One common crack people in the non-academic world–which is to say, 99 percent of the public–levels at academia is that grad schools are little more than institutions in which people engage in intellectual masturbation.
And to that I say: what is the problem?
For in that joke is the assumption that the erotic is somehow misguided. And a further assumption is that the erotic can only manifest itself physically.
The first assumption is a reflection of the puritanical character of this country, the same puritanical character that produces an ironic dichotomy: the public condemns sexual scandals of public figures but yet demands every sordid detail.
The second assumption reflects a lack of understanding of the nature of Eros. I am going to make a claim which should surprise no one: not a lot of people in this country have read Plato’s Symposium.
I only bring up the Symposium because in it Socrates articulates the nature of Eros as the pursuit or desire of immortality, which is manifested in its highest form through the production or exchange of ideas between the teacher and the student.
What most of America has never thought about is the possibility that ideas can become objects of desire in that they arouse a kind of “high” or feeling of transcendence. Anyone who has ever produced an intellectual product, whether it’s a book, painting, or music, can attest to the feeling of euphoria. Why do you think musicians often say that performing on stage, and performing well on stage, is better than sex?
And that is the problem with the public: it cannot conceive of a higher manifestation of Erotic Love than the sexual. Therefore, the metaphor of “intellectual masturbation” is a contradiction: its usage suggests that the public does recognize intellectual pursuit as a form of Eros, but it is used in an ironic and derogatory way by those who use it, thereby exposing the inability of the user to conceive of Eros as anything but physical intercourse.