THE BLOG
06/12/2013 05:35 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Is It Hip to Be an Intellectual Again? Hell Yeah!

An American President who is a thinker. A Pope who values the life of the mind--not to mention, hipsters in stylish fake glasses and Jon Stewart's comedy. It all adds up to smart is in. Abstract ideas and the people who have them are making a comeback.

Instead of the Algonquin Round Table, today's intellectuals exchange ideas in media moments on Charlie Rose or Fareed Zakaria GPS with viewers able to experience the dialogue. The postmodern intellectual is pop culture driven, business savvy and willing to shake the dust off though technology, Twitter, and the blogosphere.

But how did smart ever end up on the out-list? The 1980's and far-right politics have a lot to do with it. In the 80's greed was good and money talked while BS walked. Doers were pitted against thinkers and the narrative of the ineffectual elite gained resonance with a push from far right conservatives who effectively played off of the ironic anti-intellectualism of conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr.

In a recent New York Times column, economist and intellectual's intellectual Paul Krugman put it succinctly: "The truth is that the modern GOP is deeply anti-intellectual, and has as its fundamental goal not just a rollback of the welfare state but a rollback of the Enlightenment." Yet now as modern conservative ideology hits the postmodern era with full and damaging force, anti-intellectualism is going down with the ship.

The challenge for intellectuals is to play with ideas, which for some, at first glance can seem dilettantish and indulgent. For an endeavor to be worthwhile there has to be an immediate, tangible product as an end result--a widget for every thought.

This is why deconstructionists such as Jacque Derrida were such an easy target. The method of deconstruction is pointing out contradictions in texts, which could be anything from The Bible, to Freud's Studies on Hysteria, to Madonna's Like a Virgin. Critics would argue, "Really? Do we need to know why 'touched for the very first time' undermines the philosophy it asserts?"

Ironically, the paradoxes that deconstructionists were so adept at drawing our attention to were beginning to redefine our arts, our science, and our society.

Slowly the cowboy mentality that lead us as a nation to forge ahead without looking forward or back dwindled. You couldn't just charge and get from A to B anymore. Society became A to Z in every direction and its problems became too complex, too multifaceted, too paradoxical.

Then a culturally defining moment struck. We were given Sarah Palin and all she represents as part of a team that could potentially lead us through uncertain times. In an entire world's gasp, you could hear the collective freak-out as people from every political viewpoint stared into the void. This was the cherry on top for intellectuals. Smart was starting to look not so bad.

In the past, there was a more clear-cut definition and centrally located place for intellectuals. Think of the iconic New York intellectual or the old stereotype of an academic. But as our culture has increasingly taken on shades of gray, intellectuals are a diffuse group who are not as easily characterized. Is Oprah an intellectual?

At their core, intellectuals should have a few must-haves including a philosophical bent; a sense of history; an eye for what's next; the ability to abstract; and as an added bonus psychological awareness.

Intellectuals used to be more closely associated with all that is highbrow, but as low and highbrow started to mix within the culture and celebrity infiltrated just about every segment of society, the snobbery against pop culture has diminished. The White House Correspondents' Dinner used to be a place where lauded journalists and powerful politicians met, now #nerdprom is a place where lauded journalists, powerful politicians, and Lindsey Lohan meet.

Also as film and TV have taken over the novel, the ties between intellectuals, Hollywood, and celebrity are solidified. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and filmmaker and actress Greta Gerwig are good examples of postmodern intellectuals in this sense.

With regard to the art world, artist and writer Mira Schor is a postmodern intellectual who is described as engaged in a dialogue with mass culture though her work. In a podcast with the Director of the University of Virginia Art Museum, Schor talks about trolling the news and "interjecting an element of visual pleasure" into it as a method for her art and its ties to contemporary culture.

Of course, intellectuals of the past had connections to pop culture, but now that relationship has supersized. Theoretically, you could have an intellectual who watches The Bachelor. Theoretically.

How fabulous was physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking's cameo on the TV show, The Big Bang Theory, as well as Paul Krugman's cameo in the movie, Get Him to the Greek opposite Jonah Hill's character? Krugman also got into what seemed like a pop opera Twitter war with the president of Estonia.

The postmodern intellectual is also more closely associated with business and sales than in the past. Today, everyone markets themselves and everything is a business. Even academic institutions resemble business institutions.

Sales is not synonymous with the used car salesperson image of the past. Intellectuals tended to be champions of the working class, but now the wall between intellectuals and the white-collar business class is crumbling. In this way, Twitter co-founder, Oxford fellow, and activist Biz Stone, as well as award-winning journalist and Co-anchor of CNBC's Squawk Box Andrew Ross Sorkin embody much of what it means to be an intellectual now.

In a world like today's, people are aching for good analysis, ideas, dialogue, and problem solving. Intellectuals at their best help to explain and predict change as well as affect it, just like Robert F. Kennedy did in the 1960's. He foresaw the country would be ready for a black president in 40 years. That's no coincidence, that's a mind. Yet, he also worked pragmatically for the civil rights movement in his role as Attorney General.

It's not about being elite, it's actually about being practical. American intellectual culture has always been laced with pragmatism and even more so today. Americans were never big on knowledge for knowledge sake. They want action.

Postmodern intellectuals embody the concepts of action, abstraction, media, and marketing, yet perhaps most importantly, intellectuals these days are making the old-fashioned notion of ideas hip again.

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