocations of our parents—makes us or our colleagues uncomfortable, if such exchanges become awkward or unpleasant, it is owing to the fact of class division that precedes or determines our background and our conversations. Your parents are doctors or lawyers; you spent your childhood travelling Europe; several members of your extended family have earned doctoral degrees in various fields. Our parents are gas station attendants; we went to failing and underfunded school districts; we were the first in our family to go to college (and will likely spend our lives explaining to our loved ones what "going to college" really means). As we pointed out, there is nothing inherently working-class about any of these parts of our background—but working-class names a determinate position in our society, a position determined by forces of alienation, and it thus takes on its oppositional character. Without this differential or oppositional character, the term "working-class" would, to be sure, lose its distinctive meaning. Today we are working-class. We hope we shall not have to be so much longer.

III: What is a Working-Class Intellectual?

[22] Johann Gottlieb Fichte was the son of a ribbon-maker. This is how the baron, Freiherr von Militz, found him: a pious young boy who could recite the preacher's sermon when von Militz had arrived late to church, a provincial with a thick Lusatian accent with whom the baron was so impressed that he was moved to pay for his schooling. Had the baron arrived to the service on time, the philosopher would likely have become a ribbon-maker like his father, or, with some luck, gone on to serve as a clergyman.

[23] While the differences between Fichte's situation and our own are such that we cannot justifiably call him working-class (or intellectual), he understood all too well his impossible predicament as an academic from pious, provincial, ribbon-making stock. Impossible because, in his context, leading a learned life was typically predicated on having certain material means, a certain social rank, a certain modus vivendi, all of which were absent in Fichte's own background. In spending a majority of his life reinventing himself in a newfound bourgeois, academic milieu, Fichte more or less covered all traces of his past. In 1794 he begrudgingly agreed to sponsor his brother's education, although he refused to let young Samuel Gotthelf stay at his home; he worried that his brother's tutelage had started too late, that his peasant manners and bucolic accent would not only bar acclimation to life at Jena, but that they would betray Fichte's own origins to his friends and colleagues. Fichte soon sent his brother packing—Samuel Gotthelf was a painful reminder of the life he had hoped to repress, and it was unbearable to live in both worlds at once. [28]

[24] Most intellectuals have their origins in the bourgeois classes. This is not an accident but the result of various factors that we cannot discuss exhaustively. We may, however, point to one: adopting an intellectual orientation is aided, though by no means guaranteed, by a relative degree of affluence and leisure time. The intellectual with origins in the working-class is therefore (at least initially) in something of a precarious position, with all of the inclination for intellectual development but none of the room. We have said that being an intellectual does not depend on the possessing of certain facts or on this or that pedigree; nevertheless a sustained exposure to myth-critical perspectives (as well as the time and space to reflect on them) will obviously increase the likelihood of one becoming a myth-critic, along with the ease and appeal of this development. For this reason and others, intellectuals tend to concentrate in the bourgeois classes and tend to be sparse in the working-class (which is not to claim that intellectuals constitute a majority even in the former). [29] This is why, as we noted at the outset, the very term "working-class intellectual" strikes as nigh-oxymoronic.

[25] Where does this situation leave working-class intellectuals? As long as they are working-class they will be incongruous, on the basis of class antagonism, with intellectuals, and as long as they are intellectuals they will be incongruous, as a consequence of their relationship to mythology, with the working-class. Of course, there is more than one working-class intellectual, and so it is not as though this incongruity is total; one may encounter others with working-class backgrounds among intellectuals or other intellectuals among the working-class. But as a general tendency working-class intellectuals live a condition of social homelessness, not quite belonging in either mythological working-class discourse or in myth-critical bourgeois discourse. They are distanced from the former the moment they become conscious of their condition as myth-critics, and they are removed from the latter inasmuch as they have learned it as a second language. This compounds the condition of alienation already indicative of the intellectual, as this Janus-like figure is cut off from both myth-consumers and most other myth-critics. She must change dispositions depending on what company she keeps—now intellectual, then working-class, concealing one complexion when the other is necessary. And we cannot ask, with Hawthorne, which "face" is the "true." [30] She is really the former and really the latter. The working-class intellectual is therefore doubly alienated, from the mythological discourse most characteristic of her class and also from the class in which the phrase "mythological discourse" has its origin and its currency. "Working-class intellectual" is something of a contradiction in terms that exists nevertheless.

