Lit Studies Blogging, Part II: Better breathing through blogging

by John Holbo on April 30, 2004

This is the follow-up to my previous academic literary studies and blogging post. (Memo to self: need snappier handle than ‘academic literary studies blogging’ – but not yet, lest we snap off some corner of the subject prematurely. ‘Bookchat’ not it – since it is vague and probably refers to a thing possibly necessary but hardly sufficient, if you see what I mean.) WARNING: post of interest to few.

After this post I swear I am going to settle down to just doing the sort of thing I have in mind, rather than talking about how nice it would be to do it. Proof in pudding. But I do want to be as clear as I can be beforehand, especially since – in my first post – mouth wrote a few checks brain can’t cash. Oh, and let me thank those who commented or wrote in response to my polite request for them to do so, thereby keeping me from looking like a fool. Erin O’Connor, Chun, Scott “we don’t need no stinking permalinks” McLemee [scroll down to April 19], Daniel “the Reading Experience” Green, Amardeep Singh, Adam Kotsko. Oh, and let me take this opportunity to plug The University Without Condition, which is really already doing something very close to what I want, getting more and more impressive, and getting more attention I think. Which is a good thing. And there were other responses to my post, but I gotta get on with it.

For the sake of effective diplomacy and intellectual hygiene, a rough subdivision of the topic. One pile of all the things I think are – or damn well should be – agreeable to a truly broad coalition of people who might have any interest in this topic. Another pile of all my highly incandescent dissatisfactions with the state of academic literary studies. The flames of the garrulousness of my wrath, glinting off so many axes to grind – brilliant, if you ask me, but today let’s mostly talk about the first pile, i.e. the agreeable stuff. (Aw, you came for the other stuff?) Chun called me out in comments for mixing the two, though that isn’t how he put it: “Your remark about the relative sophistication of non-academic blogs versus the professional journals of the field would be comically ignorant if you actually meant it, which of course you do not.”

It’s true. I didn’t exactly mean it. I crossed at least three wires, producing the more than faintly absurd hint that the bloggy likes of Maud Newton are in direct intellectual competition with the top academic journals, and holding their ground just fine. (“Why, reading one post by Maud, I feel my head filling up with a whole year’s wisdom from PMLA!” Some sort of universe in a grain of snark phenomenon, apparently.) This is absurd not because there’s anything wrong with Maud, or because the journals are better than Maud – they’re not – but because it’s apples and oranges. What I really meant was:

1) I intensely dislike most literary studies journals. This frustrates me, since I would like to like them. They seem to me obstinately bad. Like back when Americans all drank instant coffee and ate sullen wedges of iceberg lettuce and called that ‘salad’ (so I’m told by Alice Waters. If she’s exaggerating for effect, make up your own example of something preposterously less nice than it quite easily could be.) In his post in response to mine Chun says that blogs fuel resentment. This is probably true since practically everything does. But I really do think, at least in my own case, it’s more an irritable inability to utter the liberating word. These problems ought to be put-rightable with the right words. But you say what seem to be the ones, or near enough, and the problem persists, like a stone on your tongue, keeping you from being heard – gagging you. So, in frustration, you emit less than articulate noises. Maybe that’s resentment.

2) I do truly and honestly believe academic literary studies needs a dozen Maud Newtons by yesterday, delivering smart, snappy, short, insightful, informative posts about what things – good and bad – are going on in academic books and journals and so forth. This would not be a substitute for writing scholarly articles and books, but a supplement to it. (What Maud does is obviously parasitic – in a good way – on other people doing other, mostly longer sorts of stuff.) This is really the point I made in comments to my first post: literary studies has rotten circulation, and will not get off the floor without vigorous massaging to get the blood flowing. Traditional academic journalism is lousy for this purpose. And I don’t mean to imply hereby that we now need a lot of EXACTLY what Maud does. It’s not like I singled her out because she’s got some magic formula. No, we could use a whole range of offerings, many of them quite academically non-traditional. I have this dream in which academic literary studies is not so much carpet-bombed with constant snarks – naw, more just a constant, low-level pelting with brusque and disarming frankness, if you please. Maud is a good example. So I linked her.

