Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
Mark Kingwell: A Very Public Intellectual
Books by Mark Kingwell:
On April 25, 2002, speaking at a symposium on the status of the "public intellectual" at the University of Illinois, American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty defined the public intellectual as someone who publishes a book on some academic topic and then uses the resulting publicity to "sound off on issues of public concern." He shared the stage with American jurist Richard Posner, who had just published a book entitled Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (2001). Posner identified the top one hundred public intellectuals in the United States. Though he criticized the quality of contemporary examples of the species, he mainly got in trouble over his definition. His prime criterion for deciding who was (and who was not) a prominent public intellectual was how many media mentions such people had received. Henry Kissinger was # 1 on his list. If I recall correctly, Kurt Vonnegut was # 21, Milton Friedman was # 34, and Posner himself was a modest but respectable # 75. W. E. B. DuBois was # 83. Christopher Hitchens did not make the list. He did not even make it into the pool of almost 600 from whom the "top 100" were selected. It did not bother him much, because he would not want to be on any roster that was headed by Henry Kissinger. That same spring, Wilfred McClay (2002) wrote, in The Public Interest, that the time might have come to close the book on public intellectuals. The subject was already "tiresome" and Posner's book was "a slapdash book by a prominent public intellectual that accuses American public intellectuals of producing shoddy goods." Perhaps it was time to retire the entire notion. I am not easily convinced that this is so.
My reluctance to do so may be rooted in the belief that the corruption of culture in the United States is not something that necessarily cancels culture elsewhere. The mere fact that broadcast "journalism" is sullied by a White House press pass in the hands of a gay prostitute who moonlights writing homophobic drivel for a united right, by CNN sensationalism, by Nancy Grace's histrionics and by Fox News' Al Capp caricatures does not mean that serious public affairs programming is now unthinkable. As well, I have an impression of a public intellectual that is a little different from the "reality TV" version put forward by Judge Posner. Amusing inventories from the Irving Wallace family's Book of Lists (1977) to David Letterman's nightly "Top Ten" are sometimes fun, but they do not count as serious social analysis. Like fantasy baseball teams they are just made up from social flotsam and cultural jetsam. Recombinant senior common room scenes of postmodern whimsy, they are constructed from sampler catalogues of virtual universities and remain aloof from anything resembling academic reality, much less the "real world." I try to play a somewhat differentthough no more reputablemind game.
When thinking about public intellectuals, I tend to conjure up a Parisian setting about fifty-five years ago. I imagine Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus smoking Galois cigarettes, drinking red wine and bickering amiably about existentialism or the Communist Party. I picture Simone de Beauvoir dropping by and all three discussing the reviews of their latest novels or yesterday's newspaper editorials about events in Algeria or a convenient miners' strike. They were "artistes engagés." They were public intellectuals. Their art was put in the service of society, or at least that part of society that they chose to serve. So were Thomas Henry Huxley and George Orwell. So were Ezra Pound and J. B. S. Haldane and Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag and John Kenneth Galbraith. So were similar sorts of people in Poland and Argentina and India and all those countries with which insular North Americans like me remain pitifully ignorant. Mostly these were partisans of the political left, except when they were not. Ezra Pound certainly was not. Nor were the people (Like Raymond Aron? Like Maurice Cranston? Like Lewis S. Feuer? Like Sidney Hook? Like Frank Kermode? Like Arthur Koestler? Like Seymour Martin Lipset? Like Stephen Spender?) who edited and wrote for Encounter, knowing of its covert CIA funding.
