Abigail Lawrence – Destabilizing Intellectual Hierarchies with Intellectual Communities



“Intellectual community” is such a loaded phrase, particularly at universities whose website brag of the existence of such a thing in their recruitment materials. It is different than simply a community–“intellectual” community implies a certain heightened prestige, and the tone of the word community seems to change completely in the presence of “intellectual.” So what, then, is intellectual?

Today, the scope of what is considered intellectual seems to be ever broadening from its traditional precedents. Academics write dissertations on wizard rock and fiction, new university departments are opening in gender and sexuality studies and Asian-American studies, and a museum on African American culture and history has recently opened directly on the national mall. Cultural responses to these range from bemused surprise (who would “seriously” study wizard rock?), dismissal (an Asian American Studies major? Why, what’s the point of that?), to blatant anger and grief at the perceived lowering of the high, gleamingly white pedestal of academia (There’s not a museum of White American history / Hip hop culture is not serious enough for a museum). What is intellectual is ever expanding, but not on an even playing field; instead, new academic spaces are welcomed at the bottom of the ladder, the top rungs of which having been occupied by the true academic pursuits for centuries.

But why do these pursuits consistently earn top spaces on the ladder of intellectual hierarchy in our society?  The answer to this is a complicated one that may not be completely settled here; but an important starting point is the consideration that what we as members of society consider to be intellectual or “serious” pursuits—and conversely, what we dismiss as trivial—has a particular historically-grounded hierarchy, politics, and purpose.

In 1780, John Adams wrote to his wife in a letter:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

(Massachusetts Historical Society)

His grandchildren still study, they still contribute to an intellectual community, but only because he and his sons have paved the way by studying more practical pursuits—pursuits that John Adams implies will contribute to the betterment of society. In his logic, only after politics and war (understandable priorities in his time of revolution) are addressed can the more scientific be studied. After those, two generations later, come artistic passions, the non-essential, and more traditionally feminine pursuits.



A clear hierarchy is set up here; a hierarchy anachronistically similar to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s in which all human needs are arranged in a pyramid, (the most basic safety and physiological needs at the base and more intellectual and emotional ones at the tip) in which each higher level can only be truly reached after all lower ones have been secured (Burton). To Adams, an intellectual community can only truly function for the needs of society if the basic needs of intellectualism are met before more trivial pursuits. In many ways, this same attitude exists today. It would be very unlikely that a university would establish a Documentary Film Studies department before it had a well-established mathematics department. The intellectual is only allowed to expand into new areas because other, more important areas have been secured.

Art and other creative pursuits are at the bottom of Adam’s priority list, at the top and most unattainable point of this hierarchy of intellectual needs similar to Maslow’s. In some ways, this set up makes sense; as my high school calculus teacher explained it: “When the aliens decide to attack one day, the government’s not going to call up all the English majors to help.” But we have seen throughout history that this is not necessarily the way that our society functions. Even amidst crisis, war, and destruction, play and art persist; the trivial persists. A child plays in the rubble of war, kicks a beaten-up soccer ball between two abandoned shoes. Surfers paddle out just as a hurricane hits. Surrealism emerges from the earth-shattering trauma of World War I.  An individual, or even society as a whole, does not always need to meet their every last physiological, safety, love, and esteem need to do art, to create or to play. Contrary to Maslow and Adams’ frameworks, security is not a necessary precondition for art. Instead, perhaps art provides a comfort in a lack of security. Or, as feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde suggests, it creates a kind of emotional security by giving language to feeling:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom. (Lorde 372)

From “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”

Art does not always have to wait for safety or security. As Lorde suggests, it can create some for itself. And yet—there is some validity to the hierarchy of intellectualism that Adams proposes, particularly when it comes to marginalized groups of people. When speaking in terms of rigid academic disciplines and their career trajectories, it is much more common for students who grew up in affluent or middle-class humanities to pursue majors in the humanities or creative arts than students who grew up families of low socio-economic status. And the extent to which one’s creative pursuits are accepted as intellectual—whatever bottom rung of the ladder they are afforded—often depends on whether or not they are part of a marginalized group.