3) I think good literary journalism, of a lengthier length than Maud purveys, is indeed in direct intellectual competition with the likes of PMLA, and pretty much winning. Ray Davis and Scott McLemee and Daniel Green and others I mentioned – and more whom I promise to mention – tend to be more interesting and incisive. At least there is a clear point to it. This isn’t to say smart stuff doesn’t appear in academic lit studies journals and books, but tragically inhumed alongside masses of such dreadful dreck it’s hardly worth digging to find the live ones. Which takes us back to 2): the need for a bunch of smart, heroic Mauds with powerful bloggy mandibles, capable of gnawing through mounds of bad to find good. This point is worth underlining in red sharpie, lest my anti-theory surliness and habitual snarkiness be misunderstood: I don’t think everything in the journals is bad. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need a group blog. You’d need a shovel. Or something.

I persist in finding 3) so self-evident that I am always a little surprised when folks like Chun sincerely and earnestly and forthrightly deny it. Chun is, I believe, quite an intelligent, clever fellow. I like him. Damned hilarious, most days. Sometimes he is overly … that way. But if there were no Chun, he would have to have invented him. (Do you have a better explanation?) Chun believes, on grounds that are obscure to me, that there is at present some sort of disciplined superiority, or at least commendable separateness, to academic literary studies. Go figure. So I am going to try to work around this elephant squatting in the middle of our would-be literary salon. As David Lewis says: “It is difficult to refute an incredulous stare.”

Maybe (not quite sure) what I will offer today amounts to a toned-down, slightly more diplomatic formulation of point 3), plus a clearer, less polemically inaccurate articulation of point 2). Point 1) should cool its spring-heels. (It will get loose at multiple points. I’m not made of stone, you know.) The point of trying to be at least a little bit diplomatic is to emphasize that – although I am personally motivated by profound discontent with academic literary studies – less profoundly discontented souls ought to find it a good idea, too.

One further note, which isn’t really on point but can be finessed into a sort of launch pad. A reasonable question to ask an academic philosopher who sets out to reform literary studies: this isn’t really your department, is it?

There is, to judge from comments and a few emails, a teensy suspicion that I am pulling a Silver Surfer, herald of Galactus number, announcing philosophy on its way to eat defenseless literary studies (under cover of blogging.) I take it this provokes a touch of resistance, not because it is scary but because it is ridiculous. Analytic philosophers, bless us, are unsuited, by temperament and training, to be philosopher kings of lit studies, let alone eat it for lunch. Anyway, I renounce imperial ambition. My reason for being enthusiastic and long-winded on behalf of literary studies blogging is that, frankly, I see room to do a lot of substantial good. This has quite a bit to do with me being a philosopher, yes; but more to do with being a blogger who is addicted to literary and cultural criticism.

No, really. Why lit blogging, not philosophy blogging?

In philosophy it seems to me the benefits of blogging are real. It is a fine intellectual utility and we ought to realize its potential and not be falsely modest. On the other hand, there is no defect of academic philosophy that seem to me to necessitate blogging. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t defects of the discipline.) With regard to literary studies, by contrast, it seems to me there are clear and serious and systemic infirmities of the beast that are really only treatable by something like blogging. (Well, not JUST that. But something UNLIKE conventional academic journalism is necessary to get us out of this rut.) And, if treated, the beast might be a much healthier, nobler beast in surprisingly short order. Which it certainly should be.

In part it’s the publishing crisis. But for once in my life let me not cram absolutely everything that pops into my head into one post. I’ll just link two fun-sized Timothy Burke mini-jeremiads (here and http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/tburke1/perma12104.html”>here) on the subject of the badness of journals and the goodness of electronic publishing. Electronic publishing not the same as blogging, let alone literary studies blogging, naturally. That’s why I’m setting it aside. But it’s related. And lit studies is squeezed as hard as it gets right now. And when I read stuff in PMLA and “Critical Inquiry” about the crisis in humanities publishing – i.e. when I’m not reading sensible discussions of the subject on blogs – no one seems to be talking sense. The phrase ‘and a pony’ springs to mind. So I don’t think the patient can heal itself. I figure Burke is right and there’s a shakeout coming. Shrewd folks ought to position themselves to live like Max, in the post-apocalyptic ‘two journals enter, one journal leaves’ world of … Oh, sorry. Lost it there. I’m back now. I’ll talk about blogging and electronic publishing some other time. Not like I’m an expert or anything.

Why do I think literary studies needs blogging so all-fired much, eh? The diplomatic way to put it is: literary studies is fundamentally Romantic at this moment in time. (The undiplomatic way: literary studies is irredeemably decadent Romanticism, i.e. a surprising amount of it is really just sentimental kitsch. I think so. But don’t take my word for it.) A passage from Nietzsche’s “Schopenhauer as Educator” (§3):

“An Englishman recently described the most general danger facing uncommon men who live in a society tied to convention: ‘Such alien characters at first become submissive, then melancholic, then ill and finally they die. A Shelley would not have been able to live in England, and a race of Shelleys would have been impossible.’ Our Hölderlin and Kleist, and who knows who else besides, were ruined by their uncommonness and could only endure the climate of so-called German culture; and only natures of iron, such as Beethoven, Goethe, Schopenhauer and Wagner are able to stand form. But these too exhibit many of the effects of the wearying struggle they have had to engage in; they breath heavily and their voice can easily become too loud.”

