Contexts of Cultural Diffusion: A Case Study of "Public Intellectual" Debates in English Canada

Article excerpt

Controversy over the "decline" and "death" of the public intellectual came to Canada in the years after it entered the discourse of the U.S. public sphere in reviews of Russell Jacoby's now famous book The Last Intellectuals (1987). Jacoby's argument was that intellectual life in the contemporary United States had become distorted by rising academic professionalism and specialization. From the perspective of this story of decline, the old fashioned but admirably civic-minded generalist intellectuals of the past had been replaced, since the 1960s, by specialized scholars who wrote about narrow technical matters in tortured prose. Starting in the late 1980s, this narrative found a receptive audience in the United States where it was adopted widely by journalists, academics, and think tank celebrities. In 2001, Richard Posner's book Public Intellectuals also made a splash, this time by pillorying public intellectuals as lightweight media celebrities who avoid peer review and produce shoddy scholarship (Posner 2001). From the early twenty-first century, the public intellectual debate had gone global and came to shape elite discourse about the role of ideas and scholarship in Australia, Great Britain, the European Union, and beyond.

Our analysis of public intellectual debates in Canada follows earlier research on the elite public sphere of the United States that analyzed intellectual attributions of public intellectual status (Townsley 2006). By downplaying the question of "who really is an intellectual" in favor of asking "who attributes intellectual status to whom and why?" that work identified the stakes at issue for different kinds of U.S. intellectuals in these debates. Underlying this analysis was a focus on cultural fields (Bourdieu 1990, 1998, 2005; Bourdieu and Passeron 1979), and especially the difference between the academic, political, and journalistic fields in structuring the reception and circulation of discourse about public intellectuals. This case study builds on this earlier research to examine the diffusion of public intellectual debates since the late 1980s through a detailed case study of English Canada.


Cultural diffusion can be defined as "the transmission, adoption, and eventual acculturation of an innovation by a recipient population" (Kaufman and Patterson 2005:83). At one level, this is the story of how the idea of the "public intellectual" diffused to Canada from the United States. At a second level, however, the idea of the "public intellectual" cannot be strictly defined as a new innovation in Canada, since it draws heavily on existing traditions associated with the universal intellectual in Western politics and culture (Eyerman 1994) and long-standing Canadian intellectual traditions both in Quebec and the Rest of Canada (ROC) (Brooks and Gagnon 1988; Brym and Myles 1988; Massolin 2001). For practical reasons, we will focus on the debate in English Canada and leave a discussion of "public intellectuals" in Quebec for another analysis, since a preliminary empirical excursion suggests the term is not used in the same way in French language journalism. (1)

The diffusion of public intellectual debates from the United States to English Canada is complicated by the shared heritage of the two countries. There are deep cultural affinities and dense overlapping intellectual networks between Canada and the United States. At the same time, there are also pronounced political differences and lingering cultural anxieties that mark the relationship. Rather than a sharp distinction between a foreign source of cultural innovation and a "recipient population" then, it is probably more accurate to say that in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of the "public intellectual" diffused in a variety of ways across unevenly globalized cultural fields in Canada (Appadurai 1996; Connell, Wood, and Crawford 2005; Jacobs and Townsley 2008, 2011). …