[26] As a brief literary excursus, we will point to Kafka's "Report to an Academy." The story is told as a monologue delivered by a chimpanzee, Rotpeter, who has learned successfully to imitate human characteristics and language; he explains to his audience how he came to participate in the human world, describing his training and his humanization process as "the line an erstwhile ape has had to follow in entering and establishing himself in the world of men." [31] The working-class intellectual is not unlike Rotpeter. Like him she has been forced, to a certain extent, to leave behind the world of her origin in order to conform to the expectations of another (that the monologue is delivered to an academy is appropriate). The crude turns of phrase and coarse humor so indicative of the working-class are not welcome in intellectual circles, nor are so many mythologies that the former holds dear. Just as the ape learns to smoke a pipe and drink schnapps, the working-class intellectual learns to form complex sentences, to use feminine pronouns as generic, and to make references to Kafka. But just as Rotpeter is nevertheless not human, the working-class intellectual remains working-class (at least for a time—more on this shortly). Yet at the same time, her newfound intellectual vocabulary obscures her relation to her origins—she conceives of "the working-class" in terms that are largely excluded from it. Rotpeter laments: "What I felt then as an ape I can represent now only in human terms, and therefore I misrepresent it..." [32] Kafka's character is in the ridiculous, contradictory position of a simian who speaks and acts as a human, not quite belonging anymore to either species, incomprehensible to his fellow apes and unable to find himself in his fellow men. The working-class intellectual, likewise, bears the unmistakable mark of a certain class but can no longer be at home in it; such is the twofold character of her alienation, the living contradiction of her position.

[27] This living contradiction has consequences that go beyond any subjective condition of alienation, and it is these consequences that interest us for the conclusion of this essay. As the working-class intellectual becomes more and more absorbed in her new haute milieu, she will not fail to notice a certain phenomenon: the myth-criticism of the bourgeois intellectual is content to rest at the level of mythological discourse, and does not orient itself toward the antagonistic social and material relations that both sustain and are sustained by this discourse. The bourgeois intellectual criticizes myth, but does not go further in asking why myth is a political necessity; she (not incorrectly) points out that certain forms of discourse are historically conditioned, but does not ask what these conditions are. This brings us to a moment that has been in the background of our considerations so far: the critique of ideology.

[28] Does ideology critique differ from myth-criticism? If so, in what way and to what degree? It is a commonplace mistake to assume that ideology critique is simply a matter of taking inventory of mystified perceptions of reality, of correcting "false consciousness" or the like. This is certainly a necessary aspect of it; the radical movement, however, lies not in the unmasking of obscured relations but in the analysis of the politico-material reality that necessitates the "masking" in the first place—not only the conditions that are concealed, but why they are concealed. Let us look at the classic example of "reification." The first moment of ideology critique points out that, in our historical context, concrete relations between people take on the "fantastic appearance" of abstract relations between things. This is the moment of false consciousness. The second moment of the critique of ideology recognizes that a recognition of the "socially conditioned" nature of material relations does not in itself address the reality or necessity of these relations. In the prevailing economic situation, concrete relations between people "really are," in a sense, relations between things. Hence Adorno's oft-referenced observation that ideology is "both true and false." [33] It does not suffice, therefore, to effect a change in our conscious orientation toward a phenomenon like "reification" in order to remove its illusive character (and its dangerous consequences). Ideology is, in another familiar trope, "necessarily false." [34] In other words, we do not experience reification merely because we possess some "wrong idea," but insofar as reification is a necessary result of a particular set of economic-political-material processes. To put all the cards on the table: the reproduction of capitalism needs reification, and so we cannot address the "false consciousness" of this phenomenon without addressing the "false reality" of which it is the insidious but necessary expression. [35]

[29] Myth criticism, which exposes the historical and social contingency of discourse that is taken for a-historical natural necessity, is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition for ideology critique. It is the first moment referred to above and does not necessarily advance to the second. All ideology critique includes myth criticism, but not all myth criticism includes ideology critique. To make this clearer, we should consider as a further example the myth-critical analysis of money. The myth-critic who is not interested in ideology critique will point out that money is only a "social construction," that it has value only on this basis, and that the difference between "wealth" and "poverty" is nothing natural but only the result of certain relations, institutions, a certain historical situation, and so on. Very well, the critic of ideology will say, but this "social construction" still constitutes the difference between eating lunch and going hungry; it still determines the horizons of one's life in a violent way. It has radical material reality even if it is the result of certain relations and historical contingencies. Recognizing myths as myths, while enough to make one an intellectual, does not by itself address the "reality" of myth. The essential moment is not a transformation of our conscious orientation toward mythology (although, again, this is an important aspect), but the recognition of the need for a transformation of the material conditions the reproduction and legitimization of which necessitate mythology in the first place. [36]

