notes on the treason of the clerks

Let’s make a square:

Eternal ---------- Partial

Contemporary-------- Universal

These are the parameters of Benda’s conception of the clerk, or the intellectual, in the 20th century. They also fit, to a degree, Gramsci’s reflection on organic intellectuals – which runs counter to Benda’s notion of the clerk - and Mann’s 1919 idea of the Non-political intellectual.

Mann’s non-political intellectual is the most complex case, because Mann’s irony creates odd combinations, linking the partial (German values) to the eternal (transcendent cultural values), which is an inherently unstable pairing – irony, here, is not simply a rhetorical trope, but a shy conceptual synthesis, one that never quite gets made.

In fact, from the point of view of the contemporary (say, the engaged Intellectual against which Benda fought), it is rather easy to ‘unmask’ the eternal and the universal. After all, these two categories are identified, in the end, very much with a locale and a history. They are identified with the “West”, that semi-region that really designates the continual process of Westernization – a process that operates on the agricultural populations of France as well as on the Nahuatl speaking populations of Mexico.

And yet, when the contemporary critique has done its unmasking, one can, from the point of view of the eternal, unmask the unmasker – for what is this unmasking done in the name of? It is not made outside of universal history- it is, on the contrary, an event within universal history, within modernism, and is inseperable from the development of the world market. It, too, is a carrier of Westernization.

From the Marxist point of view, the contemporary develops its sense of the eternal in the concept of revolution, which is paired with a new universal – one that is made after the World market has created, indeed, a world. This would be the universal working class, which is the only class with a real interest in abolishing class – in, that is, the revolution. Again, these are uneasy pairings.

I don’t mean to imprison the topic of the ‘intellectual’ or clerk in a structural cage: but rather to show the broad semantic elements of the narrative of the intellectual as it was put together in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and its disappointments.