Such public intellectuals lived and worked in societies that were literate, but within a material culture that pre-dated palm pilots and text messaging. They were not exotic mystics, tribal sages or antique ranters. They were even unlike Siddhartha Gautama or Jesus or Hiawatha, none of whom, it is often alleged, ever wrote a book, though the first two seem at least to have had secretarial assistance and the third a devoted scribe in the form of the poet Longfellow. Full-fledged public intellectuals, however, require a sufficiently well developed division of labour to permit the emergence of the distinct social role of intellectual and sufficiently well developed social arrangements to permit the clear separation of what is public from what is private. In Greece, they could not have arisen long before Pericles, and within the ambit of Rome, they probably knew what it meant to "give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." In their time, they relied mainly on print or, at most, the older broadcast media of radio and television to address the public. Most importantly, they were people of genuine achievement, not merely in the academy but in the arts and sciences more inclusively defined. Their fame was based on important work that brought them to the attention of both their professional peers and what Robertson Davies called the "clerisy," the attentive public. They had to be more than influential; they had to seek to influence. Though chronology could be confused and lines of demarcation blurred, I like to think that they were intellectuals first and public figures afterwards. They certainly were not instant experts flogging a sloppy paperback best-seller on some cultural "crise du jour."
In 1987, the historian Russell Jacobydiagnostician of the "social amnesia" that debilitates what we paradoxically, if not preposterously, call our "information society" lamented the decline of outspoken men and women of high artistic, scholarly and scientific achievement. In The Last Intellectuals, he outlined the triple threat to the persistence of independent and engaged intellectualism. It came, he said, in the form of "gentrification, suburbanization, and academic careerism." To this, I would add the political economy of corporatism. The problem is not just the one that he and public intellectuals like Gore Vidal might identify. They are quite right to say that gritty, oppositional and ardent critics are overshadowed in institutes of higher learning. They are correct to say that universities and colleges are, at most, the disconnected and protected spawning ground of loudmouths with tenure whose intellectual triumphs are built on the shifting sands of academic fashions and peer review and are therefore of dubious merit. They cannot be gainsaid for stressing that most academics talk only to one another and remain oblivious to the public, except when its children disturb their research by insisting on being taught a time or two. The days of the solitary writer in an urban garret are pretty much gone. The instances of a self-selected bohemian critical mass of socially marginal geniuses are few, and those that occasionally occur are not apt to get air-time, or to be published and distributed by mass-market corporate communications behemoths. Subtle (and sometimes not so subtle pressure) has transformed people with passion into sound bite celebrities whose status as media pundits is as enduring as their make-up and as sincere as their booking agents. Remember: Alvin Toffler once wrote a creditable and critical little book called The Culture Consumers (1964), but he gained fame only with such puff as Culture Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980), which transformed him into a public intellectual mainly in the eyes of Newt Gingrich. It is not that there is an absence of critical minds willing and eager to challenge social convention and bring corporate leadership, mass followership and toxic economic, political and environmental issues to public attention. The real problem lies with the inability of authentic intellectuals to penetrate the increasingly controlled world of public discourse. Debate still exists, of course, but it is largely scripted and made-for-TV fakery. Even ideological polarization is micromanaged by technocrats. Comedians, the tolerated "fooles" of late capitalism know this: so, Jon Stewart managed to embarrass CNN into dumping its fake debate show, Crossfire. Good for Jon Stewart.II
In Canada, the rise of the public intellectual can be plotted on a short trajectory. Excluding immigrants such as George Woodcock, it is hard to think of many Canadians who have combined intellectual achievement with public intervention. Stephen Leacock might be considered. So might Frank Underhill and Harold Adams Innis. Marshall McLuhan (though he stands in a rather singular category, as yet unnamed) and Pierre Trudeau could, perhaps, be acknowledged, but the grounds are shaky. Likewise, a cadre of (neo)conservative professors including Michael Bliss, Jack Granatstein, Robert Bothwell, David Bercuson, and Barry Cooper have certainly been winning radio and television time to promulgate their particular litany, but somehow even they do not seem to merit the title. If the truth is to be told, I can think of only one Canadian who could wear the mantle lightly; so can Mark Kingwell. This is what he said about him (Quoted in Rigelhof, 2004, p. 138): "George Grant was a towering force in the intellectual life of this country, perhaps the first truly public intellectual Canada has produced. Irascible, opinionated and arrogant, he attacked enemies of wisdom with verve, charm and tenacity." All things considered, that is not a bad definition of what a public intellectual is.III
But what about Mark Kingwell? I confess a measure of jealousy. He was born in the year that I entered undergraduate school. He has certainly caught me (and pretty much everyone else) up and whizzed past us into fame and, if not immense fortune, at least a fair start on one. I, for one, will never catch up. Mark Kingwell's academic bona fides are impeccable. He has degrees from three countries, the last being a Ph.D. from Yale. He teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto when he is not otherwise engaged in spots such as New York University and the Royal Ontario Museum. What is more, he has done a lot of serious writing. His most serious work has won extensive praise from important academics.
