The Intellectual Does Not Exist


There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.
He couldn’t speak, since he didn’t have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.
He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine, and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! Therefore there’s no knowing whom we are even talking about.
In fact it’s better that we don’t say any more about him.

Daniil Kharms, Blue Notebook No. 10

The above-cited lines by Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms were written in 1937 and allow for many different ‘applications’. They seem, however, particularly suited to metaphorically account for the fate of the modern public intellectual. He–usually a man–was once credited with immense enlightening and revolutionary potential, invested with excessive rational powers and unsurpassed ethical status, acknowledged as a ‘subject supposed to know’ what is to be done. But only to be gradually revealed as a rationalistic solipsist, blind to the contingency and the limits of his supposedly universal knowledge (no eyes, ears and nose); as a spineless servant of the powers of the day (no back and no spine); at best as a well-meaning but impotent figure (no arms and legs). Perhaps it is, indeed, better if we don’t talk about him anymore. Perhaps we should burry him together with the grand narratives he has often served, side by side with the objectivist knowledge he attempted to animate, in the same grave with the many ultimately destructive prescriptions he helped formulate and impose.

Of course, intellectuals, in the broad sense of the word, have all but disappeared. Rather, what we have witnessed is the passage from the universal, organic, usually Leftist intellectual who was acknowledged as ‘master of truth and justice’ and ‘bearer of universality’ to the specialized, technocratic intellectual, to what Michel Foucault used to call ‘specific intellectual’, one whose power and appeal is founded on his ‘local’ knowledge and not on his universal values (Foucault 1991). This is the intellectual of ‘knowledge society’, a practitioner of what Lacan calls ‘Discourse of the University’: a mode of structuring the social bond in which scientific knowledge–a technocratic knowledge beyond Left and Right–is invested as the ultimate foundation of hierarchical order and power structures.

This was certainly an ambiguous process. Back in the 1970s, Foucault was far from pessimistic in his evaluation of the ‘specific intellectual’. He viewed her/his ‘local’ struggle within the power/knowledge nexus as more important than ever. The specific intellectual would be able to struggle where it mattered most: inside the domains of ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, ‘consciousness’ etc. He would be able to problematize this nexus from the inside. In an exchange with Bernard Henri-Levy he concluded: ‘I dream of the intellectual destroyer of evidence and universalities, the one who, in the inertias and constraints of the present, locates and marks the weak points, the openings, the lines of power, who incessantly displaces himself …’ (Foucault 1999: 155).

Russel Jacoby has also highlighted this shift from ‘the old image of intellectuals as marginalized dissenters who attack injustice’ to ‘their new insider status as career professionals’. Just from the choice of words, it becomes obvious that Jacoby is less optimistic than Foucault. Writing in 2000, he casts doubt on the critical promise of the specific intellectual. In Jacoby’s words: ‘To put this sharply, once intellectuals were outsiders who wanted to be insiders. Now they are insiders who pretend to be outsiders – a claim that can be sustained only by turning marginality into a pose’ (Jacoby 2000: 38-9). Indeed, standing at the threshold between the inside and the outside, postmodern intellectuals are faced with an impossible task: having to negotiate a course between the Scylla of being absorbed and co-opted by the system–apparently not such a bad deal for people starting their academic career as members of the new lumpenproletariat of contract lecturers and then subjected to a myriad of disciplinary techniques under the name of ‘quality assessment’–and the Charybdis of a nostalgic return to the bygone era of universal dissent – a fantasy mostly enacted by the few who have finally ‘made it’ and thus have nothing to lose but, too often, much to gain.

One way or the other, what seems to suffer is the critical function of knowledge in our societies. What if, however, the impossibility is even more radical than that? If only intellectuals could really restore the critical function of knowledge! But, in reality, does anybody still care about that? Does anybody still believe in that? (apart from some intellectuals–and aspiring intellectuals-themselves, I mean). Isn’t it clear by now that, far from enhancing the appeal and effectivity of critique, far from liberating imagination, Knowledge (with a capital k) has failed to deliver on its emancipatory promise?

Jacoby seems to blame the increasing complexity of intellectual discourse for that outcome: ‘Often quoted is Fred Jameson’s defence of critical theory as requiring complex language rather than the repressive nature of common sense and lucidity…. The point is well taken; but it is also misleading … The issue is not the difficulty of writing, but the fetish of difficulty, the belief that fractured English, name dropping, and abstractions guarantee profundity, professionalization, and subversion. With this belief comes the counter-belief: lucidity implies banality, amateurism, and conservatism’ (Jacoby 2000: 49). But, unfortunately, this is far from a mere problem of communication. The real problem is that in both cases–whether one defends lucidity or difficulty–what is never questioned is that what is being transmitted is something precious that has, by itself, the ability to change the fate of society and the course of history – if only people, the masses, could access it. Only those who have access might be saved!

