Ideal intellectual communities: some prolegomena

Prompted by a comment by Susan on this post about academic writing (among other things) at Frogs and Ravens, I’ve been thinking about intellectual communities. Specifically, I’ve been trying to envision what "my ideal intellectual community … would look like," to borrow Susan’s terms. The following is a provisional attempt at defining my own ideal intellectual community, or IIC for short. (For some reason I keep thinking "ideal city," which keeps reminding me of Calvino‘s Invisible Cities, but I think that’s a sign of my homesickness for cities larger than Collegeville.) Anyway, here’s the list. What do y’all think?

1. The IIC would consist of people who aren’t competing with each other for funds, status, recognition, or employment. Intellectual work would not be a zero-sum game to determine who can publish the most, or the fastest, or with the most prestigious publisher.

2. In fact, now that I think about it, publication wouldn’t be all-important. Exchange of intellectual work, yes; but that wouldn’t be limited to the traditional options of journal article and monograph. Blogging would count. So would conversation over dinner. In point of fact, I’ve always preferred the less formal ways academics have of sharing their work. At conferences, it’s not the panels I really go for, though there’s usually a paper or two I’m glad to have heard (sometimes more, depending on the conference); it’s the opportunity to meet someone who happens to know a lot about something really interesting, and to end up talking in the hotel bar until after midnight.

3. My IIC, like Susan’s, would not be limited to academics. This is probably the corollary to point 1. More specifically: I want to see creative types there as well as the trained literary critics and historians and anthropologists and whatnot. I want to be able to talk to poets and musicians and artists. I want to be able to pick the brains of both musicologists and opera singers. I also want to be able to talk to people who’ve taken their academic training and put it to interesting uses.

3a. Having a mixture of academics and nonacademics would no doubt entail a lot of questions about who’s talking to whom, and whether the point of our work would be to reach a wider public, and if so what to do about it. And I’m all in favor of that.

4. I think my IIC is a cross between a knitting circle and my favorite small academic conference. I want there to be enough common ground for everyone to be able to talk to each other, enough room for idiosyncrasy so that two people who work in completely different ways can compare methods without automatically thinking "This is just too unlike what I do." And I want there to be socializing, and dancing, and expeditions in search of the nearest restaurant with people I’ve just met.

This paper, which I’m not done reading yet, argues that good ideas are more likely to happen at the intersections between communities than within communities; that is, people within well-defined groups tend to think homogeneously, but people who can bridge the gaps between groups are more prone to new ideas. I want my IIC to be at once full of these intersections and self-identified as a community; whether that’s possible is still an open question, though.

The blogosphere fulfills several of these conditions, but I’d like to be able to be in the same room with fellow IIC members. What I really want, I suspect, is a salon. I should’ve been born in the eighteenth century, goshdarnit! (Although on second thought, I’m also kind of attached to such innovations as full citizenship, property rights, modern dentistry, and not having to wear stays or an enormous hoop skirt.)

So: where are the salons of today? Have we anything similar? Am I overlooking any existing communities?

25 Responses to “Ideal intellectual communities: some prolegomena”

  1. loren says:

    Fascinating post.
    I’ve often wondered where one could find a group that would be as fascinating as the group of friends I had at college, a group composed of largely liberal arts majors but with very different majors.
    I could never put a group together like this in all the years I taught high school, though I found individuals who certainly inspired some of my best thoughts.
    At times I think the blogging community offers real potential here, but it seems nearly impossible to get anyone to focus on much beside the topic of “blogging itself,” which I generally find overhyped and irrelevant to my own existence.

  2. Chris says:

    I hate to say it, but I think one pre-req for finding the “salon” you’re seeking is to look for it outside of academe. It doesn’t, and probably cannot (or will not) exist within it.
    My group of friends, all of whome are as smart as I could ever hope to be, are comprised of an historian, an electrical engineer, an architect (the engineer’s brother), a midwife, and a political apparatchik for a NYC state rep.
    Our conversations range from the stupid to the sublime, from that time I found a dead rat in my toilet (my friends never tire of that one) to long discussions on the African origins of early rural blues and jazz, from “Pumkin Chunkin'” to Mies and Geary, from how much we hate the NY Yankees (and love the Red Sox) to metaphysics — hmm … come to think of it, Sox contra Yankees IS metaphysics.

  3. MisterBS says:

    My partner, friends and I have continually called for a return to the chautauqua of times past. Three cheers for the dilletantes, border-crossers, and disciplinary trespassers.
    And Loren is right, I fear: this won’t ever be found within the Academy. I think this is one of the things that has me so disenchanted.