[30] What the working-class intellectual finds when she encounters the world of bourgeois intellectuals is, overwhelmingly if not totally, myth-criticism without reference to the material antagonisms that underpin and are underpinned by mythologies, i.e., the first step of ideology critique without the decisive second moment. This raises some questions: are all working-class intellectuals necessarily also critics of ideology? And are all bourgeois intellectuals necessarily limited to myth-critical discourse? By no means. We are not interested in making global claims based on ironclad causal explanations. Rather than speaking of the "ability" or "possibility" of bourgeois and/or working-class intellectuals to be this or that, we will instead speak of "inclinations," which are visible and manifest without being rigid determinations. We say that bourgeois intellectual discourse is inclined to rest at the level of mythology without confronting its underlying material conditions (i.e., without proceeding to a critique of ideology), while the perspective of the working-class intellectual, because of its unique circumstance, is inclined to examine these conditions insofar as they are at the root of the antagonism it embodies.

[31] We must then consider why the bourgeois intellectual is hesitant to address the conditions of possibility of the obfuscating nature of mythology, why the question of myth's material conditions does not occur to her. Whence such a disinclination? The unlikeliness of the bourgeois intellectual to address these concerns is related (though not reducible) to her belonging to or being associated with the bourgeois classes. If, as we saw with Lévi-Strauss, class is the determination of practice and identity by virtue of one's position in a social structure, if class always refers to class division, to an antagonism that finds formal expression in the praxis of the peoples caught up in this antagonism, then it should come as no surprise that the bourgeois intellectual is less apt to notice class. The "upper" portion of the Ho-Chunk imagined their village to be segregated but not opposed—simply divided in half according to the lay of the land—whereas the "lower" Ho-Chunk moiety recognized a hierarchical organizing principle, with lower members circling the upper members at the center of the village. Mutatis mutandis, the bourgeois intellectual does not recognize the division in class division. This species of myth-critic may recognize that the discursive practices of the working-class—the various material and cultural elements invoked by the term working-class—are socially conditioned and historically contingent, but she is disinclined to recognize class division or social antagonism as the determining factor in mythology. For the bourgeois myth-critic, this division is itself mythological, and thus she concludes that myth-criticism culminates at the level of discourse. Since she is not in the precarious situation of the working-class intellectual, the bourgeois intellectual is not confronted by the reality of class and class division, and is thus not inclined to inquire after the politico-material conditions of myth.

[32] When myth-criticism culminates in discourse, meaning becomes the ultimate bearer of emancipatory potential. [37] Not yet concerned with real social and material conditions of freedom and of un-freedom, the bourgeois intellectual is content to worry over how we talk about freedom. She is concerned about how to reconceive or reinterpret our current practices such that they no longer appear as reinforcements or reinstantiations of the prevailing system, but as subtle "disruptions" of it, instead of how to change the prevailing system and with it our current practices in a concrete way. [38] It becomes a question of the role of poetic language in politics rather than the role of the political in poetry. The only violence it knows is "violence to the text." This kind of myth-criticism is thus only nominal and conceals the same conditions upon which its object depends; it mistakes the mythological product for the mythological process. Insofar as it obscures the same material antagonisms obscured by mythological discourse, bourgeois myth-criticism serves, despite itself, to reinscribe the very mythology it sought to critique.

[33] A perfect example of this disinclination on the part of bourgeois intellectuals can be found in a familiar codicil that accompanies much of their academic work. They say that they will treat their subject matter with reference to "considerations of race, gender, and class." What they mean, of course, is "considerations of race and gender"—the third term is, almost always, conveniently neglected. This is not only because "class" is an ill-defined category today, but because bourgeois intellectual discourse is sufficiently insulated from the necessity of defining it at all. We do not mean to discount the momentousness of critical race and gender theory; we want only to highlight what is elided when these discourses are not situated in terms of the material relations of which they are inextricably a part. It is interesting to consider the ways in which "class" differs from "race" and "gender" (or "sexuality" or "ability") qua category. "Hierarchy" is the typical focal point of this kind of critical discourse; the problem, for most if not all critics, is not "race" or "gender" as such, but the fact that there is a system of hierarchical dichotomies in place (man over and against woman, white over and against non-white, and so on). It is possible to imagine a plurality of races and genders without the accompanying relations of domination and power. This kind of analysis does not work for the category of class, however. We cannot imagine "a plurality of classes" with no hierarchical power relations, as in this case the division would make no sense. Taking a critical, non-hierarchical stance on "considerations of class" would be nothing less than a commitment to the dissolution of class as such, and this is not something with which bourgeois intellectuals are inclined to concern themselves.

