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.
Posted by Jeffrey Cohen at 6:23 AM
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When I was accepted to my Ivy League PhD programme I got a telephone call from a famous professor (who will remain unnamed). He did his best to convince me to attend this certain Ivy League university. Thing is, I wasn't quite sure where I'd heard of him before until I noticed the book propping up one of the four legs of my desk chair. As this professor extolled the virtues of his graduate programme, I realised that the book propping up my chair was, in fact, written by him. Needless to say, I replaced it with another volume, and damned quickly.
And has this famous but unnamed professor continued to support you in unanticipated ways, just as his book once did? It would be only fitting.
Might there be a point to make here not about the shelf life of theory/scholarship, but about the owner's own maturation as a thinker? Kristeva may be disposable now because the book owner has internalized her thinking. Thus theory has no intrinsic shelf life, but as scholars grow intellectually, they have the freedom to transcend certain theorists, certain books.
My guess is that The Powers of Horror will remain a perennial best-seller of sorts. There are, after all, endless waves of eager undergrads and grad students who will have to pass through the rite de passage that is Kristeva.
Your bringing up Kristeva made me hunt through the house for my mini shelf of her work. I found them, all twelve (I would have sworn I owned only about 6 or 7), looking rather forlorn, since the last time I cracked one was to quickly reread the opening chapters of The Malady of the Soul, which I looked at for its argument on creativity and alexithymia.
My Kristeva must remain, if only because the books have acquired the status of a mini-set. And I hate to break up a set. (If I ever get my hands on the #$%^er who swiped volume 3 of my Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, they'll wish they were never born.)
But isn't it also true that certain scholarly-type [or philosophical] authors are never outgrown and never go "out of style," as it were? Sometimes, what we prop up our furniture with is not related to our critical assessment of that book's worth, and we're just poor, or something, like I was when I used the Riverside Chaucer to prop up a bookcase. It was just the right size and heft that I needed--that's all. But I hope, again, that there are certain authors who never outlive their usefulness. For me, the list is not too long:
Henry David Thoreau
By these authors I only mean to indicate writers of books I read in my twenties, thirties, and now, forties, and have not tired of. I keep going back to the same words over and over again, and am still inspired. For Simone Weil, it was the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Who is it for anyone else?
Troilus and Criseyde
Consolation of Philosophy
Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (elegant, spare, a tour de force of under-the-surface Marxism)
V. A. Kolve, Play Called Corpus Christi (people don't write beautiful books like this any more--revolutionary without having a short shelf life)
Does textual criticism have a longer shelf life than literary criticsm (of whatever persuasion). History may different - but with the exception of very, very few - Bloch, Hilton (both of whom established new paradigms) - those who either edited sources or whose work had a large empirically-based element possibly have the longest shelf life?
PS. Just realised that we'll both be at NCS - 'see' you there!
Emile: In part that's true. The ingestion and incorporation of scholarship and of some modes of conducting inquiry marks intellectual maturation in a way that can make it seem as if works have been left behind when in fact they've become omnipresent. Kristeva's Powers of Horror was a little different for me, though, in that I came to it as I was composing "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)." Kristeva didn't help me to say anything that I wasn't already arguing, but her poet's tongue helped me to let go of some of my obsession with precision and attempt writing that was a bit more affective, suggestive.
Eileen: Tough question. For philosophers it probably is Lucretius and Deleuze. For writers, Chaucer, Milan Kundera ... hmmm, would have to think about that more. For medievalists as literary critics, it is amazing how many times I've returned to the 1950s paragon of formalism, Muscatine. Other than that I tend to turn to books that were part of my graduate training, Kolve included. but probably more articles than books. Books ar ethe new articles (remember when an essay in Speculum could gain a person tenure? Me neither, but it used to be so).
Anonymous #1: with you on T&C; add Boethius to the list, too. What is it about prison that brings out such profundity in authors?
Anonymous #2: an N50 is a British Crackberry, isn't it? How un-medieval. You may be right about textual criticism, but then ago it does seem like that is also the kind of criticism that can be wholly left behind -- think of hwo different approaches are to developing a scholarly edition are now that we've given up on fantasies of ur-texts and first versions.
Crackberry??? - hmm - don't know about that - though just now most things feel possible. British? Definitely and Very Hybridly so.
It is amazing how rotten my spelling, word choice and punctuation become when I don't proofread.
Readers: "my" comment above was clearly written by a subliterate hacker masquerading as yours truly. Ignore it! But he's on to something with his off the cuff remark about how imprisoning smart people seems to give them a burst of creative energy, at least pre-execution.
Even-more-nearly-50: the reason I will never own a Blackberry or some other such easy way to check email is that I am worse than a Pavlovian dog. Every time it beeps I would have to peruse the incoming message because maybe -- finally!!! -- some institution is giving me that endowed chair with a fabulous salary and no duties, and if I don't respond immediately I will lose it to someone else.
At to brilliant writing productivity in prison, we can add Gramsci's "Notebooks" and Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol." A few years back I actually fantasized about how great it would be to be in either, a) prison, or b) a mental hospital, so I could have more time to write. Yes, I know, that's an idiotic fantasy. But still.
Gramsci was the other writer I had in mind when I mentioned prison productivity. Wilde, of course, also fits the bill.
As to prison fantasies of time to read and write: that one is in my repertoire, too. Three meals a day, lots of leisure ... just annex the Bibliotheque Nationale to Alcatraz or Strangeways and book me.
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