Alas, a small detail is missing here: the dimension of desire. What if people do not want to be saved? Or, more precisely, what if, although they say and may consciously want their freedom, they simultaneously desire servitude? (the same way that, to use a banal example, although I consciously want to lose weight, my desire is to devour a tray of baklava waiting for me in the kitchen). It may initially sound as counter-intuitive, but anybody seeking to understand how certain power structures manage to institute themselves as objects of long-term identification and how people get attached to them is sooner or later bound to encounter a variety of phenomena associated with what, since de la Boétie, has been labeled ‘voluntary servitude’. The central question here is simple: Why are people so willing and often enthusiastic – or at least relieved – to submit themselves to conditions of subordination, to the forces of hierarchical order? Why are they so keen to comply with the commands of authority, often irrespective of their content? And it is a question as old as political reasoning. The Freudian Left had already asked this question. Not only Marcuse and other members of the Frankfurt School, but also Wilhelm Reich. As he puts it in his Mass Psychology of Fascism, ‘What has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike’ (Reich 1975). The famous words of Rousseau from the second chapter of The Social Contract are heard echoing through Reich’s statement: ‘A slave in fetters loses everything – even the desire to be freed from them. He grows to love his slavery . . .’ (Rousseau 1971: 172).

Deleuze and Guattari, who–rather bizarrely–celebrated Reich as ‘the true founder of materialist psychiatry’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1984: 118), refer directly to his assertion, relating it to the problematic of desire, the same desire we have just seen Rousseau highlighting. The fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered:

Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?’ . . after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?. . . [N]o, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for (Deleuze and Guattari 1984: 29).

In his preface to the Anti-Oedipus, Foucault locates this problematic at the centre of their explorations. In his view, the strategic adversary of Deleuze and Guattari is the fascist tendencies implicit in all of us, informing our judgement and behaviour: ‘the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us’ (Foucault in Deleuze and Guattari 1984: xiii). From the Gulag to Cambodia’s K-21 and then to our post-democratic Abu-Ghraib, from everyday racism to our enslavement by promotional culture, the empirical examples are, indeed, overwhelming.

And as if this was not bad enough, even when people decide/desire to assert/enact their freedom, it is not mainly through knowledge that such freedom can be pursued. Why is that?

On the one hand, we should perhaps take more seriously Bataille’s stern warning that ‘knowledge enslaves us, that at the base of all knowledge there is a servility’ (Bataille 2004: 129), a theme further developed by Foucault in his work on the symbiotic relation between power and knowledge. Even the most radical and unsettling new theory is bound to become canonized and, eventually acquiring the status of what Thomas Kuhn called ‘normal science’, behave as a repressive orthodoxy controlling our representation of reality. There are no surprises here: ‘only the anticipated and usual are experienced, even under circumstances where anomaly is later to be observed’ (Kuhn 1996: 64). Stating the obvious becomes the only game in town and one only has to go through a list of PhD titles and abstracts in our universities to become instantly aware of that. Dealing with banal experience, with the rationalisations grafted on the automatism of natural and social reproduction, knowledge becomes part of the same banality – a banality that can have many (instrumental) uses but lacks any reflexive critical, ethical or emancipatory potential. It seems that ‘science, if one looks at it more closely, has no memory . . . it forgets the circuitous paths by which it came into being’ (Lacan 2006: 738).

On the other hand, even if it were possible to develop a trully critical type of knowledge –a knowledge produced through what Foucault’s ethics designates as a ‘reflexive practice of freedom’–; even if it were possible to engage ourselves in a permanent ‘scientific revolution’, this knowledge alone would not be able to emancipate us to the extent that it is not knowledge alone that enslaves us either, as the enlightenment model of ‘ideology as false consciousness’ wanted us to believe. Drawing on Peter Sloterdijk’s work, Zizek rightly points out that, today, ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical, which renders vain any knowledge-based critical-ideological procedure: ‘Cynical reason is no longer naïve, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it’ (Zizek 1989: 29). In a discussion with Gilles Deleuze, conducted in 1972, Michel Foucault likewise points out that the masses do not need the intellectuals in order to realize what they already know perfectly well. In other words, the illusion is not located in knowledge (Zizek 1989: 33), but predominantly operates at an affective level, at the level of jouissance: ‘beyond the field of meaning but at the same time internal to it – an ideology implies, manipulates, produces a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy’ (Zizek 1989: 125). This is why focusing merely on knowledge transmission and conscious persuasion can never really shift ideological attachments, including racism, sexism, etc. What is deconstructed on one level can still stick on another.