In her unconventional work of feminist scholarship, memoir, and literature Heroines, Kate Zambrano writes of the wives of modernist writers and their exclusion from the titles of artist or intellectual. She writes of Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and more—of women who were writers themselves, whose excessive feeling, pain, and dysfunction, recorded in their journals and lived in their daily lives, was plagiarized by their husbands and called the work of creative genius by the intellectual world.  The female author’s emotional responses to patriarchal oppression are taken to be markers of insanity, and she is “reduced to a diagnostic category, which imprisons her, reduces her to subjectivity” (Zambrano 257). There, her creativity is contained, prevented from being a threat to the safety of the patriarchal household and therefore to society as whole. For without the stability of the domestic woman, how can the husband and children (she must have both) be housed and fed, loved and cared for—basic needs that must be met in Maslow’s model for them to rise to more intellectual pursuits? As a woman, you can be emotional, creative, opinionated, adventurous; you can be artistic—but only if you are lifting up the art of a man, and only if you are not taken seriously yourself.

In our white hegemonic heterosexist patriarchal society, the creative pursuits of other marginalized groups are treated in a similar way to what Zambrano describes: they are trivial or even threatening until they are claimed by the powerful in the name of the powerful. Perhaps the most visual examples are in fashion and style: Cornrows are ghetto and unprofessional on black women, but fashionable on the (white) runway or on Kim Kardashian’s scalp. Plaid shirts, combat boots, and menswear are considered decidedly butch, too-masculine attire for (heterosexual) ladies until those ladies decide it is the look of the season. The art of the powerless is trivial art until it is appropriated by the powerful, snatched up by the privileged and pulled up rungs of the ladder under the feeble guise of originality, creative genius, and progress. It is not that it is impossible to break the bonds of the strict hierarchical progression of intellectualism—to raise the trivial up the ladder of academic respect, or destabilize the Maslow-like hierarchy so completely that one kind of study is not a societal prerequisite for the exploring of the next—rather, it is that the people who can most effectively subvert this system are those who already hold power or privilege. (John’s Adams’ sons could have studied art and everything would have still turned out alright for them. But they left that trivial nonsense to their sisters.)

It has been a long journey through unpacking the intellectual, one that seems to have a bleak conclusion: Perhaps we cannot truly subvert the hierarchy of intellectualism—validate “trivial” pursuits as intellectual ones, too, and give historically marginalized groups opportunities to study anything and be taken seriously—until we subvert our society’s endless oppressive  -isms. The ladder, the hierarchy, is not only a ladder; it is a complex system of scaffolding surrounding an ever heightening and increasingly inaccessible structure of power. The scaffolding is overwhelming in its vast complexity, but there is hope: it is vulnerable in its endless possible connections and entry points. As we humans, all of us intellectuals in our own right, scale the scaffolding, we do not live in isolation and we should not do so in our paths up, down, and around our intellectual pursuits.

And here is where we find the happy ending for the intellectual: community.

Nick Sousanis’ unconventional graphic novel academic dissertation Unflattening uses interdependent theoretical writing and visual representation to show that the academic tradition of staying in your own lane has flattened intellectual thought (and humans, for that matter) into isolated, self-serving existences of limited perspective. He argues that interdisciplinary work not only strengthens individual disciplines but more importantly, it gives humans the ability to perceive the world from different angles and effectively empathize with one another.


In the images above (Sousanis 134-5), the strings control the puppet (who represents us) but they cannot be cut or we would be set adrift in the world, abandoned through our “liberation” from the things that made us who we are. Instead, we must take the strings for ourselves, understand their vast connections to one another, and use the system of links to steer our path forward. Like Sousanis’ illustrated ships, we cannot hope to voyage ahead alone; the sea is too wide. We need all hands on deck. Like the scaffolding surrounding a unimaginably large structure, we cannot hope to see and understand every nook and cranny without peers making observations too, without stepping outside the lanes of ladders and traversing across diagonal supports.

If we are to understand our world, stand up against injustices, empathize with others, cure disease, we must take control of the systems that have held us back. We must dare to make connections with those who are different, dare to trust others to pull ropes on our ship if they have the skills to reach them, dare to reach out past our ladders and find grip and foothold in a new place on the scaffolding. Mutual respect across disciplines and a leveling of intellectual hierarchies, will not come by simply telling ourselves the arts are just as important as the sciences, that rap is just as legitimate as classical. We must deliberately make the connections, work together, and empathy will come from the experience of community.

Works Cited
“Come Celebrate with Us!” Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, Post 12 May 1780. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2016. <https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17800512jasecond>.
Burton, Neel. “Our Hierarchy of Needs.” Psychology Today. N.p., 23 May 2012. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Quality Paper Book.
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. Print.
Zambreno, Kate. Heroines. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012. Print.