Public Intellectual

Michael Bezilla
December 03, 2007
book cover of “Rhetorical Occasions”

In Rhetorical Occasions, his latest book, humanist and essayist Michael Bérubé gathers a sampling of his recent "public writing" on a wide range of topics, for a wide range of publications—from American Quarterly to the Boston Globe. Indeed, variety of occasion is the volume's organizing principle. "Our lives as academics, as writers and teachers, may be discontinuous in some respects yet coherent precisely in their discontinuity," writes Bérubé, who holds the Paterno Family Chair in Literature at Penn State.

Bridging academic and popular writing, Bérubé's forays are engaged and engaging, bristling with wit but also penetrating and judicious. In fact and by example, they are lively arguments for the centrality of the humanities to our understanding of what it means to be human.

The book groups two dozen essays and an armful of blog entries into five sections. In the first, Bérubé parses the decade-long aftermath of the Sokal Hoax, physicist Alan Sokal's infamous/celebrated attack on claims made by postmodernist theorists for the socially determined nature of scientific knowledge. Revisiting these arguments, Bérubé lobbies persuasively for a more thorough-going humanist response to Sokal's challenge.

A second section features Bérubé's dissections of key recent movements in literary theory, cultural studies, and American studies, and a third takes up "the more quotidian (but critical) features of academic life and work," including the realities and rewards of classroom teaching, trends in intellectual working conditions, and the hazards of incorporating popular culture (and its criticism) into the syllabus.

The fourth grouping, titled "Politics," corrals Bérubé's ongoing analysis of divisions in the American Left since the events of September 11, 2001, and the impact of those divisions on the U.S. antiwar movement.

Finally, Bérubé includes a sampling of entries from his award-winning (and now defunct) literary blog, their topics ranging from Derrida to Harry Potter, in an attempt to demonstrate the potential uses of blog writing as a legitimate vehicle for both criticism and creative work.

Indeed, Bérubé invites the reader to consider the entire book a demonstration, or, as he puts it, "a collection of experiments... selected to showcase the range of public writing available to scholars."

Michael Bérubé, Ph.D., is Paterno Family Professor of Literature in the College of the Liberal Arts, Occasions was published by the University of North Carolina Press in October 2006.

Last Updated December 03, 2007