  4. Rana says:

    I would definitely join a community of the type you describe, Amanda!
    And word on the difficulty of getting it done from within academia. A colleague and I tried to do just that, for just one weekend — only 3 people showed up. >:(

  5. Ray says:

    Webloggers are capable of being in the same room together, albeit usually on their own funds, and I’ve found the experience salon-like in the way we desire.
    Of more instiutionally planned meetings, the most satisfying for me have been the small higher-brow genre-fiction conferences and workshops (e.g., Readercon, Wiscon, Clarion). Something about sharing the borders of several usually-closed circles at once (literary, commercial, academic) may make it easier to take conversational risks.

  6. dale says:

    Oh, this post fills me with distress. Reminds me of empty years after college, trying to buy, beg, borrow, or steal a community, and failing, abjectly failing. It wasn’t till I gave up on ever having one that I became capable of belonging to one, I think.
    But that’s my story, not yours.
    I think Chris may be right, not because of anything wrong with academic people, but because academe is inhabited by a) transients or b) coworkers. The former go away and the latter have too much at stake to unbutton in groups.

  7. yami says:

    At my old Academy, the petrologists on the top floor of one building didn’t mix enough with the seismologists on the second floor of another. For a while, they tried division-wide snack hours to create an informal conversation space – and I think the goal was very similar to what you’re describing, though on a smaller scale and lacking cross-pollination from industry (oil wells:geology::operas:musicology?). It never really worked, but during finals week I sure appreciated the bananas.
    In some respects I think your IIC cannot sustain itself but in brief moments. You can’t have an intersection between closed communities without having those closed communities in the first place, after all – plus, at some point one needs to return to one’s own area of specialization to ingest all that fresh perspective. So the things I want to mull over are 1) can we reliably create these moments? and 2) is it at all fair to call a collection of serendipitious moments a community? – worth considering in a blog entry with particlar regard to my own selfish circumstances (what else are blogs for?) but alas, it’s bedtime!

  8. susan says:

    Wow. Much food for thought here…Thanks to Amanda for moving the discussion forward, or should I say, outward?
    It seems “important” that so many people feel or have felt a longing for “IIC’s.” This seems to me to be a good thing. And the online world, especially the blogosphere, seems to offer possibilities. I tend to read a mix of academic and non-academic bloggers, weighted toward the latter, actually.
    I agree with Amanda, though, that meeting in person is irreplaceable.
    And Yami makes good points, too. Specialized research communities are still the foundation of “knowledge production.” And academia has supplied the crucial space and support for this over the past 100-150 years. I don’t know if transitory meetings in Blog Comments, can accurately be called a “community,” but it feels that way sometimes. In general, it feels as though there is something in motion vis-a-vis the creation of new spaces for new kinds of intellectual communities.

  9. Duckling says:

    It all feels sort of pointless if you can’t communicate with people outside academia.

  10. yami says:

    Oh, and let me second Ray’s point on blogger get-togethers. People I’ve had good conversations with via blog, I have invariably had good conversations with in person. There’s something about switching between structured replies to long(ish) thought-out essaylets, and quickly paced discussion, that is agreeably stimulating – even if it’s just discussion on the theory and practice of barhopping.

  11. Amanda says:

    Whoa, so many comments! To respond to as many as possible all at once… Chris (and Dale and MisterBS): yes, at this point I’m pretty certain that I’d rather find intellectual companionship outside the university. (And “sublime-to-ridiculous” conversations are my favorite kind, by the way.)
    Ray: yes, there’s a lot to be said for the conference/workshop model — though I’d also like to be able to call people up and say “Want to get together next week?” without everyone having to travel long distances.
    Duckling: do you mean that the academia/everything else divide is too wide for communication? Because I haven’t quite given up hope on that one yet.
    Yami: I think you’re right about the difficulty of building a community around brief moments — that was something I was trying to articulate, but couldn’t quite. Blog away!
    Also, more generally, it occurs to me that I’m not exactly the outgoing type, and thus probably not the best person to gather a community together, especially given the difficulties that Rana notes. But it’s odd — I started graduate school thinking I was perfectly suited for the solitary pursuit of knowledge, and realized after a while that I really wanted more contact with people. So who knows?

