How Intellectuals Create a Public


Corey Robin – The Chronicle of Higher Education Review

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

22 Jan 2016 – As an archetype, the public intellectual is a conflicted being, torn in two competing directions.

On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both, the public intellectual is a monkish figure of austere purpose and unadorned truth. Think Noam Chomsky.

On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to possess a distinct and self-conscious sense of style, calling attention to itself and to the stylist. More akin to a celebrity, this public intellectual bears little resemblance to Weber’s man of knowledge or man of action. He lacks the integrity and intensity of both. He makes us feel as if we are in the presence of an actor too attentive to his audience, a mind too mindful of its reception. Think Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yet that attention to image and style, audience and reception, may not only be not antithetical to the vocation of the public intellectual; it may actually serve it. The public intellectual stands between Weber’s two vocations because he wants his writing to do something in the world. “He never wrote a sentence that has any interest in itself,” Ezra Pound said of Lenin, “but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.”

The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself.

To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves. The public intellectual I have in mind is not indifferent to her readers; her project is not complete without them. But there’s a thin line separating her needing readers from her being needy of and for readers. And it is on that thin line — that tension wire between thinker and actor, intellectual and celebrity — that she must stand and balance herself. “I want to make 200 million people change their minds,” said Gore Vidal, a writer who, not coincidentally, stretched that wire to its breaking point.

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

The reason for this has less do with the elitism of the intellectual — mine is no brief for an avant garde or philosopher king — than with the existence, really, the nonexistence, of the public. Publics, as John Dewey argued, never simply exist; they are always created. Created out of groups of people who are made and mangled by the actions of other people. Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — “Workers of the world, unite!,” they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — “Workers of the world” or “We, the People,” even “The Problem That Has No Name” — that a public is summoned into being. In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.

This is why the debate over jargon versus plain language is, in this context, misplaced. The underlying assumption of that debate is that the public is simply there, waiting to be addressed. The academic philosopher with his notorious inaccessibility — say, Adorno — obviously has no wish to address the public; the essayist with his demotic presence and proficiency — say, Hazlitt — obviously does. Yet both Adorno and Hazlitt spoke to audiences that did not exist but which they hoped would come into being. Adorno, explicitly: “Messages in a Bottle” was the title of 10 fragments he meant to include in Minima Moralia. In Hazlitt’s case, as Stefan Collini has argued, the

“familiar style,” which was to serve as something of a model for later generations of critics who aspired to recreate a “lost” intimacy with an educated readership, was consciously adopted as a voice that was not appropriate to the new age; it was an attempt to refashion a mode of address to the reader that was already felt to be archaic.

Whatever the style, the public intellectual is always speaking to an audience that is not there.

The problem with our public intellectuals today has little to do with their style. It has little to do with their professional location, whether they write from the academy or for the little magazines. It has little to do with the suburbs, bohemia, or tenure. The problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist.

Like many academics of his generation, Cass Sunstein came of age in opposition to the legal liberalism of the 1960s and the market conservatism of the 1970s. Hoping to speak to a country polarized by the Rights Revolution and the Reagan Revolution, Sunstein turned to civic republicanism as the basis of a revamped liberalism of virtue. Politics was now conceived as democratic citizens deliberating about the common good, subjecting their interests and preferences to a common reason. Through sensible argument, citizens would alter their desires and beliefs.

While the Sunstein of today still believes that the individual’s preferences can be transformed, and that politics is the transformation of those preferences, the subject of those preferences and the instruments of their transformation have been recast. In a series of increasingly ambitious books — Nudge, which he co-wrote with the economist Richard Thaler, and Why Nudge? — Sunstein has argued for what he calls “libertarian paternalism.” The aim is no longer for citizens to deliberate with each other about their ends or beliefs. Instead, the state should nudge men and women to make better choices.

The simplest example of what Sunstein is talking about can be found in the school cafeteria. Studies show that where you place food in a lunch line — fresh fruit at the beginning, carrot sticks at eye level — has a measurable influence on what kids eat. Without dictating the choices we make, the choice architect — the master planner who designs the menu from which, or the space in which, we make our choices — can inch us toward choices that are better for us. Better, as we already define that term. Sunstein disavows any desire to interfere with people’s ends or purposes. What he insists on is that we don’t always have the necessary information or know the best means to pursue those ends and purposes; choice architecture gives us that information, those means.

