"My Desperate Life as a Sound Byte!"
And other tabloid headlines for the publicized intellectual

By Mark Jordan, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion

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Books have their fates. Sometimes the fate is a news story.

In spring 2000, I published The Silence of Sodom, a book
on homosexuality in modern Catholicism. The book had some scandalous passages, I suppose, but it was neither a chronicle nor an exposé. Its main effort was to describe theological and institutional mechanisms for keeping silence around male-male desire in the Roman church. I was not concerned to narrate who was doing what to whom and how often, but rather to analyze typical distortions of speech, regulation, and ritual produced by the need to muffle homoerotic passion. So I took Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as my model, and I constellated fragments from official documents and moral manuals with bits of Reformation satire and anecdotes of the liturgical life.

When the book first appeared, there were reviews here and there, with opposed judgments by the L.A. Times and the website of the self-proclaimed “Catholic League.” Still the book was turned down for review more often than not. A publicist reported that editors found it “too hard.” How could I disagree? The book is indeed “hard.” Its argument twists back and forth as it wriggles past the machines for enforcing churchly silence. Its range of reference is not only large but idiosyncratic. In it I give myself the pleasure of citing unusual Catholic authors in order to make a point about muffled voices—and to share my own joys in reading. So the reader finds, right alongside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, such unlikely religious authorities as the arch-aesthete J.K. Huysmans, the Nietzschean fabulist Pierre Klossowski, and Chicago’s gay detective novelist, Mark Zubro. Hardly the sort of stuff to fly off the shelves at airport news stands. In fact, I felt a little guilty for abusing my publisher’s generous trust and resolved to sell out the small first printing. As if I were the main agent of this particular fate.

Then early this January, the Boston Globe began to publish its aggressive investigations into Cardinal Law’s handling of priests accused or convicted of sexually abusing minors. I couldn’t see much that was news in them or in the trial of Father John Geoghan, whose pastoral crimes motivated the journalistic investigations. Well-publicized U.S. cases stretch back to 1985, and since then there has been a steady flow of the painful reports. So where was the news? Or, rather, so much for my sense of what makes news. The Globe stories became the story, and the story took over nightly television specials, panels of talking heads, and the covers of every major newsweekly. The story also retrieved my “hard” book. “I’ve had your book on my desk for a long time, but I could never get around to it,” one religion reporter said. “Now it’s required reading!” Or, rather, required mentioning.

You see the temptation to write the rest of this story in tabloid style, under a banner headline like “I was Mauled by the Press!” or “My Desperate Life as a Sound Byte!” There were indeed incidents that demand retelling with exclamation marks. Once on a live national news broadcast the segment about the news from Boston was followed by a rather different story. “Thank you, Professor Jordan. Up next, new uses for an old vegetable. Broccoli soup is making a comeback!” And if I once thought that gay dating at mid-life could be cruel, I had never met a talk show booker. But what I have learned from my book’s resuscitation is more interesting than these clichéd complaints about our media—more interesting and more disconcerting to me.

The first thing I learned is how little I know about the craft of broadcast and print media. I thought myself media savvy. I mean, I had appeared in documentaries for educational television. In fact, and of course, I had precious little idea how to proceed. The sound byte is as demanding a genre as the haiku. Then there is the op-ed piece, which, like quicksand under a shimmering inch of water, misleads by its resemblance to the learned essay. A blunt editor tutored me in the difference by email over two days. He had done the same, he assured me, with Murray Kempton. So I learned enough media-craft to know that I didn’t know it and to admire those who did.

But did I really want to learn it? Hadn’t I chosen to be a teaching scholar rather than a documentary film writer (my college odd job)? Or was I now discovering that being a professor was my pot-
boiling and that media rush had been my secret aspiration all along? Or perhaps (darkest possibility) being a professor was now the same as being an apprentice newscaster? I had read David Lodge’s academic novels. I knew a Morris Zap when I imagined one.

After much brooding and too many hours in No. 3 pancake, I have come back to the terms of my old decision. There is a choice to be made between scholarship and media success. Scratch the overtaxed word “scholarship.” The choice is between the kinds of thinking or writing possible in a university and the kinds permitted by the media. My ways are still not their ways. I have—or am supposed to have—that rarest privilege, leisure. Leisure lets me construct meanings in time, over time. What
I think I know about silence in the Catholic church takes time to lay out—not because it is a long series of facts, but because it can only be seen after a long series of missteps and reversals, through grudging discoveries and skeptical assents. My conclusions can’t have their meaning without the “hard,” the frustrating approach to them. That approach can’t be fit into news. No leisure is permitted in our news—precisely because they are “leisure” media (with a nod to Adorno).

This is a disconcerting conclusion for me, because I was raised to believe in the “public intellectual.” Socrates in the agora. Hannah Arendt on stage, thinking Eichmann. Murray Kempton himself, writing up the city beat in the prose of Góngora. I now wonder whether pining for the “public intellectual” isn’t pure nostalgia, like recalling seminar rooms scented by pipe smoke and damp tweed. There may be no public, only publicity, and “intellectuals” can gain publicity only by becoming celebrities—of a very minor and expendable species. Intellectual celebrity is constructed from credentials and book titles, but chiefly from confident fluency, moderately eccentric dress, gravitas oscillating with piquancy, and the willingness to talk far beyond one’s learning. Not the public intellectual, then, but the publicized intellectual. Supply all sorts of quotation marks.

I confess the undercurrent of jealousy in applying this label, because I never could dress the part and find forced gravitas hilarious. At the same time, I contend that the label is not mere jealously. I criticize the publicized intellectual because I still believe in another intellectual life—livelier because more leisurely, cunning in its demands for long preparation and sustained attention, delighted to keep up pursuit. I find myself still hoping that universities can provide refuge for intellectual leisure—that universities can be part of an alternate public not constituted by publicity and its celebrity. Of course, I do suffer from nostalgia, that echo of fates.