[34] If the working-class non-intellectual is disinclined to recognize mythology as mythology, and if the bourgeois intellectual recognizes mythology but is disinclined to confront the social and material conditions which sustain and are sustained by it, should we then see the working-class intellectual as the necessary supplement, compensating for what the others lack? It is true that, insofar as she is an intellectual, the working-class intellectual will critique mythological discourse which attempts to make a contingent social relation into an immutable natural reality, while insofar as she is working-class, she is inclined to recognize that these relations that are "mere social constructions" have material consequences and conditions that must be addressed if we are to address their mythological character. We fear, however, that the working-class intellectual has thus far been presented as a messianic figure, an epistemological savior who will finally deliver unto us the "truth" necessarily mystified heretofore. This is not the image we have in mind, and we will try to explain why.

[35] Which map of the Ho-Chunk village was more accurate? Lévi-Strauss saw that this question is misconstrued; we are likewise less interested in the "accuracy" of the working-class intellectual's perspective than we are in the political consequences and possibilities of her situation. It is beside the point as to whether the working-class intellectual has the means for providing the "true map" of the Ho-Chunk village. Rather, she is in the position of Lévi-Strauss himself, insofar as she can observe the discrepancy between the village maps. Reconciling the maps of the upper and lower moieties is immaterial to this project; it is rather a matter of recognizing the politico-material antagonism of which the contradictory maps are an expression. The figure of the working-class intellectual is not meant to give us a final picture of the essence of our society, but to instead reveal the material and social conditions by which our society is organized, by which intellectual and non-intellectual are opposed, by which bourgeois and working-class are opposed. The working-class intellectual is thus less a messianic figure than a looking glass. To rearticulate a point we made earlier: it is not that other groups are "incapable by nature" of coming to a similar perspective, but rather that the situation of the working-class intellectual manifests a particular inclination for this perspective.

[36] Despite (or perhaps because of) the politically significant situation of the working-class intellectual, there is an ever-present danger that she will lapse into the complacency of the bourgeois intellectual, assimilating not only to the lifestyle afforded by its avenues but also, and more importantly for us, to its myth-critical discourse. The material comforts it offers are by extension social, academic comforts. There is no guarantee that the working-class intellectual will affirm her precarious situation and maintain the first component of the compound term that defines her; denying it would remove, to a decisive if not total extent, the condition of double-alienation characteristic of this position, even if it does not remove the alienated situation of the intellectual in general. This is why the political momentousness of this figure is never more than a possibility. The working-class intellectual may become a bourgeois intellectual. Rotpeter may become human; James Gatz may become Jay Gatsby. To do this would be to jettison the politico-material dimension of the working-class intellectual's moment of critique, to bypass the "living contradiction" in the movement from one of the poles of this antinomy to the other. Kafka's story can once again help us understand the dialectics of the situation. In his report, Rotpeter insists again and again that his assimilation to the human world was only a "way out" (of his cage), and he deliberately avoids the use of the word "freedom" in describing the attractions of this new world. [39] Likewise, the world of bourgeois intellectual discourse may offer "a way out" for the working-class intellectual, a release from both the harsh material situation of her origins and from the necessity of thinking about it. It may also appear at first that the move to this myth-criticism offers a kind of freedom, i.e., freedom from mythology. But we have seen that it does not do this; the myth-criticism that does not orient itself toward the "harsh material situation" determining and determined by mythology (in our terms, myth-criticism without ideology critique) only serves to confirm and reinforce mythology. Rotpeter knows better than to associate his new domain with freedom: "I repeat: there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason." [40] Assimilation, for the working-class intellectual just as for Kafka's ape, however much it may be a way out, also forfeits the possibility of freedom.