Simone Chambers (1995) has spoken of his book A Civil Tongue as an "an intelligent and innovative contribution to the 'dialogic turn' in contemporary theories of justice." Kingwell adheres to a formidable tradition of scholarship that endorsing the "talking cure" for political difficulties. This is not as banal as it sounds. Kingwell champions reason and forbearance, civility and tolerance as genuine virtues. He can also be relentless in his criticism of the superficial, aesthetically empty, unfulfilling quality of modern products and modern life. He constantly chastises the concept of culture as commodity and the media as contributors to consumerism. These, he contends, corrupt our community and corrode civility. Against the assembled weight of Wal-mart and Time-Warner, he continues to uphold an ideal of citizenship that, if only it could be more robust, would help us along the road to resolving conflicts not only among active belligerents but between ourselves and the world we fail to enjoy.
In The World We Want, Mark Kingwell brings a wide range of thought to bear on what it means to be a good citizen. He castigates both "the banality of evil" and "the evil of banality." If this sounds like a civics lesson, it is; and it is a rather good one. Its core elements may not be novel. They resemble the ancient description of a polity, a community in which people took an active interest in their common affairs and in which the private individual was not despised as evil but dismissed as useless. It reiterates Henry Kariel's belief that increasing the opportunities for individual involvement in the public domain would not only provide the best available bulwark against tyranny but would immeasurably enhance the quality of our own depleted and hollow version of democracy (1966). It has much in common, as well, with Jürgen Habermas' universal pragmatics and his concept of an "ideal speech situation" in which people of good faith could come together in a non-coercive environment and resolve differences wisely and wella situation of pure politics (Doughty, 2003, Habermas 1970). As Chambers adds: "Like others working in this area, Mark Kingwell sees dialogue and the mutual or civic understanding that can be engendered through dialogue as a procedure for mediating pluralism and arriving at just and legitimate solutions to political disputes." To do so successfully, however, implies that participants must achieve a measure of equality and communicative competence. This will not easily be won.
Kingwell is not only interested in the evolution of citizenship toward what we may hope is its fulfillment in a genuinely democratic community. He is also interested in the culture of our society as it strides, or stumbles, through the first decade of the current millennium. His turn-of-the-century celebration, Canada: Our Century, is quite a different project than his philosophical writing. It is a picture book in which he and Christopher Moore supply brief commentaries and briefer captions. We learn that "a photograph is … rich in pathos, freighted with existential payloads, vibrant with meaningor with deception." Herein we see photographs of a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Vancouver in July, 1930, a collage of Gordie Howe pictures in 1960, and a Mohawk Warrior blockade at Oka in 1990, plus four hundred and ninety-seven morea coffee table book, save that it is too small (9"x 7"), too thick (over 500 pages) and too densely packed with mainly black and white images to be suitably attractive. Something other than linking ancient Athens to contemporary Canada through the medium of exegeses on the thought of Aristotle and Augustine, Arendt and Adorno is happening.
Mark Kingwell is not only a student of popular culture, but a (mostly) cheerful participant. He leaves the university to speak directly to all of us. He covers the political map as a newspaper columnist for the right-wing National Post, an editor at the almost as right-wing Globe and Mail, the elitist Queen's Quarterly and at the left-wing journal This Magazine. His articles appeared in the conservative Canadian magazine Saturday Night and the liberal US magazine Harper's. He writes on sports for the New York Times Magazine, Reader's Digest and Auto Racing Weekly. And, to top it off, he is listed with the International Speakers Bureau. So, if you don't want to take his classes or read his books, he will come and chat with you and your group for a price.