  12. Chris says:

    It is ironic that in this “virtual” medium a powerful and affective community exists, albeit in the dematerialized mode that the medium entails. But on the other hand, maybe it is this dematerialization that makes this salon-like community possible. In the material realm we encounter so many pitfalls: from time constraints, to competitiveness, to jealousy, to the occasional upheavals caused by romantic desires or relationships–both forming and disolving. The dematerialized realm of the blogosphere is clean, it’s neat. It eliminates many (not all) of the complicating factors that face to face can initiate.
    And yet, at the same time, it IS managed, it’s controlled, and it lacks that rogue element that can so charge and enliven face to face communities.
    When I began grad. school, I half hoped, half thought that I was entering a kind of avant-garde realm, one that would be filled with late night semi-drunken converations about Nietzsche and Kafka that would end (ideally) in the embrace of passion and excess. But, as we all learned, that sort of thing was never to be. We hadn’t entered into paris circa 1928. Instead, we had entered into a pre-professional realm where table manners were counted, and one’s ability to show up with a partner was the absolutely necessary key to admittance. And the converations were inevitably just as banal as the admissions requirements would suggest.

  13. mjones says:

    What a fascinating thread! By the end of it, however, I had come around to thinking that the IIC is up there with idyllic childhoods and true love: unrealizable products of desire and nostalgia.
    As an eighteenth-centuryist, I have a real longing for the idea of the salon (and don’t forget the coffeehouses, though of course women were not part of that scene, unless they were serving table). To some extent, I think the blogosphere is the closest we are likely to get to that sort of free exchange in the 21st century. There are too many of us now, and we are spread too far apart.

  14. susan says:

    Well, I can’t let mjones have the last words on this, even if they’re good ones. Yes, an idea like an IIC could turn into a fantasy which gets in the way of dealing with reality. But it doesn’t have to be that kind of fantasy. It could be a useful heuristic (I think I’m usng that term correctly!),a thought experiment which yields some understanding of what the nostalgia is all about and what might be possible in the real world.

  15. I’m late to this party, but since the comments are still allowed, I’ll add one here. First, I think blogs that attain a minimum level of readership are community-making however episodic. The community forms over time and over conversations. We aren’t just meeting, we are meeting *on* a topic (the particular blog of the moment that we are commenting on) and the particular set of conversations initiated by and engaged in by the blogger.
    Second, there are lots of interesting and gifted people around, we just don’t know the right ones – locally. As blogging and other tools that (a) expose the brilliance and interests of those around us and (b) give us ways to engage with each other get better, I think we’ll find and cultivate IICs in our communities.
    Third, I’m hankering for intentional communities as so many of us gain the ability to live whereever we want due to the ease of online communications. I want those salon-mates, spoken of in this post and thread of comments, in my smaller community of the future. And, perhaps it would need to be constructed intentionally if I’m unwilling to live in a major urban center.

  16. Ideal intellectual communities

    Janet Tokerud:

  17. Many-to-Many says:

    Ideal Intellectual Communities

    Janet Tokerud suggests that Academic Blogging is a Must, eliciting a comment that links to a post on Household Opera about “Ideal Intellectual Communities”.Features of such a community: “people who aren’t competing with each oth…

  18. Mathemagenic says:

    Ideal intellectual communities

    Something that I overlooked in my own links

  19. Ideal Intellectual Community

    Over at Household Opera we see one person’s ideal intellectual community. It’s a fun exercise to go through, but I have to take issue with her first point: The IIC would consist of people who aren’t competing with each other…

  20. Intellectual Community

    ‘… people who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas.’ Social Origins of Good Ideas, Ronald S Burt, University of Chicago. Link via Household Opera: ‘people within well-defined groups tend to think

  21. green gabbro says:

    In the End, I Still Really Like Maps

    I’ve been meaning for ages, just ages dahling, to post on Household ideal intellectual communities, grad school, consulting, &c. &c….

  22. green gabbro says:

    In the End, I Still Really Like Maps

    I’ve been meaning for ages, just ages dahling, to post on ideal intellectual communities, grad school, consulting, &c. &c. Because…

  23. Clara Hurst says:

    Glad to discover this thread of discussion on IIC.
    We are a group of professionals as well as academia folks trying to promote the idea of “global brain”. It was actually formed with some hard labors behind the scene to “recruit” the right folks to the forum. As we believe a pool of intelligent people working together, without the boundaries of corporate policies and many other untrusting factors, this could actually bring out the best potential in each person as well as great advancement & benefit to the society.
    The collaboration and automation infrastructure required to allow this type of community to work together and to produce solutions for real world problems is still at its infancy, but we have quite many key technologies identified …
    If you are interested, you can check out our web site at, a white paper is available at the ODN Philosophy page that describes this concept in details.

  24. Ideal Intellectual Community

    Over at Household Opera (which I found via Mathemagenic) we see one person’s ideal intellectual community. It’s a fun exercise to go through, but I have to take issue with her first point: The IIC would consist of people who…