With all his talk of menus and default settings, Sunstein is aiming for a new kind of politics, where government, as he and Thaler write, is “both smaller and more modest.” This new politics “might serve as a viable middle ground in our unnecessarily polarized society.” It “offers a real Third Way — one that can break through some of the least tractable debates in contemporary democracies.” Sunstein is also aiming for a new self. There are two types of souls in the world, he and Thaler say: Econs and Humans. What distinguishes them is the ability to secure the ends they seek. Econs have a lot of instrumental rationality and are rare; in fact, they don’t exist at all, except in economics journals. Humans have very little of it. The goal of politics is to bring these real, all too real, Humans into some kind of alignment with these fictitious Econs.

It is that desired transformation — of the self, and of the society in which the self becomes a self — that marks Sunstein as a public intellectual. And marks the ground of his failure. For the polity Sunstein would like to bring into being looks like the polity that already exists. Its setting is the regulatory state and capitalist economy we already have. Its ideology is the market fundamentalism we already pay obeisance to: “a respect for competition,” Sunstein stipulates, “is central to behaviorally informed regulation.” And its actors are the consumers we already are.

Consumers, as Sunstein’s utopia makes clear, with no need for a public. In decades to come, Sunstein writes, the choice architect “might draw on available information about people’s own past choices or about which approach best suits different groups of people, and potentially each person, in the population.” So finely tuned to each of our needs will this future choice architect be that “personalized paternalism is likely to become increasingly feasible over time.” Whatever libertarian slippage may be occasioned by the current state of choice architecture — where some serendipity of desire is eclipsed or ignored by the crude technology of the day — will be overcome in the future. Assured by the detailed knowledge the choice architect will have about each of us, each of us will be happily corrected in our choices. We will know that these are truly our choices, inspired by our ends, uncontaminated by anyone else. What we are witnesses to here is not a public being summoned but a public being dismissed.

To get a sense of how un-public Sunstein’s vision is, allow me a historical detour. Let me take you back three-quarters of a century, to the world John Dewey made, and introduce you to Roscoe Filburn.

A fifth-generation farmer from Ohio, Roscoe Filburn wasn’t the sort of man who liked to be told what to do, so he wasn’t going to limit himself to growing 11 acres of wheat just because the federal government said he couldn’t grow more. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 authorized the government to institute annual harvest quotas — if the farmers affected by these quotas voted to approve them, by a two-thirds supermajority, in government-organized referendums. In 1941, 81 percent of farmers approved the government’s quota of 11.1 acres. Filburn wasn’t one of them. He harvested 23 acres, was fined $117, and sued. The case went to the Supreme Court.

Since 1937, the Court had been relying upon a broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause to justify expanding the federal government’s power over the economy. But Filburn intended his wheat solely for his farm, not the local market or the interstate economy. In Wickard v. Filburn, Justice Robert Jackson ruled that while the effect of Filburn growing wheat for his farm might be “trivial by itself,” it was “far from trivial” when “taken together with that of many others similarly situated.” What has come to be known as the “aggregate effects” doctrine gave the green light to state intervention throughout the economy.

Set against Sunstein’s nudge, Wickard v. Filburn reads like the lost script of an ancient civilization. Across-the-board mandates like that farm quota, which affect everyone regardless of individual circumstance, are the other of nudge politics precisely because they affect everyone regardless of individual circumstance. But that is their public power: They create a commons by forcing a question on everyone with no opt-out provisions of the sort that Sunstein is always on the lookout for. By requiring economic actors to think of themselves as part of a class “of many others similarly situated,” by recasting a private decision to opt out of the market as a choice of collective portent, mandates force men and women to think politically. They turn us into a public.

That’s also how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.” So are reading publics. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the targets identified by the writer: Think of the readers of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the writer: Think of the readers of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Regardless of the fallout, the public intellectual forces a question, establishes a divide, and demands that her readers orient themselves around that divide.

It is precisely that sense of a public — summoned into being by a writer’s demands; divided, forced to take sides — that Sunstein’s writing is in flight from. And not just Sunstein’s writing but the vast college of knowledge from which it emanates and the polity it seeks to insinuate.