Kingwell's most recent contribution to our collective imagination is Catch and Release, a synthesis of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and A River Runs Through It. Reluctantly retreating from the jazzy atmosphere of a graduate seminar, the ruthless bloodletting of a panel discussion at the forthcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in London, Ontario, the anxiety of choosing the right outfit in which to meet an internationally revered publisher, Kingwell is dragged into the wilderness. His quest is to endure a fishing expedition with his father and brothers. He speaks earnestly and in italics: "I must learn to stop worrying about not doing things and simply enjoy the not-doing of everything."
My daughter loves fishing. She will spend hours casting and reeling, casting and reeling. She is very good at it. She doesn't much care if she catches a fish. She also does not feel the need to talk about it. I also have friends who play golf. They sometimes feel the need to speak of it and, when they do, they try to capture the serenity of self-abandonment. They lose themselves in the moment. So, eventually, does Mark Kingwellbut not without dragging God and David Hume, Odysseus and the etymology of "nostalgia," Juvenal and Dr. Johnson, Nietzsche and Hegel, John Donne, Charles Dickens and Richard Dawkins, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Marx, Freud and Dionne Warwick into his concluding chapter on "Comfort." He speaks of "imaginary deathbed psychodrama." He alerts us to "the salubrity of country air." His sagacious counsel: "Go fishing."
This sort of talk can get him in a heap of trouble. So can his wardrobe. In his frequently autobiographical moments, he tells us what he likes to wear. His concern for his clothes is triangulated by Alexander King's thirty-year addiction to pink neckties, reactionary septuagenarian Tom Wolfe's uniform white suits and the annual Playboy magazine (vintage 1963) feature on what the well-dressed frat boy will be wearing this Fall.
Balancing himself between dandyism and the demeanor of a college don, Kingwell most frequently speaks in a conversational style, while all the while posing and lecturing. His intentions are good, humane and sometimes close to inspirational. I will not chide him, as others have, for failing to lay out what is now fashionably called a road map to the destination of a global citizenry, of only benign cultural differences, and of transnational military and economic structures dominated by postmodern Vulcans and hyper-tech weaponry that synthesize Islam, Texas and the indomitable spirit and metrosexual subtlety of the Klingons. Like Kant, he posits an ethical and political ideal. Perhaps unrealizable, it nevertheless sets a reasonable standard by which we can accurately measure our failure. To the extent that it also offers encouragement to anyone wishing to save the world from itself, it would be churlish to withhold support. Besides, Mark Kingwell is a cheerful fellow. He increasingly talks about happiness.
In Better Living, he tells us that the question concerning happiness "is a good one, indeed a very good one. It is both answerable and important, and not just for instrumental reasons either. We can speak meaningfully about happiness and we can do so with intelligence and with reasonable prospect of results." In general, he approves of the seemingly modest yet practically formidable formula of Alcoholics Anonymous. He notes, approvingly, that Bertrand Russell, in his youth, rejected the "golden mean … with scorn and indignation," only to learn in maturity that "the truth is not always interesting."
In order to fillet out of modern culture the few bits and shards of reality that might support citizenship, moderation and happiness, Kingwell must attend to the world of body piercing, prescription drugs, motivational speakers and professional sports. He affirms the necessity of this exploration in stirring terms: "One cannot shirk the terrible duty of philosophy: to descend into the messy streets of what we sometimes call, misleadingly, 'the real world.' It is there and only there, that the genuine battles over identity, happiness and the good life can be fought and, possible, won."
Here he is, then, the intellectual gone public. He shares with the rest of us the experience of the shopping mall and the easy seduction of advertising and the painful seductions of mid-life crisis. Redemption does not come easily. Kingwell would surely like to provide something less dour than the mantras of self-control, no matter how prettily worded by ancient Cynics and Stoics and Epicureans, nor ennobled by the reflections and the redemption of Boethius. The Buddhism of Marcus Aurelius and the pragmatism of the Buddha are hard to accept in a society built on media jolts, Mary Kay pep rallies and the celebration of the frenetic in a hand-held channel changer. We live lives of noisy desperation, and Kingwell wants us to ascend from hedonism to what is technically called eudaimonism. Good character is required of us, but even "character" is now being marketed in schools and chambers of commerce by the hucksters of easy virtue.
