Meryl Streep as Julia Child, public intellectual, in Julie & Julia.
Finished up the semester Tuesday with pizza and a movie, Julie & Julia.
Talk about coddling Millennials.
I’d direct you to our usual Twitter hashtag so you could look at their live-tweeted responses to the movie but they were forbidden to open their laptops. No live-tweeting. Their assignment was to sit back and celebrate the work they’d put into the course and enjoy the movie for the movie’s sake.
But it wasn’t as though Julie & Julia wasn’t relevant to the class. After all it’s about a blogger and it raises some good points about things we’ve discussed and our students have put into practice on their blogs about the art of blogging and what good it does for bloggers and their readers. I’ll be posting about that. But there’s actually more relevance than that.
I’ve liked to joke that the course should have been called Blogging for Fun and Very Little Profit. Its real name, thunk up by my teaching partner, Steve Kuusisto, is Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons, which is not only more impressive but implies our aims for the course.
The object was for our students to use the blogs they started to begin to establish a professional presence on the internet and make connections through their blogs and other social media---Twitter, Facebook, reddit---with people working in their chosen fields of study and join the public discussions and debates taking place in those fields on the web. They were, Steve and I urged, to think of themselves as budding public intellectuals helping to ask and answer the questions that will define their fields and so shape their careers and their lives.
This required us to come up with a definition of public intellectual that did not necessarily include a sinecure at a think tank, tenure at an Ivy League-level university, or regular op-ed space in the New York Times.
This turned out to be trickier than we’d expected---mainly because a lot of the public intellectuals we pointed to as examples were completely unknown to our students, which I’m embarrassed to say is more of a comment our old fogeyness than on their youthful ignorance.
You never heard of Norman Mailer?
Oh, that’s right, he died when you were twelve.
(It should be noted that they now know who Norman Mailer was.)
It was easier, and more effective, to focus on what public intellectuals do, never mind who they are, and then tell them to do it themselves or at least make a point of trying when choosing what to write about on their blogs.
Public intellectuals don’t just join the debate. They help shape it. They work to decide what questions get asked, which questions get answered, which answers are correct, and what new questions those answers raise.
They have to be professional doubters. They have to be skeptical, self-questioning, contrarian. But not reflexively, crankily contrarian. Their professional attitude isn’t a grumpy Blow it out your ear! More of a politely put but still tough-minded, Sez you!
Public intellectuals spend a lot of their time saying, Hold on here. Let’s think this through. How do we know this is true or not true? What do we really know about this? How do we know it? What if we don’t actually know what we think we know? What if instead of things being this way they’re this other way or that other way or no way at all?
As they’re usually thought of, public intellectuals are mainly engaged in the broadly political debate---“broadly” as in encompassing the economic, sociological, and cultural issues that obsess the collective psyche.
By that light, our guest lecturers, Melissa McEwan, Tom Watson, Bill Peace, and, although I suspect he’d think it’s too formal, too constraining, and too grandiose a description of himself, James Wolcott are public intellectuals.
But every field of endeavor has to ask and answer questions about itself. Within every course of study or profession, there are political, economic, sociological, and cultural debates. There are practical and ethical issues that need to be examined, re-examined, argued and re-argued. These are all subsets of society and what goes on within them affect the course of society at large so that within any of them there are thinkers and writers doing the work of being public intellectuals. And by that light, our other guest, Farran Smith Nehme, known far and wide as the classic film blogger the Self-Styled Siren, is definitely a public intellectual and a highly effective one.
Through the example she set on her blog with her fine and lively writing, demonstrable knowledge, high standards, and taste, as well as the calm, loving, and self-amused and self-deprecating approach she takes towards her subject, she has not only helped lead the online discussion of classical films but has been influential in building the community of classic film fans and bloggers that now exists on and offline.
And all of which taken together is why her influence extends beyond that community.
Plus she gets things done.
By that light, Julie & Julia wasn’t just relevant to the course, we might have been better off showing it the first day of class instead of saving it for last, because it is very much about a public intellectual.
Julia Child wasn’t just promoting a hobby. She was advocating an approach to life that was as intellectually rigorous, demanding, and subversive as it was joyful, sensuous, and physically and emotionally pleasing. (Its subversion lay in its joyfulness.) In order to do what she did, she had to challenge any number of orthodoxies, conventions, prejudices, and preconceptions; break down barriers, professional, cultural, and personal; set and re-set standards; and change the way people did things and thought about what they did and thought about their lives and themselves.
She had to be contrarian in rejecting the ideas that the gourmet kingdom was a male kingdom, that high culture, that is, European culture (represented by French cuisine), was and should be available only to the well-off and the well-born and definitely not to “the servantless American housewife,” that a woman did things in order to "have something to do” when she wasn’t minding the children or picking up around the house and she needed “something to do” because she didn’t have any thing real to do, like a career, and then that a career was something you did for money and status and not for the joy it brought you and others.
And she was self-questioning, as well, constantly experimenting, testing, refining, reimagining, and reinventing recipes, redefining the whole process as she went.
Food and cooking were the medium and the process through which she explored one of the most important questions a society and a culture have to ask themselves in order to know themselves, What are we here for?
Her answer, at least as it appears in the movie, was We’re here to enjoy being here and to help others enjoy it to.
Her platforms were her cookbooks and her TV shows. Julie & Julia doesn’t get into the importance of the TV shows, particularly her first one, The French Chef, produced by WGBH in Boston and broadcast on the precursor of PBS, the National Educational Television. I don’t know how she thought about it herself, but I’m willing to argue that she and Fred Rogers, who was himself a public intellectual by any definition, were the driving forces that firmly established public television as an institution and a defining cultural presence. The point of television before they came along was to make money. In fact, it was more or less accepted that it could only exist as a money making enterprise.
The French Chef and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood proved television could be something more than “chewing gum for the eyes.”
The pizza was good. Meryl Streep was great. The course was fun. Our students were terrific and their blogs are all off to good starts. If you’d like to keep up with them and get an idea of what were doing in the course, our Facebook Page, Digital Commoners, is going to remain open for business. Please join the conversation. And please follow them on Twitter.
Visit Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian.
Julie & Julia is available to watch instantly.
Bottom photo of the real Julia Child courtesy of PBS.