Anyone familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates will come to Between the World and Me with great expectations: of not only its author’s formidable mind and considerable gifts but also of a public not often present in contemporary culture. From his blog, articles, and engagement with critics high and low, we know that Coates is a writer with an appetite and talent for readers. And not just any readers but readers hungry for the pleasure of prose and the application of intelligence to the most fractious issues of the day.

Anyone who has read Between the World and Me will find those expectations fulfilled. The first page opens with the body, the last closes with fear. From Machiavelli to Judith Shklar, the body and fear have been touchstones of our modern political canon. Given this marriage of talent and topic, we have every reason to receive Between the World and Me as a major intervention in public life and letters, as perhaps the signal text of today’s civic culture.

Yet it is the very presence of those political themes — the body and fear — that should make us wary. For Coates writes against the backdrop of a long tradition replete with cautionary tales about what can happen to public argument when the terrorized body becomes the site of moral inquiry.

At one pole of that tradition stands Hobbes, who more than anyone made that body the launching point of his inquiry; the end point, as readers of Leviathan know, was the obliteration of politics and the public. Only a sovereign capable of settling all questions of moral and political dispute, and enforcing his judgments without resistance, could provide the body the protection, the relief from fear, it needed.

At the other pole of that tradition stands Marx, who understood the body, laboring in the factory, as the site of a civilizational conflict over human domination and the ends of human existence. Where Hobbes saw in the body a set of claims that might annihilate politics and the public for the sake of peace and security, Marx saw in the body a set of claims that might launch an entirely new form of politics, a new public, into being.

Where between — or beyond — these poles does Coates stand?

For some, the very question will seem like an offense. Here is an African-American writer navigating the African-American experience of white despotism: What has he to do with Hobbes or Marx? Surely a book that begs to be read outside the white gaze has earned its right to autonomy, to be free of the judgments of the white Euro-American canon.

We should resist that move. There’s an unsettling tendency, particularly among white liberal readers, to treat black writers, and the black experience, as somehow sui generis, as standing completely apart from other parts of the culture. But, more important, that stance flies in the face of Coates’s avowed intentions and declared beliefs. Coates insists that we not treat bodily vulnerability and physical fear as solely a black experience. “Remember that you and I,” he writes to his son, who is the addressee of the book, “are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic.” The black experience of violence and fear, says Coates, is a more intense, more palpable, version of the human experience, which white America is in flight from. That unabashed humanism — that old-fashioned universalism forged in the face of violent death — demands that we put Coates in dialogue with Hobbes and more contemporary theorists like Shklar.

It is also that humanism that makes Between the World and Me such an exemplary text. While many have voiced their frustration with the overt anti-politics of the text, there is a politics going on there but on the lower frequencies. It is the naming of an experience we have grown all too familiar with — the unhurried disposal of black bodies — and the defamiliarizing insistence that this is not only a black problem but also a white problem. This is where Coates’s humanism truly bites: It is a challenge to whites who believe that they are safe and whose believed-in safety comes at black expense.

Even though his text is not directed at whites — indeed, it often seems directed at no one at all — Coates dares whites to prove that we do not believe ourselves to be separate from black people, that we understand that we cannot escape the ramifications of the fate we have assigned to African-Americans. And dares us in such a way that the very alacrity with which we try to prove him wrong — by words, always by words — only serves to prove him right. Your actions, says Coates — the daily ease with which you tolerate the policing, incarceration, and murder of black citizens; the daily ease with which your white life goes on amid so much black death — shows that you have no desire, intention, or need to end my situation. Because it is the precondition of your situation.

Arendt said her task was to think what we are doing; Coates sets as his task to think what we are not doing. Against an age grown so sensitive to language, that sees politics in the tiniest policing of words, Coates asks us to ignore our words and pay attention to our deeds. He uses words to declare the nullity of words, to expose the abyss of our inaction. And in so doing, creates the possibility for action, around issues like reparations and an end to mass incarceration, which he has pushed and pressed in two densely reported and tightly argued articles in The Atlantic. That is the way publics are sometimes summoned: by the announcement that they cannot be so summoned, by the declaration that their language has grown so corrupt that it can no longer serve as the means of their conveyance. That was certainly Adorno’s tack. It appears to be Coates’s.