Kingwell is too clever to become trapped in platitudes. He is a good philosopher. He has a good message. And he can be funny. He is advertised by his agents as "hilarious" and sometimes he is. He also knows what he is up against. To climb up the mountain of celebrity is dangerous. To be a popular philosopher is to risk unpopularity with the sloggers back at the base camp. Even to venture into the light-headed mists of popular culture, much less to attract a bit of attention, is to risk disapproval. Of his adventures in the thin atmosphere of everyday existence, Kingwell smiles and says that his colleagues "don't like it much." But they should! Kingwell (1999) is perfectly right when he says that "political theory cannot ignore its social and cultural contexts. I think that writing on popular culture is a natural extension of the teaching mission. And by that token I see cultural theory and criticism as branches of political theory. But it is not a view that is widely held." It is then mentioned that Socrates "took philosophy to the agora and was a media star in his own right." Kingwell says reflectively: "It's always good to be in the company of Socrates."
This is where a critical problem comes up. Getting too close to popularity and popular culture can bite. Eye, a corporately owned alternative weekly in Toronto, did not take one of Kingwell's books any better than his sometimes splenetic senior colleagues: "Light, bright and trite," writes Gregory Boyd Bell, "Mark Kingwell's Marginalia collects previously published journalism and sprinkles some pompous asides in its generous margins. Cheerfully dismissive, its critic brushes off Kingwell's concern for what's happening on the streets. He sneers at the academic "take" on pop culture, a branch of "academia that grapples with questions like: 'What's with kids these days?' and 'What's with this Internet thing?'" The professors do not want him befouling the canon by taking it to the streets; the street people (or their self-appointed journalistic champions) do not want a pompous blowhard with a well-used library card adopting the pretence of being among them, perhaps one of them, pretending to be their leader. The impression is there, for anyone willing to notice, that Kingwell is not only letting down the side as far as the intellectuals are concerned, but is also missing the point among the public. Perhaps it is not the intellectual but the public that has declined, or has at least been reconfigured.IV
To assist with the reconfiguration, it is time to catch a lifeline from Arthur Kroker. Mark Kingwell has been trolling popular culture looking for bytes. Arthur Kroker has been learning how the flies are made, testing the lines and watching what happens to the fish. Mark Kingwell used to think he was "vying for the much-coveted title of 'the new Marshall McLuhan.'" (Dreams of Millennium, p. 155). Some think he was won it. McLuhan ran his little Centre for Culture and Technology from an antique building on a remote part of the University of Toronto campus; Arthur Kroker has moved to the West Coast. His Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture has given first billing to technology. Accordingly, he mainly floats in cyberspace and can be accessed at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. While Kingwell is talking polity to Edvard Munch's screamers, Kroker is stalking the Internet and detailing what he calls the "recline of Western civilization." Kroker announces that 'the computer has no memory, if by memory we mean the presence of political judgement and aesthetic reflection.' (Quoted in Doughty, 2005) Everything is data in cold storage! We experience "memory crash" as digital communication abandons chronology, pattern and coherence in the assembly of information. Recombinant history cobbled together from decontextualized data and reassembled by android processors in what Kroker calls, "transactional space" defines the nihilism of postmodern virtuality. The juxtaposition of incongruous "memes" for didactic or aesthetic purposes produces a collage culture and implies the willingness to test the boundaries of reason; but, when judgmental agnosticism goes further and seeks to erase those specific boundaries or to deny the legitimacy of any boundaries at all, it becomes monstrous. It allows "creation science" equal time with evolution. It permits UFOlogy the same status as astronomy. In the name of an uncritical cultural relativity, it equates cannibalism with faux-French cuisine, no longer distinguishing between Hannibal Lecter and the spectre of Julia Child. It goes far beyond Jeremy Bentham's crude utilitarian admonition that the quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is the equal of poetry, for it dispenses both with all empirical standards of judging facts and with any normative standards, even those that might privilege pleasure over pain.