This is the very most positive spin I can bring myself to put on the contemporary academic lit scene, in good conscience. English profs are all Shelleys with respect to English (if not England.) They wouldn’t be able to live in an actually disciplined English department. So actually existing institutional literary studies is a race of Shelleys. That is, it is impossible.

I have argued incidentally for the thesis that theory is basically (decadent) Romanticism in my big fat dialogue. And I happen to be reading an OK book called The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory, by somebody named Justin Clemens. (Just picked it off the shelf because I liked the title.) The basic thesis seems to me manifestly sound though I quibble sorely with Clemens’ exposition, and perhaps I shall post about it (he does make some genuinely good puns): scratch any big name in literary studies or cultural studies and what do you find underneath? A Romantic soul. Some strayed son or daughter of Schlegel or Novalis.

You have your doubts? Well, that is very reasonable of you. But, what with there being 200 different possible senses of ‘Romanticism’, ditto for ‘theory’, you can probably find some sense of ‘theory is romantic’ that makes the sentence come true. In all semi-seriousness, it seems to me it comes really surprisingly close to coming down to just this:

1) Literary studies is no longer held together by any ‘field coverage model’ (I think that’s Gerald Graff’s term.) Periods. Genres. National literatures. Not that there aren’t still curricular divisions and specializations, mind you. But many more people are ‘interrogating’ them – torturing them into confessing, whether they are guilty or not – than dutifully observing them. These former divisions, now fallen on hard times, are so busy serving as scapegoats and whipping boys that they aren’t exactly performing a regulative function. (Yes, it’s more complicated. This is just a blog post. If you find what I just wrote inadequate, do you disagree with it? If so, state your reasons.)

2) There are so many theories and methodologies that basically there are no theories or methodologies. If you have twenty theories to choose from, from vaguely rationalistic, scientistic stuff to complete irrationalism; and if you have no method for settling on a method; and if you are allowed to pull it apart and stick it back together any which way, so it’s just eclecticism all the way down; then what you are doing is not in any meaningful sense ‘critical’, let alone ‘theoretic’. So literary studies is at present radically uncritical. And radically undertheorized, due to a glut of critical theory. As the great Romantic poet once said: “Smell how you like.” So long as you smell like the rest of us. The word for that is: rigor.

OK, this is an undiplomatic thing to say, even if it’s true. Let me soften it ever so slightly: maybe there are a few brilliant ‘theorists’ doing something pure and genuinely critical and rigorous out there. But the mass of lit studies denizens are patently engaging in eclectic ‘little of this, a little of that’-type stuff. Whatever its improvisational appeal, this is not a critically rigorous theoretical procedure. It just can’t be. (Think about it.) And yes, there are rationalists, but their sensible arguments don’t get a lot of traction. If someone doesn’t like your compelling rational argument to the conclusion that they are wrong about something, it’s easy just to glide away on any of a dozen irrationalist cross-currents

3) No one knows what the point is. Literary studies exhibits an eminently Romantically disordered bi-polar, manic-depressive oscillation between despair at its atrophy and moribundity and extreme transformative, transgressive imperial ambition to run around setting the world on fire – culture, politics, society, philosophy, the whole banana.

2 & 3 interact in particularly kitschy fashion. If your method is basically ‘mix and match methods to get the result you want’, and if you don’t really know what you want, you do not behave in a disciplined fashion. You sneak lots of peeks at the neighbors, to see what they are doing, and you do the same. And they are peeking at you. Also, since I happen to be quite sure literary studies cannot be doomed – since there will always be literature to lean on; and since I don’t think it’s going to set the world on fire – well, why should it? – I find this resolute avoidance of all the views that have any chance of being actually correct to be uncannily inaccuracy. (Call it the Unheimlich maneuver.) Also, Romantic students of literature who pretend they are all above the whole aesthetics pretty-pretty appreciation thing because they’ve got an ounce of Fredric Jameson in the belly? In my book that’s just Romanticism minus self-knowledge. And calling it ‘critical theory’ doesn’t do a lot to make it look not so silly.