Knowledge, in other words, is not only partial and limited, it can also be impotent, even irrelevant; it is not only subordinated to power and politics, it is also often undermined by whatever is happening at the level of affect, passion and enjoyment, about which we can usually ‘know’ and ‘represent’ very little. All that has nothing to do, however, with some kind of nihilistic, even masochistic, acceptance of passivity and failure. Why? Not least because the registering of the limits of understanding and knowledge allows for a better, or rather a different, type of understanding: ‘one of the things we must guard most against is to understand too much . . . it is on the basis of a kind of refusal of understanding that we push open the door of analytic understanding’ (Lacan 1988: 265). Only through the assumption of this failure can theory [θεωρία] remain open to the truth of experience. The point, in other words, is not to endorse the absence of knowledge, nihilistically celebrating its disintegration, but rather to adopt a position of docta ignorantia, ‘a knowledge about the limits of knowledge, a profound awareness of the significance of not-knowing’ (Nobus and Quinn 2005: 25). Which brings us to Lacan’s most famous statement: ‘I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally [materially] impossible: words fail. Yet it’s through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real’ (Lacan 1987: 7). It is impossible to speak the whole truth. Nevertheless, one needs to try. Not in the hope that he or she will eventually manage to say it all; on the contrary, fully assuming the failure of our own words to say it: it is through this very impossibility that truth holds onto the real. Usually, our banalised knowledge is founded on the foreclosure of this impossibility, which opens a hole and reveals a void in the field of representation.

Is there a future for intellectuals within this horizon? Obviously it seems like the end of intellectuals as we know them. Nevertheless, there may still be something left for them to do, avoiding at the same time melancholy and resentment: if real critique cannot rely on Knowledge, but has to register the void of (non)knowledge, the critical intellectual can only function as a witness of this void. It is not only an ‘ecology without nature’ that we need, to cite the title of a lecture by Slavoj Zizek (Athens, October 2007); we also seem to need intellectuals without knowledge, witnesses of their own failure and their own complicity with the utopian/dystopian dreams of their Masters – both in science and politics as well as in the arts. Witnesses, martyrs, of the internal limit of the social, of a lack , which–by opening up a myriad of possibilities, sustaining thus a democracy of alternatives–constitutes a condition of possibility for the kind of post-fantasmatic, reflexive, partial freedom still accessible to us. Witnesses of the same lack that all fantasmatic orthodoxies in science and politics purport to manipulate:

the duty of the critical intellectual–if in today’s ‘postmodern’ universe this syntagm has any meaning left–is precisely to occupy all the time, even when the new order (the ‘new harmony’) stabilizes itself and again renders invisible the hole as such, the place of this hole, i.e. to maintain a distance towards every reigning Master-signifier… to render visible its ‘produced’, artificial, contingent character (Zizek 1994: 2)

If asked to provide a concrete example of such an orientation, I would very quickly point to the work of South African artist/intellectual William Kentridge. ‘I am interested in a political art’, Kentridge writes, ‘that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings – an art [and a politics] in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay’ (Kentridge 1992). Speaking about the political implications of his work, he defends his position as ‘a polemic for a kind of uncertainty’, which he wants to differentiate from relativism: ‘To say that one needs art, or politics, that incorporate ambiguity and contradiction is not to say that one then stops recognizing and condemning things as evil. However, it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of one’s own solutions. There needs to be an understanding of fallibility and how the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disasters’ (Kentridge 1999: 34).

But Kentridge is also alert to the lack of any automatic escape from the current malaise. Even more troubling than the malaise we are experiencing is the easiness with which we accommodate ourselves to it: ‘Its central characteristic is disjunction. The fact that daily living is made up of a non-stop flow of incomplete, contradictory elements, impulses and sensations. But the arresting thing for me is not this disjunction itself, but the ease with which we accommodate to it. It takes a massive personal shock for us to be more than momentarily moved’ (Kentridge 2004a: 68-9). This clearly raises the issue of personal implication, of what he calls ‘indirect responsibility’. Indeed Kentridge is particularly interested on the way the political world ‘affects us personally’ (Kentridge 1999: 14). He has, in fact, positioned his own work accordingly: ‘in the years following apartheid, Kentridge’s drawings and films began to express the weight of having been one of the privileged few, exploring the notion and implications of indirect responsibility’ (Christov-Bakargiev 2004: 34). We are always already guilty: we need to assume responsibility for the ‘implications of what one knew, half knew, and did not know of the abuses of the apartheid years’ (Kentridge, cited in Fernie 2007).

