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April 13, 2005


This, though—this is secondary literature I can get behind. "The Definitive Guide to Simple Syrup"? "The Genealogy and Mythology of the Singapore Sling"? Fuck yeah.

Oh, oh, are we getting that?? Let's get that. Also, let's become mixology and barware scholars. Or, you could be mixology and I'll be barware. Deal?

Can't agree, and I think this is a particular problem for lit departments because, look what's going on in terms of naming: what elsewhere gets called "scholarship" is being labelled "secondary literature." Writing for a general, educated audience is surely a great thing to do--and in fact, a lot of important and respected literary scholars do that. But surely the *primary* audience for scholarship, as it is in any scholarly discipline, is other scholars. Secondary audience, their students (which is how political scholarship can, arguably, be "effective" in the "real world"--over time). Tertiary audience, the general interested public.

In terms of professionalism, at its worst, yes: this hierarchy becomes prescriptive and results in a lot of snotty status-seeking crap, e.g., the argument that the R1 vs. "teaching college" job clearly indicates relative levels of talent and skill, or the way that some departments and/or individual scholars look down their noses at those who write for a "popular audience." But an argument that scholars should write primarily for non-scholars is an overreaction to that sad state of affairs.

See also this, and the entries before it for more on this subject.

Point taken (but Green is, or was, an English professor, IIRC, so I assume he's got some familiarity with the topic).

Yeah, so that removes the "not qualified" thing, but there are plenty of English profs who sort of buy into that anti-intellectual (or, to be less inflammatory, conservative) streak of anti-English-as-discipline (or English-as-discipline-as-currently-practiced) criticism, no?

I should probably say that the public intellectual life bit isn't something I feel just about literary studies (which I, at least, am not really qualified to comment on) (so it's not just a matter of "secondary literature" v "scholarship"); I also think it's true of philosophy broadly construed, art criticism, and most sorts of humanistic endeavors, in a way that's not the case with, say, physics, because art, and literature, and philosophy, and such things are, or at least can and probably should be, shared parts of cultural experience and, well, life.

I won't contest that what literary scholars do is highly specialized and takes years of training, but there also seems to be a hewing off of the scholastic and everyday worlds, that serious thinking about art or whatever is like serious thinking about physics: something that they do at the university, and maybe that guy down the street with the circuit board, soldering iron and New York Review likes it too.

It was probably always that way, but this tickles my inner crank.

As long as I've got you here, can you tell me, what is the end of your scholarship? Not yours in particular—I wouldn't expect you to answer that in a public forum—but since I missed the chance to ask a philosopher what the point of philosophy scholarship was, why pass this up now? Why study literature at the professional level?

Ah, but with, say, physics, there are also plenty of fannish amateurs. My husband, for one.

You realize that I have never publicly confirmed or denied that I do literary studies. Indeed, I have neither confirmed nor denied that I am in the humanities/social sciences; that's the closest I've ever allowed anyone to get on blog (closer guesses in comments get deleted).

Having said that, I would *hypothesize*, that, *if* I were a scholar of literature, one reason would be that literature (more broadly, writing) is a form of thought. Metaphor and tone communicate as much as logic and reason do. Studying how those things work is not only a pleasure (and indeed, pleasure is a perfectly valid end in itself), it also aims to understand how that mode of thinking works.

I meant, of course, "humanities specifically" as opposed to "humanities/social sciences." People seem divided on whether it's the one or the other, and I am happy with that.

Ah, I inferred that you might have been in that general area from your link to Thanks fnba Zombie. That is, of course, a shoddy inference to have made!

I would never deny that if studying a certain kind of thing is what turns your crank, then that's a reason to do it, as we all like to follow our interests. I'm just highly skeptical, I suppose, that there will ever be much definite success or real progress in understanding how metaphor, say, works (wondering what a metaphor is a big freakin' deal in analytical aesthetics, and I have to say I've never really gotten the interest, but plenty of people seem to think it is interesting (I should say that I can see how understanding metaphorical modes of thought might be illuminating of how we form concepts and order our perceptions and stuff like that, but the essays I've read haven't been terribly interesting)), and how many discrete instances of scholarship actually do advance, or even might someday be part of an advance of, our knowledge in that arena.

I've got a healthy anti-intellectual streak on me, yep I do.

Ah, but that is presumably b/c, being a philosopher, you want scholarship to explain how metaphor works (say) directly. As opposed to indirectly, or by allusion, or illustration, or continued metaphors.

This is coming from the perspective of someone who is an amateur at everything (by which I mean, almost totally self-taught, rather than educated formally), but I have two reactions to this. The first is from my artsy-feely side, which agrees with you completely on this:

Furthermore, I can't see the production of scholarship solely for other scholars, divorced from public life or any kind of public intellectual scene (by which I don't mean a scene in which Public Intellectuals go about doing their thing, but an intellectualism in daily life sort of thing) as anything but pernicious.

Inasmuch as the whole point of literature and philosophy seems to me (Seems! No formal training here!) to be to generally ask the universal question of What In The Sam Hill Is Going On Here, then an ivory-tower-no-reality-please-we've-got-tenure sort of incestuousness is a problem.

But. But. My second reaction is that even sequestered intellectuals and art critics live in the same world we all do, and generally cope with the same big personal issues (ethics, mortality, parenting, to name a few) as the rest of us. Therefore, I feel like even studies that are so meta that they end up doubling back on themselves like Mobius strips can have value, if they're motivated by an honest reaction to the real world.

Also, I tend to think that no matter how removed from the general public a writer or philosopher or thinker is, if they have an impact within their own community, that impact will start to seep out into the rest of the culture as a whole.

All of which is to say, I'm so very very with you on having an instinctive revulsion to the circle-jerk tendencies of academia (if I take your meaning correctly; not trying to put words in your mouth), but in spite of that, I end up reluctantly acknowledging that sometimes what comes out of that world is of great value to the way in which we all cope with this life.

The "circle jerk tendencies of academia." So, so tempting. But no, I shall refrain.

BTW, our child-free friends found my halfassed post about children as public goods and have been trolling me all day long. Just thought you'd enjoy the li'l trip down memory lane. (My way of handling 'em, though, is just to delete the comments.)

Your powers of restraint are an inspiration to us all.

As is your quiet sarcasm, which is itself so restrained as to be almost unrecognizable ;)

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