The Anxiety of Irrelevance: Power, Dissent, and the Contest of Intellectual Virtues in the 1950s

Allon Brann

The Anxiety of Irrelevance: Power, Dissent, and the Contest of Intellectual Virtues in the 1950s
Brann, Allon
Undergraduate theses
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Senior thesis.
This thesis examines a crucial discourse of intellectual virtues in postwar America. Centered around a Partisan Review symposium in 1952, the discourse sought to interrogate what American society had to offer its intellectuals, and vice versa. What began, in this symposium, as an evaluation of postwar American culture, became in effect a contest over intellectual virtues, the commitments and responsibilities which not only distinguished an intellectual from the rest of society, but validated his place in it as well. What was the meaning of non-conformity, skepticism, dissent, and alienation—and what use where they to a thinker in a society marked by the sense of triumph and complacency we have come to associate with the Fifties? I argue that the crucial dispute lay in the dialogue between liberal and radical conceptions of intellectual virtue. Whereas liberal intellectuals defined their role in relation to the preservation of American freedom in opposition to Soviet Communism, radicals sought to preserve the commitment to dissent as the chief virtue of intellectual practice. Both efforts, I contend, were responses to the anxiety of irrelevance which has challenged intellectuals throughout American history. After tracing some responses to that challenge in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, I examine the dialogue between the liberals and radicals in the 1952 symposium. I conclude by elucidating what I see as the value of the radical commitment to dissent—its critique of the intellectual service of power, and suggest how that critique may continue to inform us today in light of the political projects of neoconservative intellectuals over the past three decades.
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