Historically, the word intelligentsia refers to someone occupying a murky upper-class status on the basis of their intellectual contributions to culture and society. These select few would (more often than not) share two major criteria amongst themselves: 1. They were rich. 2. On account of criteria 1, they didn’t have to work for a living, thus could spend all their time philosophizing about life and its hardships (unlike those philistine farmers who were too busy collecting crops for the village to sit back and reflect about what really matters to people). Since the end of feudalism, and the laughably archaic status of aristocracies, intelligentsia can come to refer to just about anybody who writes a book that educated people hold in high regard, whether it contributes anything to our social consciousness or not.
Admittedly, the notion of what is, and is not, to be deemed intellectually worthy is quite subjective. Speaking for myself, I would rather read the worst dime novel imaginable, than the most academically praised book on anything political. Regardless, I have no issues with the diverse opinions people hold about good and bad writing or art. What I’m getting at is how intelligentsia, as an applicable term, is entirely nonsensical in any contemporary meaning.
Whether it was genuinely well intentioned, or the product of a corrupt system, the artists and writers that made up the intelligentsia of the past did produce works that creatively immortalized pieces of human history. Gave a frame of reference to a past culture; something we can nostalgically look back and draw inspiration from to progress forward through moments of social gridlock (for example, the way the Renaissance was inspired by the intellectual contributions of ancient thinkers). I can’t imagine such a thing happening with any of the works being produced by the public intellectuals of today. That’s not to say that there are no good books being written in literature, or that modern art is devoid of aesthetic skill (though my septuagenarian neighbor would beg to differ). But none of these are truly capable of sparking the imagination of the people as they once did, partly because we would have to be removed and forget about them first (which in today’s information age is impossible).
It is noteworthy that the title of the public intellectual has never been assigned on the bases of popular opinion, but on the basis of what other public intellectuals promote amongst each other as just too brilliant and sophisticated. And everyone goes along with it, because its assumed that these people must know what their talking about (and nobody wants to risk looking unsophisticated and lowbrow). This is just the nature of the animal; unlike the sciences, Arts and Humanities studies have no such thing as a decent peer-review process, largely because the peers themselves are removed from the broader social culture they reside in.
The intelligentsia of society used to be polymaths, whose expertise would roam across academic disciplines. That is no longer a viable position to occupy. Our knowledge and data is too broad to be encapsulated by any one mind; specialization is a necessity. The era of the intelligentsia is dead and gone, and I for one welcome it as an important testament to our educational progress as a society. We have accumulated so much data, raw knowledge, that it cannot be confined to the few. Despite the pessimistic nature of these posts, some words do deserve to die. When a word because too rigid to be properly applied in any meaningful way, the responsible thing to do is to retire it, and let it rest in peace. Now, all we need to do is let the self-styled public intellectuals in on this fact.