Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The Shelf Life of Scholarship
Last night I dreamt of Julia Kristeva's The Powers of Horror. Not surprisingly, it was a nightmare. Earlier in the day I'd thrown my frayed copy into the recycling bin, the victim of a massive biblionic cleansing that unfolded in my office (my new office has one less bookshelf, thus the screams of books consigned to pulpification and eventual rebirth as grocery bags). In this dream Kristeva's serene visage had transformed itself: eyes widening, hair a banshee's stream of darkness, mouth a Munchian howl. It was almost enough to draw me into a vortex of summons and repulsion (or some such abject state).
The dream was triggered by a conversation I'd had with a colleague who will be moving into my vacated office (may the karma not infect her). She remarked that she'd been looking over her shelves with an eye to cull, had seen Kristeva sitting there amongst the tomes, thought about how at one time she'd believed that to be a feminist was to read Kristeva ... and now those Lacanian musings seemed sadly dated. I agreed, and told her that my morose Julia was eager for company in the Bin of Unloved Books.
All of this talk about the shelf life of criticism made me think of Emile's recent postings about specialist scholarship that resonates with small ripples for a short time, then dwindles to silence. If even Kristeva finds herself in the bin, what about us tiny writers? It's a sad realization that much that we publish, like the clothes we wore ten years ago, will inevitably seem as dated as polyester or fauxhawks (or polyester fauxhawks). If I'm extremely lucky, a book like The Postcolonial Middle Ages (the book of which I am most proud, probably because it was such an ambitious collaborative project) will live on in its descendant projects, even if these children forget that it was one of their many ancestors. If I'm only moderately lucky, the day will come when someone declares that reading The Postcolonial Middle Ages is best done while listening to Depeche Mode and sipping green apple martinis, a kitschy nostalgia trip. If I'm unlucky, that volume will sit in a recycling bin, making sad and Kristeva-like faces, awaiting the shredder's maw.
PS Despair not for Julia K. It is true, I did recycle her Powers of Horror. But I keep another copy at home.