Yet this public, born of the shock at not only the condition of black America but also America’s toleration of that condition, may not be a public at all. It may instead be the readers we — all of us, black, brown, white — already are.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, we have been primed for texts like these, which rest their universalism on the cruelties men and women inflict upon the human body. After 1989, when intellectuals declared their exhaustion with the ideological ambitions of the 20th century, it was said that the only principle we could now believe in was that cruelty — and the fear it inspired — was an evil, the worst evil, to be shunned at all costs. All politics was to be erected upon this negative foundation, which would constrain those ideological architects who aimed their edifices into the sky. Judith Shklar was the first to make this argument in her essay “The Liberalism of Fear.” But philosophers and journalists like Richard Rorty, Michael Ignatieff, and Philip Gourevitch elaborated and extended it.

In its first decade, the liberalism of fear found its materials in the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda. After 9/11, it was the victims of Islamist and Saddamist terror. Both sets of victims prompted humanitarian interventions from the United States and Western powers.

Those rescue projects gave the Hobbesian game away: Where the 20th century’s progressive ideologies made the victims of domination the agents of their emancipation, the liberals of fear could posit no such agent. If cruelty and fear were to serve as universally recognized foundations, they had to be understood as so incontestably terrible that no one, save their perpetrators, could defend them. The only kind of victims that proved eligible for this description were political innocents, abject and without agency, men and women who wouldn’t hurt a fly because they couldn’t hurt a fly. The only way to deliver them from their suffering without inviting the ideological mass politics of the 20th century was rescue from abroad: An all-powerful sovereign would swoop in to stop the bloodshed. Not unlike Hobbes’s Leviathan.

In recent years, however, liberals have grown exhausted by these projects; after Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s hard to believe in rescue from abroad. Their gaze has turned inward; the liberalism of fear has come home. To our own victims of violence, cruelty, and fear. But with the same sense of futility that has overwhelmed these international projects. Think David Simon’s The Wire.

In crucial ways, Coates departs from these texts. He does not believe that black Americans are innocents. Nor does he ask white America to rescue them. If anything, he believes whites need to rescue themselves. “I do not believe that we can stop them,” Coates tells his son; “they must ultimately stop themselves.” He also believes that the enterprise of security, of seeking a place of greater safety, is a misbegotten fantasy, an escape from the human condition of finitude and frailty.

Yet Coates is not immune to the imperatives that drove Shklar and her successors. The physicality of his understanding of fear recalls some of the most harrowing passages of Ignatieff and Gourevitch: “Racism is a visceral experience,” he writes. “It dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” “When they shatter the body they shatter everything.” While the accuracy of these descriptions isn’t in doubt, they are choices, which reveal something about the writer who wrote them and the culture that receives them.

When James Baldwin, with whom Coates is in dialogue, talked about white supremacy, he focused on cultural hegemony, the ways in which whites colonized the consciousness of blacks. One finds little of that understanding in Coates’s book; his technologies of control are mostly physical. Not simply because the political world has changed since 1962 but also because that rich postwar obsession with consciousness and society has given way to the bodily understanding of rule that we see in someone like Sunstein. In the same way that Sunstein identifies a biopolitical minimum as the subject of his inquiry, so does Coates posit a biopolitical minimum at the center of his.

For Baldwin, fear is an emotion that a victim suffers, but it is also an instrument, a tool that an agent wields. And not just the agents of state; as Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, subordinate classes can wield it, too.

 One needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. … Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.

Whether you are on the receiving or giving end of the stick, Baldwin says, fear is an emotion that you can separate yourself from, stand outside of, get on top of. For Coates, it is the opposite: Fear is an all-consuming experience, suffusing agents and abject alike.

Like Shklar and her successors, Coates comes to his concerns with the body and fear in the wake of a great disaffection. Coates once believed in Black Nationalism, but in college he freed himself from its desires and distortions. From that point on, he refused to be taken in, not by any collectivity, politics, or ism. In the body and fear, Coates found a philosophical antidote, an epistemological armor, against the toxin of ideology:

 I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power. … The gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon. It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness [emphasis added].

