On a Critical Thinking Under Influence. An Interview with Russell Jacoby

Cover Russell Jacoby On Diversity

Interview with US historian Russell Jacoby.

Submitted by FabienD on May 8, 2023

If an emancipatory policy is inseparable from critical thought, it is nonetheless doubtful that such a task can be left solely to professional academics. This problem has long occupied the American historian Russell Jacoby. His latest book, On Diversity, questions the limited and ultimately misleading scope of "campus jargon" about "diversity" now widely employed in American public space. As early as 1987, in a landmark book, The Last Intellectuals, the author worried, not without arousing controversy, about the consequences for public debate of the growing weight of the university in intellectual life. The work, which had attracted the attention of authors such as E.P. Thompson and Murray Bookchin, thereby criticized a new generation of professors, that of the author, formed during the 1960s and 1970s, who had challenged the establishment and the university institution but had ended up, more than any before - albeit dressed up to appear « radical » - by integrating it.
An unindulgent observer of his own milieu, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, although he never obtained full tenure status, Russell Jacoby has written on the Frankfurt School, the heterodox currents of Marxism and psychoanalysis, the springs of violence as well as the meaning of utopian thought. He has, moreover, without always sharing the sometimes more conservative dimensions of their analyses, rubbed shoulders with thinkers such as Christopher Lasch or the lesser-known founder of the journal Telos, Paul Piccone. With a constant interest in intellectuals from outside the academic world, even whose work proved inseparable from a risky life as a revolutionary.
From his first book, the author proposed to fight against "social amnesia" which prevents, by forgetting the past, from thinking in appropriate terms the criticism of the present status quo, beyond the dominant tendencies of the moment. Pursuing this inspiration, the interview he gave us does not only propose to present an itinary and a work that is too little known in France, despite its undeniable interest : this historical insight, which does not only concern American intellectual life, would also like, along the way, to raise, from an emancipatory perspective, some significant questions about what contemporary social criticism should be.


Text initially published in French on A contretemps