Sunday, November 12, 2006

What's Wrong with This Picture?

"You beat your pate, and fancy wit will come;
Knock as you please, there's nobody at home." -- Alexander Pope
No, not that picture, but the picture we get when we look into the prophetic pool of the academy. It's a prophetic pool because it certainly isn't a mirror. Instead, we look into academe to find out what will be, in two senses. First, the fads and foolery of the colleges will soon enough be on satirical television shows and then the streets of America. Second, the theoretical and research results there will get into the heads of millions of people and then shape the actual practice of the knowledge implicated industries (which is most of them now). At the same time, everyone thinks that the pool lies, that it's wrong. So, what is wrong with academia, other than me, I mean?

The first problem is the one that anyone who thinks for a moment will realize: it is a fortune-telling mirror, and so it shows what is not but what will be. Therefore, it is always false. It is always not what "we" think. Therefore, whether it says "God Is Dead" in 1965 (yes, that's the link to the original that got everyone from the Southern Baptist Convention to Bernie Taupin talking) or "The margin is the center" (no link, but it's Jacques Lacan or Shaka Khan or the Wrath of Madeline Kahn), it's altogether nonsensical, outrageous, and a waste of tax payer dollars. Needless to say, people will soon enough find these suggestions and researches shaping their public discourses, both in positive and negative incarnations.

The related problem to that is that these things seem to be a danger to the youth of Athens. Let's brew up that hemlock tea, because our nice, clean cut freshmen are coming home as promiscuous whores and liberals! The fact is, of course, that universities don't make children liberal, or whores. College simply exposes people to other ideas, ideas not found at the dinner table, and that's something that shows them that father might not have known best. What they do then is anyone's guess. The more tightly repressed they had been at home, the more kinetic energy they have built up and the more they will bound out of the box in a different direction. Lost virginity and no thunderbolt of pregnancy? Hey, this is fun! Neighbor on the hall smokes dope and doesn't rob liquor stores? Kewel! We all know this dynamic, and it includes ideas and ideology. Novelty is dangerous.

Where did this come from? Well, the biggest villain in this blog essay is going to be publish or perish and its devouring effect on knowledge. The hero is going to be curiosity and patience. Ok, the heroes are going to be curiosity and patience.
  1. When you have to publish on anything and everything, you have to be new. In science, this leads to an article on every result in your huge experiment. You want to find out if insulin-like growth factor-I and insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 administered concommitantly will reduce insulin resistance in patience with metabolic syndrome. That's going to take years. At each step (in vitro results, in vivo results, phase I-III trials), you publish a paper. Instead of a coherent result, you deliver a dozen results. Sure, someone might take a piece of your research and work from it, but they know that you're on a big mission. In humanities, though, and in social sciences, you have to be different damn it. You have to avoid the competition, because everyone has the same laboratory you do (they all have brains and grad students and libraries), so you'd better go off, man. You'd better not write on Shakespeare and the meaning of the plays, on in-groups and how they police themselves, the Battle of Midway and why it succeeded for the US. Those are so done, and the journals aren't interested in repeating old truths in new ways or putting old wine in a new skin.
  2. When you work with patience and curiosity, you may come up with some really wild stuff that will take an age to find application. Sure, Gregor Mendel was ignored, but so was Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Here's the deal, though, what does novelty do to us? What, in the humanities, is going to be the problem?

The chief problem is that flight into a private garden. When you have to be alone, when you have to own the field, when you have to eliminate competition by eliminating intercourse, you will not only avoid the basic stuff that readers and students want ("whatzit mean, prof?"), but, curiously, that we push meaning off to our garden and pretend to answer the central needs by making them our own.
"No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself." -- Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ *, 3, iii.
Look, it was always the case that people avoided competing with the greats of their fields. We can all sing "Shine on/ Shine on, Harold Bloom/ Up there at Yale" for his The Anxiety of Influence and its confession. Sure, you have to say that T. S. Eliot was emotionally constipated, if you want to write poetry after him. You have to say that Wayne C. Booth is gullible about the determinacy of texts, if you want to write in the next generation of critics. We all know that. I'm not going to waste your time pointing it out (except that I did... I'm sooooo po-mo). No, rather, it's that we have changed our priority.

In literature and history, and in art-history and even law, people have been infected with the fever of "theory." Theory is unavoidable, etc. We all have a theory, etc. We are all practitioners of ideology, etc. You bet. Who would argue from that old trench? Feminism to lesbian feminism to body feminism to brain science feminism to psychoanalytic feminism to third wave, to fourth wave, etc. Marxism goes to a sort of mass psychology, cultural history (sort of), Foucault's psychological Marixm, post-Hegelian Marxisms, etc. That's all ok with me. Linguistics primers falling into the wrong hands leads to post-structuralism of a sort. Cultural anthropology leads to structuralism leads to an aesthetic structuralism, which leads to anti-structuralist reading "against" the structure, which can go into more of that post-structuralism thing or reader response or cultural aesthetics and reception aesthetics, etc. Let's all give a shout out to our peeps in the theorizing room. They're all groovy to me. I love them all and extend my blessing upon the whole gibbering crowd.

What gets me, and what ties me back to the subject, tangentially, is that the way we are getting to feed the furnace of publication. Instead of the old game of writing about Richard O. Cambridge instead of Alexander Pope and Scribleriad rather than Dunciad, but that's old news and respectable as it adds to the world of knowledge. It used to be that we would select a subject and then seek out an approach that would be useful for it. What's happening now is that we are starting with a theory and looking for a text that it works with. We start off as a post-feminist post-structuralist modernist and then try to find a poet(ess) that will make the theory work. The result of that is that we get articles on the most minor, the most alien, works possible.


"...the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions...." --A Tale of a Tub

when you first find your dry cleaner poet because he fits your post-Hegelian paradigm, you cut out one of the most important tests of a theory. Each theory proposes a conclusion inductively or deductively about a set, and it can be validated only by reference to an outside theory (bad article on the subject, but I'm lazy). You have to take any closed system of propositions and compare it to a different closed system to verify it. If you start with a conjecture ("people from Lyon are liars") and then go find a person to fit it, you haven't demonstrated anything about the conjecture.

You see the importance? I hope so.

If we are verifying our own theories by seeking confirming examples, then we are expressing no form of curiosity at all. We are beginning from a position of knowledge and faith, not inquiry. We were interested only so long as we were reading the theory. Once convinced of it, we are ready to go on and prove it. Furthermore, the fact that we go find the subject that proves our theory shows no patience, either. We are guaranteed results.

So, if this is true, we are no longer going to be producing a controversy that will permeate culture, because the ideas won't be able to multiply or sink in. After all, they were only energized by being bulked from within their own claims. We are left, then, with the troubling image in the still waters of the academic pool, but the ugly picture is not any longer the future. The widening of minds is no longer explosive and destabilizing curiosity that will send students home with a wide view, but rather the image of competition, of blind proof, of stating one's faith and demanding that only the confirming examples exist. Even George Bush could publish in a world like that.


Anonymous said...

first occurrence: patients, not patience

cheers from the schoolmarmoset

The Geogre said...

Quite right, of course, unless I was punning. It was a typo, but then I wondered if, perhaps, I might have been unconsciously clever. Once again, one must write drunk, edit sober.