Saturday, February 23, 2008
The Modern Public Intellectual in Los Angeles
Los Angeles is often considered the capital of global entertainment and world media, and has enabled intellectuals of the twenty first century to host their ideas and thoughts both virtually and definitively throughout the city’s various networks. The city’s connection to major news organizations, like the Los Angeles Times, as well as the dominating relationship between the city and the motion picture industry, can not be overlooked when examining the modern public intellectual. In addition, L.A. is a host to some of the nations most prestigious academic institutions, which fosters an alternative environment to the “brainless” world produced by the entertainment industry. The rich cultural atmosphere in Los Angeles stems from the racial diversity present throughout the metropolis, not to mention the vast amount of museums and exhibits located all over the city. All of these factors have aided in generating a unique fertilization between the intellectual community and the general population and blended the two worlds together.
This proposal may seem difficult to understand at first, so let us examine the work of one of the city’s Public Intellectuals in order to clarify my suggestion. Stacy Smith received her Ph.D from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and joined the faculty at the University of Southern California in 2003. Her research focuses on children’s responses to mass media portrayals of violence, gender, and hypersexuality in television, film, and video games 1. Dr. Smith is hired by organizations in the entertainment industry to examine issues of representation in hope of creating more realistic and fair portrayals of gender and ethnicity. Her most recent work with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reveals that movies “need to create more female characters with aspirations beyond romance” and that movies and certain TV categories “need more characters of color, especially female characters of color as main characters, minor characters, narrators, and in crowds.” In altering the current standards for film and television, individuals exposed to these particular “misrepresentations” will no longer think that they are appropriate or right. So, why does this matter? Dr. Smith is making a “public argument, grounding it in reason and evidence” to “puncture the mythmakers [the entertainment industry] of our era 2.” She destroys the tale created by the motion picture industry that males should always be the star of a film, playing leading roles way more often than females. As Stephen Mack notes, “the measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.” Dr. Smith’s work is worth talking about, and even more so, worth acting upon to create positive change in the mass media.
Another public intellectual based in the Los Angeles community is Mike Davis. Davis’ work focuses on examining the political and social topography throughout the city, looking at the role of public spaces and natural disasters that dominate the region. His literature takes on a negative and dark tone and has become part of Los Angeles’ urban dictionary, “redefining L.A. almost overnight 3.” Although he is a college graduate, his work does not stem from academic knowledge but rather from his profound connection to the place he calls home. Davis brings up issues throughout his elaborate theological discussion on Los Angeles that directly relate to the public, for he is talking about the city in a fashion that should draw concern from its inhabitants. Davis is now a professor in the history department at the University of California, Irvine.
Each of these figures relationship to major universities in the greater Los Angeles area illustrates the important role that academic institutions play in producing intellectual knowledge that allows the public intellectual to make some larger statement. This is not to say that a public intellectual must be endowed with a college degree of any kind, but to suggest that the major universities positioned throughout the city help to produce certain ideas that are of serious ‘public concern.’ For instance, both the University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine function as centers for research. Stacy Smith would not have been able to comment on gender portrayals in the mass media without empirically analyzing the data. The observations that are made and the findings that are uncovered allow intellectuals to become public intellectuals when they reveal their results (that must be of public importance) to the greater population.
These two particular ‘public intellectuals’ are figures that make their ideas and suppositions a matter of concern for the greater Los Angeles community and work to break down the barriers between the intellectual community and the general population. The ‘modern’ public intellectual understands the importance of transcending this barrier and addresses their audience in a way that previous intellectuals have failed to conquer – by being part of the group they are speaking to they are able to take issues of concern and expound the importance of addressing these concepts upon a given community. Even more interesting, the role of being a public intellectual in Los Angeles is done so in an inimitable way found no where else in the world. What I mean is that Los Angeles fosters the growth and development of public intellectualism in a multitude of professional fields, where each character is able to transcend the limitations of their own calling to communicate with others in the area on issues of ‘deep public concern.’ The academic community has been able to communicate directly with those who may not be directly involved in the “university world” and vice versa.
The digital revolution that has taken place over the last twenty years has aided in forming the modern public intellectual. Los Angeles’ role as a leader in this new age of communication has allowed public intellectuals to address issues of concern to an entire community in a matter of minutes. But just because someone makes a statement on his or her online blog regarding issues of public concern does not make that individual a public intellectual. I agree with Mack in that the statement must be bounded by “reason and evidence” and also believe that the larger community must recognize the issue as important and deem it worthy for discussion and action. The public intellectuals that reside in the Los Angeles community have an air of influence over the city’s social and political climate. Policymakers and public officials often rely on these intellectuals for guidance on what issues to address and act on in their individual campaigns. It has become a qualification for those involved in the arts and cultural events that frequently take place in Los Angeles to partake and understand the ‘intellectual ideas’ in circulation throughout the city. It has become easier to be a public intellectual in the twenty first century because of the elaborate and numerous ways to infiltrate the ‘public,’ but what has not changed is the necessity for the issues discussed to be of significant importance to the larger community.