Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The unlocked archives

With the decline of Latin as the language of learning in England during the eighteenth century, scholars in many diverse fields—Gibbon in history, Blackstone in the law, Adam Smith in political economy—were constrained to address a more general audience of intelligent men and women rather than a closed society of the learned. Since then, some of the worst features of scholarship have been attempts to replicate Latin’s closed-door effect. Technical jargon, “referee journals,” the circulation of authoritative names, the flashing of credentials, questionable assumptions treated as self-evident truths—scholarship has fashioned itself to exclude the intelligent layman.

All that is changing. Not merely is English, the new language of learning, also the language of commerce and cruelly inhospitable to jargon, converting it to ordinary language as quickly as possible. (Witness the career of the word deconstruction. Introduced into English by Derrida’s essay “The Ends of Man” in 1969, it began to be used regularly in the book pages of general-circulation journals between 1981 and 1983, and within a decade it had deserted the tight quarters of literary criticism to enter the discussion of foreign policy, fashion, and domestic politics. The word briefly enjoyed a vogue culminating in Woody Allen’s boring 1997 film Deconstructing Harry.)

What is even more important, the rise and spread of electronic archives like Jstor, ProQuest, LexisNexis, EbscoHost, Project Gutenberg, and many others, now make it possible for anyone, credentialed or not, to engage in archival research. Irritable mental gestures no longer need content themselves with merely resembling ideas; they can ground themselves now in demonstrable knowledge. And the knowledge is both wider and more certain than it was just a few years ago.

When I first wrote The Elephants Teach several years ago, for example, I was pretty sure that the term creative writing was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I had to hedge my bets by saying that his “1837 Phi Beta Kappa address ‘The American Scholar’ . . . apparently contributed the phrase . . . to the lan­guage” (emphasis added). All I had to fall back upon was my own wide reading. Just now, though, I double-checked to make sure. A few minutes were sufficient to confirm that the phrase was not used again until David Masson published his history of British Novelists and Their Styles in 1859. “It is the part of all poets and creative writers . . . to make rich the thought of the world by additions to its stock of well-known fancies,” Masson wrote, singling out “Scott’s creative writing” as having made the greatest contribution since Shakespeare to “the hereditary British imagination.”

And of course I can now distribute this tidbit of knowledge, not in the ponderous form of a scholarly paper, weighted down by the chains of footnotes and delayed by quarterly publication (at best!), but in a homely little blog. Where I can also correct my errors and reply to my critics with dispatch. And develop my ideas under relentless public scrutiny.

The effect is the democratization of scholarship, although you might not guess it from reading most online publication. Easing the conditions of scholarly research has not encouraged the development of the scholarly temperament. As easy as it has become to obtain knowledge, opinion-mongering is easier still. And so the self-contradiction: never before has the society of learning been more open, while that very openness discourages the patient accumulation and fidgety exactitude required for true leaning. Small wonder Miriam Burstein is reluctant to list her blog The Little Professor on her vita, despite the fact that her blog is a daily exercise in the life of scholarship. Blogs have earned the reputation for uninformed stridency, because few bloggers have accepted the invitation to visit the newly unlocked archives of human learning.

2 comments:

jseliger.com said...

Introduced into English by Derrida’s essay “The Ends of Man” in 1969, it began to be used regularly in the book pages of general-circulation journals between 1981 and 1983, and within a decade it had deserted the tight quarters of literary criticism to enter the discussion of foreign policy, fashion, and domestic politics. The word briefly enjoyed a vogue culminating in Woody Allen’s boring 1997 film Deconstructing Harry.)

If you haven't seen it yet, try Francois Cusset's French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, which attempts to track the institutional and literary forces that allowed a handful of philosophers to become literary stars in the United States—when in France, Foucault and Derrida are apparently mostly forgotten.

Some parts of the story are well-known, like the 1966 Hopkins conference and the post-1975 job market inversion, but others are less so, and the book is scholarly but readable. One major thing I've taken from reading it, as well as On Literatuare, is to separate what Derrida actually discussed in most of his work (language, texts, novels, etc.), which is grounded in the reading, from what some of his acolytes did with it ("nothing means anything! Let's go to lunch").

R. T. said...

In my department (and in my university), to be seen as a "blogger" is almost as if one must stand in front of the campus entrance while wearing a scarlet letter that proclaims one's indiscretions, one's violations of scholarly rigor, one's academic heresy. Publication in peer-reviewed journals or university press books (usually with the most convoluted and jargon-loaded content) remains the most honorable and acceptable badge of courage and accomplishment. Does my observation about my academic environment sound similar to your experiences?