Although Kentridge and his family were opposed to and resisted apartheid, the assumption of this responsibility acquires in his work the most radical representation. This is how Jes Fernie describes this assumption:

In Mine, the third film that Kentridge made, Soho Eckstein is a mine owner enjoying the fruits of his labour. He sits propped up in bed wearing a suit with his breakfast placed before him. He presses the plunger of his cafetiere through his tray down into a noisy, claustrophobic, hellish mine in which misery, physical confinement, and the violent sound of drilling are horribly apparent. The contrast between the spaces above and below ground evokes Eckstein’s exploitation of the land and the labourers he employs beneath it. He is ignorant of the suffering he is causing, thus avoiding the incapacitating emotion of guilt. The contradictions and ambiguities in the film emerge when we realise that we can’t dismiss Eckstein (or any of Kentridge’s characters, Ubu included) as a straightforward representative of evil distant from ourselves, but someone or something inside us all. The physical resemblance of Eckstein to Kentridge himself is striking, and indeed Kentridge has talked about the fact that Eckstein is loosely based on his grandfather, Morris Kentridge, a lawyer and parliamentarian for the Labour Party in South Africa during the first half of the 20th century…The physical stature of the repulsive protagonist in the film Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) is also based on Kentridge – more specifically on photographs of himself naked taken in his studio (Fernie, 2007).

Interestingly, the need for such a strategy follows from Kentridge’s realisation that knowledge is not enough to shift our personal implication in unjust hegemonic orders. His admiration for Italo Svevo’s Zeno partly emanates from his realisation of the gap between knowledge – even self-knowledge – and action. As Kentridge observes, ‘Zeno, the hero of Svevo’s novel, has remarkable self-knowledge. But it is knowledge that is without effect. This absolute inability of self-knowledge to force Zeno to act, or at other times to stop him from acting, feels familiar’ (Kentridge 2004b). The first step in any subjective–or collective–change is to assume responsibility for our–direct and indirect, conscious and unconscious, cognitive and affective–implication in our symptom: to put it in Lacan’s terms we need to identify with our symptom, to thematise our own attachment to what secures our servitude. Beyond any naïve didacticism, such a shift can often enable an alternative course of action, which, however, no philosopher-king (or psychoanalyst-king) can ever prescribe, predict or guarantee.


Bataille, G. (2004) The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Christov-Bakargiev, C. (2004) ‘On Defectability as a Resource: William Kentridge’s Art of Imperfection, Lack and Falling Short’, in William Kentridge, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, MIlano: Skira, 2004.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1984), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Athlone.
Fernie, J. (2007) ‘William Kentridge: Four Films’, Exhibition text for University of Essex Gallery, Jan – Feb.
Foucault, M. (1991) ‘Truth and Power’ in Paul Rabinow (ed.) The Foucault Reader, London: Penguin.
Foucault, M. (1999) ‘The End of the Monarchy of Sex’ in Sylvere Lotringer (ed.) Foucault Live, Interviews 1966-1984, New York: Semiotext(e).
Jacoby, R. (2000) ‘Intellectuals and their Discontents’, The Hedgehog Review, 2:3.
Kentridge, W. (1992) William Kentridge: Drawings for Projection. Four Animated Films, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.
Kentridge, W. (1999) ‘Interview to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’, in Cameron, Dan, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and J.M. Goetzee, William Kentridge, London: Phaedon.
Kentridge, W. (2004a) ‘Art in a State of Grace, Art in a State of Hope, Art in a State of Siege’, extract from a lecture given at the Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown, 1986, in William Kentridge, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Milano: Skira.
Kentridge, W. (2004b) ‘Zeno at 4 A.M. – Director’s Note’, in William Kentridge, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Milano: Skira.
Kharms, D. (2006) Incidences, trans. Neil Cornwell, London: Serpent’s Tail.
Kuhn, T. [1962] (1996), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Lacan, J. [1954–5] (1988), The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954–5, ed. Jacques-Alain M., trans. Sylvana Tomasseli, notes by John Forrester, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lacan, J. [1966] (2006), Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collabration with Héloïse Fink and Russel Grigg, New York: Norton.
Lacan, J. [1973] (1987), ‘Television’, October, 40, pp. 7–50.
Macgregor, E. A. (2004) ‘Foreword’, in William Kentridge, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Castello di Rivoli, Milano: Skira.
Nobus, D. and Malcolm Q. (2005) Knowing Nothing, Staying Stupid: Elements for a Psychoanalytic Epistemology, London: Routledge.
Reich, W. [1942] (1975), The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 3rd edn, trans. Vincent Carfagno, London: Pelican.
Rousseau, J. [1762] (1971), The Social Contract, in Ernest Barker (ed.) Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stavrakakis, Y. (2007) The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics, Albany: SUNY Press.
Zizek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.
Zizek, S. (1994) Tarrying with the Negative, Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Yannis Stavrakakis studied political science at Panteion University (Athens) and discourse analysis at Essex and has worked at the Universities of Essex and Nottingham. He is currently Associate Professor at the School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He is the author of Lacan and the Political (Routledge 1999) and The Lacanian Left (Edinburgh University Press/SUNY Press 2007) and co-editor of Discourse Theory and Political Analysis (Manchester University Press 2000) and Lacan & Science (Karnac 2002).