[37] All of the distinctions we have drawn in this essay—intellectual and non-intellectual, working-class and bourgeois, myth-criticism and ideology critique—have their relevance in the context of what Marcuse calls "a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom" [41] —or, if one prefers Adorno, in "the open air prison which the world is becoming." [42] The transition to another, better form of life will not come about naturally or spontaneously. As Barthes has it, we are not "in a Moses-like situation"; we "cannot see the promised land [...] tomorrow's positivity is entirely hidden by today's negativity." [43] Positive transformation depends on the way in which we confront and take responsibility for the present situation in all of its urgency and calamity. The time when any of us could be innocent spectators has long past. For this reason, the categories laid out here take on political significance and cannot be counted only as philosophical niceties.

[38] A necessary first step is to refuse to accept mythological discourse on its own terms, and to embody the condition of alienation that is the inevitable—though perhaps only temporary—result of this refusal, to "think otherwise." Myth is "depoliticized speech," [44] and the myth-critic's task is to re-politicize it. The intellectual is a problem for political stability simply by existing, as a natural enemy of the empire of domination and dissimulation is one who sees through it, one who knows its history, its purpose, its methods. In a cultural order defined by non-intellectualism, the intellectual represents a sickness that could be threatening if left untreated. "There are no dangerous thoughts," Arendt says, "thinking itself is dangerous." [45] But the dangerous quality of the intellectual, which is based on her anomalous relation to mythology, is neutralized so long as her myth-criticism remains at the level of discourse, declining the analysis of politico-material relations and class division (i.e., so long as it is bourgeois myth-criticism and not ideology critique). This, by force of circumstance, is the predilection of most intellectuals. The momentous significance of the working-class intellectual lies in her condition of double-alienation—an anomaly as all other intellectuals are with regard to mythology, but an anomaly also among most other intellectuals, as she (at least initially) cannot elide the category of class antagonism but lives it. She finds herself neither in mythology nor in innocuous bourgeois myth-criticism, and her possible effect depends upon maintaining in a visible way this homelessness, this incongruity, this dual-anomaly. At this moment, the intellectual once again becomes a problem for the prevailing system of unfreedom. She becomes, in fact, its bad dream, its logical but unexpected result, and but for articulation, exposure, and influence, the "sickness" that the intellectual represents may spread to the whole body. What we speak of here, to borrow a frame from Sartre, is "not a future moment" but, for those of us "exiled in an unlivable present, the sudden discovery of a future." [46] The possibility of realizing this future turns on a recognition and affirmation of the condition of the working-class intellectual, on pronouncing that paradoxical term with a peculiar ring.

[39] If a new form of life did emerge, the categories "intellectual" and "working-class" would lose their meaning. There would no longer be an alienated contingent of myth-critics in a world of myth-consumption, and no longer groups of people defined according to class division and social antagonism. The culmination of the project of the working-class intellectual is simultaneously the dissolution of her condition as such. This task cannot be accomplished by a few dedicated crusaders alone, and the present essay is nothing more than an indication of possibility—like Rotpeter, we have only made a report.


[1] See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 5-14.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 143.

[4] Ibid, 131.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6] Ibid, 129.

[7] Ibid, 155.

[8] Cf. Rahel Jaeggi, "Rethinking Ideology," trans. Eva Engels, in New Waves in Political Philosophy, ed. Boudewijn de Bruin and Christopher F. Zurn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 63-86. Jaeggi takes note of a persistent problem in "ideology critique" (which is not the same as Barthes's "myth criticism," but is closely related—more on this later): "the problem of asymmetry, the seemingly unavoidably asymmetric relation between those who are subject to an ideology and the viewpoint of critique or of the critics who recognize it as ideology" (80). Like us, she wants to relinquish the image of the ideology/myth critic as having an unobstructed view of objective, non-ideological/mythological reality while maintaining the asymmetry characteristic of the critic: "To point out the mechanisms of 'decontestation' and naturalization obviously requires a break with a perception of oneself and the world that has become second nature. On the other hand, however, such a hermeneutics of suspicion would still be a hermeneutics" (ibid).

[9] Barthes himself considers a form of this objection. We can only point the reader to his interesting and complex response in Barthes, 12.

[10] Ibid, 156.

[11] See ibid, 146-147.

[12] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Volume One (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 174-175.

[13] Ibid, 177.

[14] Ibid, 191.

[15] Ibid, 188.

[16] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), 25.