In the essay, "A Platitude," which closed Technology and Empire, George Grant (1970) concluded that all languages of good except the language of the drive for freedom have disintegrated, so it is just to pass some antique wind to speak of goods that belong to man as man. Yet the answer is always the same: if we cannot so speak, then we can either only celebrate or stand in silence before that drive. Only in listening for the intimations of deprivation can we live critically in that dynamo.
Mark Kingwell knows this, and keeps speaking in cheerful, measured tones, as if we had all read our past masters and were prepared to let him show us how their thought can redeem us. Arthur Kroker plays us a cyberpunk cacophony of deprival. His recombinant, mutant, metamorphosed, total immersion, postmodernist, postcapitalist, postcommunist, poststructuralist, posthistorical, postcritical, pre-posthumous cant may irritate some and dazzle others. Mark Kingwell (1996, p. 75) surely hit the mark when he suggested that "a lot of Kroker's fans don't really know what the books mean but they like them anyway". He also notices Kroker's clothing ("clad all in de rigueur theory-guy black"). Kroker descends into lucidity often enough to remind us that our culture is degenerating. When he sometimes displays what seems like a lurid interest in the cyber-fringes of body piercing and automated bank tellers, he is only lightly masking an urgent sense of loss. Both Kroker and Kingwell are after the same prize, the rescue of what's left of our civilization from the maw of postmodernity. What Kroker knows is that the old form of the public intellectual has been vaporized. Mark Kingwell might know it too, but he is willing to play out the role hoping, perhaps, that he might be recast when the play is rewritten. Meanwhile, the Internet has captured the audience. Bloggers take up the slack as the large institutions of communication and education go remote. It is the same pattern that McLuhan perceived. The alphabet made redundant the memorization of the epic poem. Punctuation tore reading from the monasteries. Movable type spread the word. The telephone put an end to conversation. E-mail eliminates letters and literacy.
Informationforget understanding, forget analysis, forget interpretation, forget wisdomis entertainment. This is known to the media. So, writes Frank Rich in the Sunday New York Times (2005), "Peter Jennings devotes two hours of prime time to playing peek-a-boo with U.F.O. fanatics, a whorish stunt crafted to deliver ratings, not information." Dr. Hunter S. Thompson would be "spinning in his grave had he not asked that his remains be shot out of a cannon." It is becoming a popular way to exit this vale of tears. A second-hand acquaintance, a Vietnam veteran with training in munitions was a member of a militia in New "Life Free or Die" Hampshire. All members of that tribe have agreed to have their ashes blasted from cannons. He chose one of American Civil War vintage. Hunter Thompson, it seems, didn't invent it.
Reluctant as I am to concede that any of this is true, that it speaks to our current condition, I confess that it might be and, if so, that I am powerless to reply. I do understand that things are changing. They always are. Dr. Johnson and Boswell do not hang at Starbucks. Oliver Stone teaches us history and shows how that Persian tyrant looked remarkably like Saddam Hussein. The Trojan War is refought with better special effects than Homer imagined and, besides, does anyone really care who won? Is it "relevant"?
I am already left behind by Kingwell, to say nothing of Kroker. I take little solace from someone once saying that Jean-Paul Sartre was like an exciting lover; Albert Camus was a faithful husband and so it is with Kroker and Kingwell. I am uncomfortable with the necessity of adultery. I also take no comfort in knowing all this was foretold by Max Weber (1958, p. 182) a century ago:
"No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For at the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.'"
Still, we must endeavor to make something out of what is so forcefully before us as we continue to measure the success of our students according to the dictates of standardized learning objectives, measurable performance outcomes, concepts of mastery of a curriculum that we deliver like pizza, like piston rods, barely recognizing that our pedagogy is absurd.References Bell, G. (1999, September 23). Slapdash snacks and empty calories. eye.
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Howard Doughty teachers philosophy and cultural anthropology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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