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Friday, 3 January 2014

The new, popular kind of public intellectual

When I was an undergraduate a common trope that worked around the traps was the idea of the "engaged" artist. Even though this was the 80s, the old Sartrean model of intellectual "engagement" dating back to the 40s and 50s preoccupied people around me at university and influenced the way we young men and women thought about ourselves. It fed our hopes for the future and worked to condition the kinds of music that we listened to and talked about with each other, and the kinds of books we read.

Sartre's vision of the engaged intellectual may have dissipated itself into endless TED talks, and into public appearances by academics in news stories, in TV news spots and at the table with politicians in committee. But creative artists are becoming engaged in novel and interesting ways, as we saw back in October when movie actor Russell Brand fronted the cameras on the BBC's Newsnight program, giving a performance that turned quickly into an internet meme, in which guise it was watched by millions.

The BBC has turned programming into a platform for engagement (using the word in both of its characteristic ways, simultaneously) again, this time its Radio 4 Thought of the Day program, where singer PJ Harvey did a stint as guest editor. The British singer invited Julian Assange onto the program to talk about the surveillance state and how our lives have been forever changed because of what has been allowed to happen in the absence of popular consent.

What the BBC has done, of course, is listen to people. The success of the Brand interview and the ability of contemporary performing artists to connect directly to their fans on social media show us that there is an appetite for material in the mainstream media that subverts predominant models of production and consumption. The BBC has just taken this awareness to its logical next point of departure by appointing a singer as a guest editor. In Australia we see a similar type of thing happening when people whose normal job is the production of cultural artifacts are brought onto talk shows like ABC's Q and A. They offer new perspectives but, more importantly, they offer completely different ways of talking, and rarely disappoint. Giving such people control over what we hear and see on TV and radio is a method of engagement - again, with both meanings - that must be applauded. I hope to see more of this in future.

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