[17] François Zourabichvili, Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event, trans. Kieran Aarons, eds. Gregg Lambert and Daniel W. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 64.

[18] Barthes, 138.

[19] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, trans. anonymous (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1964), 19.

[20] This is not to say that the intellectual must be an academic or that intellectual discourse is limited to academic discourse.

[21] Cf. Bruno Latour: "The Zeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert." See "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern," in Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004), 239.

[22] Cf. C. Wright Mills: "In the world of today the more [the intellectual's] knowledge of affairs grows, the less impact his thinking seems to have. If he grows more frustrated as his knowledge increases, it seems that knowledge leads to powerlessness. He comes to feel helpless in the fundamental sense that he cannot control what he is able to foresee." See White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 157.

[23] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Martin Hammond (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 72 (Book 8, section 4).

[24] Martin Glaberman, "Marxist Views of the Working Class: Lecture from Marxist Institute in Toronto, September 17, 1974," accessed February 1st, 2014. «https://www.marxists.org/archive/glaberman/1974/09/wclass.htm»

[25] "The classic sociological definition is one of income, $10,000 to $15,000 is lower middle class, $15,000 to $20,000 is upper middle class, and so on. That is, of course, very neat—it takes care of everybody; nobody is left out; everybody belongs to some class. But in real life there are a lot of marginal people. In which class is the guy who runs a gas station, puts in 80 hours a week, pumps gas, gets his hands dirty, but also employs half a dozen people and makes a profit? If you really have to define everybody, then you are not in the business of making revolutions, you are in the business of defining people." See ibid.

[26] Claude Lévis-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1967), 133.

[27] Ibid, 135f.

[28] For a more detailed discussion of this experiment, and Fichte's upbringing more generally, see Anthony J. LaVopa, Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 154.

[29] Likewise, though intellectuals tend to congregate in academia, the categories "intellectual" and "academic" are not mutually inclusive.

[30] See Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Mineola, New York: Dover, 1994), 147-148.

[31] Franz Kafka, "A Report to an Academy," trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, in The Complete Stories, ed, Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 251.

[32] Ibid, 253.

[33] See Jaeggi, 66.

[34] See Ibid, 68.

[35] The content-oriented understanding of "ideology" offered here is by no means the only one possible. See Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Žižek (New York: Verso, 1994).

[36] Although we make use of his articulation of myth-criticism, we by no means count Barthes among those who practice it while neglecting the critique of ideology.

[37] We might recall Verena Andermatt Conley's depiction of Hélène Cixous's presence at The University of Paris at Vincennes, as quoted by Toril Moi: "Cixous used to enter the complex in a dazzling ermine coat whose capital worth most probably surpassed the means of many in the classroom. Her proxemics marked a progressive use of repression. As a replica of Bataille's evocation of Aztec ceremony, she surged from the context of the cheaply reinforced concrete of classroom shelters. She then became a surplus value and a zero-degree term, the sovereign center of a decorous, eminently caressive body where her politics splintered those of an archaic scene in which the king would have his wives circulate around him." We are unsure what this means—which may betray our working-class backgrounds—but it remains clear that Conley obfuscates the fact that lecturing in an ermine coat reflects certain politico-material conditions and attitudes toward class. The bourgeois intellectual is willing to forgive such an extravagant display of personal wealth, transforming it into a transgressive and revolutionary gesture that "splinters" the politics of an "archaic scene." Moi sardonically remarks, "Ermine as emancipation: it is odd that the women of the Third World have been so ludicrously slow to take up Cixous's sartorial strategy." See Moi's Sexual Textual Politics (London: Routledge, 1985), 125f.

[38] Cf. David Harvey: "What remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organized oppositional channels, in the hope that small-scale actions and local activism can ultimately add up to some kind of satisfactory macro alternative. This left, which strangely echoes a libertarian and even neoliberal ethic of anti-statism, is nurtured intellectually by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and all those who have reassembled postmodern fragmentations under the banner of a largely incomprehensible post-structuralism that favours identity politics and eschews class analysis." See Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xii-xiii.

[39] Kafka, 253.

[40] Ibid, 257.

[41] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 1.

[42] Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), 34.

[43] Barthes, 157.

[44] Barthes, 143.

[45] Arendt, "Thinking and Moral Considerations," in Social Research 38, no. 3 (1971), 435.

[46] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Communists and Peace, trans. Martha H. Fletcher and John R. Kleinschmidt (New York: George Braziller: 1968), 86.


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