This Shklarian background helps us understand the difficult place Coates finds himself in, where the condition of black America must be overcome but there are no political means to overcome it: “I do not believe we can stop them.” One of the reasons, of course, that Coates doesn’t believe “we can stop them” is that he’s writing in the wake of a great defeat; it’s hard to believe in the promise of Black Freedom when you can only see its paucity.

But another reason Coates believes there are no political means to overcome the condition of black America is that he has taken those means off the table. So leery is he — and the larger liberal community that reads him — of the kind of ideological mass politics that would be required to overcome that condition, of the politics of division and summoning that is the public intellectual’s stock in trade, that he’s almost put himself in the situation he now finds himself in.

This combination of black aspiration, white intransigence, and political disavowal — a mood that still pervades the liberal left — leads Coates not to pessimism, as many of his critics have charged, but to apocalypticism, that old standby of American impossibilism. The catastrophe Coates imagines is not a social apocalypse of black rage and rebellion. It is a natural apocalypse, the vengeance of the earth against white America’s fetish for cheap oil:

Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves. …The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.

Despite Coates’s atheism and the science of global warming that underlies this vision of destruction, it’s hard to escape its theological overtones. Baldwin derived the title of The Fire Next Time from the couplet of a black spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign./ No more water, the fire next time.” The couplet is a more menacing rendition of the original story in Genesis 9. After the Flood, God promises Noah that he will never again destroy humanity and that the rainbow will be a sign of God’s covenant with humanity. But the spiritual Baldwin cites warns of a different ending: This time, it was the flood; next time, it will be the fire. Though The Fire Next Time was written in 1962, it’s hard not to read it as a premonition of the urban fire that would consume America later that decade.

Coates writes out of an even stronger atheism than Baldwin, yet he conjures a catastrophe more biblical and otherworldly than anything Baldwin, who was reared and steeped in the teachings of the black church, imagined. Baldwin envisioned not a flood but a fire, a fire set by men against men. For Coates, it is the opposite: no more fire, the water next time.

So there will be a rescue from the sky, of sorts. Black America will be delivered by a sovereign from above. Its suffering will come to an end. Only it will end the way all living things come to an end: by death. The answer to black suffering is not a public roused, but as was true of Hobbes, a public annihilated.

It’s no surprise that Sunstein and Coates wind up in the same place: with a public destroyed. The presupposition of their writing is that a politics unafraid to put division and conflict, the mobilization of a mass, on the table, is in fact off the table. The power of their writing derives from the fact that that is not merely a presupposition but an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in. A world where it is difficult to imagine the summoning of a public, beyond the intermittent, ever-more-fleeting summons we’ve seen these past 20 years: first in response to the inequities of the global trade regime; then in response to the Iraq War and the financial crisis; now in response to mass incarceration. We know, we hope, that something bigger, more lasting, will come. But when, and whether that “when” will come in time, we don’t know.

It is here, amid the increasingly short half-lives of these movements, that we must look for the fate of our public intellectuals. Not in the fear that there are no intellectuals but in the fact that there seems to be no possibility of a public.

In making that suggestion I am mindful of Russell Jacoby, whose The Last Intellectuals was a founding text for my generation. I read it in the last years of college, and it made me resolve to do things differently from how Jacoby said academics were doing things. I’d either join the ranks of the freelance or try to write, as an academic, for the kinds of lost audiences Jacoby describes in his book. I chose the latter; others chose the former. Whichever path we chose, we did it with The Last Intellectuals in mind. As a goad, a judge, a prod. The text did the very thing it said could no longer be done: It created a public.

From the vantage of Jacoby’s book, the prospects today for public intellectuals seem even better. After all, one of the material factors Jacoby claimed was driving intellectuals away from the public was the ease and comfort of university life. That life is gone: The precarity that Jacoby saw outside academia is now the norm inside academia. And while precarity often propels men and women to play it safe, a new generation of graduate students and young academics seems to have thrown caution, and academic protocol, to the wind. We see them in the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and Jacobin, hurling their smarts at mass incarceration or the crisis in Greece, using their well-wrought words as weapons against student debt, crappy jobs, even capitalism itself.

We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear in the face of state repression or social intransigence but instead will dig in and charge forward. And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today. Not tenure, not the death of bohemia, not jargon, but the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.


Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. This essay is adapted from his keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.

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