OK, once again: maybe not such a diplomatic thing to slap the face of lit studies with, these accusations. But I am reaching across the aisle to the following degree: many academic lit studies folks see a sort of brilliance and glory – or at least necessity – to the near total, transgressive anarchism of lit studies. They think the boundaries NEED interrogating, for deep reasons; there MUST be an inconsistent riot of theories and methods, travelling and hybridizing. And the point – ah, the point. So elusive, is it not? In short, it is all so Romantic.

But, you know, there is a lot to be said for Romanticism and anarchism – if not in literary studies, then where? Turning the point around, it is all well and good to speak on behalf of a return to sober, rational standards of argument and evidence. I often get all hot and bothered in that vein. But, frankly, literary studies has never been – never will be – a Popperian realm of disconfirmable hypotheses. (Yes, I know: neither is science. But perhaps you see my point. Literary studies too old and honorable to turn quite honest, so we can’t just make the point that theory is dishonest, as though that implied a solution.)

At any rate, I expect there are serious limits to the degree to which the field of literary studies can possibly be de-Romanticized at this stage of the game, even if it should be (which is a serious question in itself.) It is especially hard to see how to get to an even semi-organized (let alone rationalized) point B from the point A at which we stand. Romantics, like cats, simply won’t stand in line and be counted, let alone be disciplined. They wander away and take naps or lick themselves.

So anyway, folks like me who think literary studies is a big, kitschy mess, and folks who think things need to be this way for deep, Ursprunglich reasons can maybe agree about this much: darn hard to find your way around. No street signs. No streets. It is that most Romantic of look-outs: picturesque rubble. Evocative decay, plus the possibly lying promise of fecund, semi-random new growth over the old. (Rhizomatics, if you prefer the French for ‘annoying weeds that spring up between every crack’.)

Now here are two compounding factors.

First, literary studies is big. How many members of the MLA? 30,000? (Something like that?) All these teachers of literature. When in the history of the world has such an absurdly large guild of subsidized literary scribblers existed? But they are all needed to teach and grade and so forth. (The number itself is not wrong, although it does seem rather miraculously grandiose. Good for us for having so many colleges and universities at which droves of young folks can get liberal arts degrees. May this state of affairs long endure. Yes, I know. The employment situation is wretched and scandalous. We all mourn the Invisible Adjunct. And I see that Erin O’Connor is now leaving academia, which is astonishingly principled of her, and I wish her all happiness in her new career. I’m just trying to be a little upbeat: it’s nice that there is liberal education, even if at present migrant field workers – in history, English, so forth – are needed to make it work.) As I was saying: frankly, since many more would-be teachers are clamoring after the few new jobs, they all have to be made to compete. And how else than through some sort of writing and publishing? There must be hoops to jump through.

Second, whenever you make people compete in this way, they find little ways to pad and inflate and hyperventilate. Not to mention they just plain publish too much for their own and everyone else’s good. Publish stuff too soon. And stupid dissertation tricks (as Timothy Burke calls them.) So we have more scholars than ever. Publishing more than they strictly should. We have, then, I don’t know how many orders of magnitude too much stuff, measured by the only sane benchmark: produce that which is genuinely good, or genuinely wanted. (Yes, not all 30,000 actually publishing. I know. But you see my point. It’s a lot. The drive to produce is enormous and substantially unhinged not just from serious considerations of quality but even from the desire – let alone need – to consume.)

Now all this is obvious and well-known. But it is worth emphasizing that much of the deep loathing I (and many others) have for the state of literary studies is, in fact, a function of a rising gorge upon contemplation of the fruits of overproduction. And if it weren’t overripe, Romantic fruits of contemporary theory, it would be something else. So this problem we have is not new, and French fashionable nonsense (et al.) is not exclusively to blame. Read Edmund Wilson’s “Fruits of the MLA for a picture of how, not long ago, the tribe of literary scribes was overproducing along very different lines. Reams of pointlessly dry, pedantic, overly-complete textual scholarship that few readers really find interesting. (Nothing wrong with a little pedantry, mind you. Been there, done that. But a little goes a long way.)

So it is easy to criticize contemporary literary studies ineffectively – since unfairly – due to a failure to conceive any genuinely realistic, i.e. institutionally comprehensive, alternative. Here is a personal case in point from my previous post. I approvingly quote the estimable, re-quotable Ray Davis (who is not an academic):

“Clearly my notion of “real scholarship” is as one with my notion of good fannishness. Again, I think of the amateurish era of Joyce studies, when the bulk of a journal could be taken up by “Notes” – aperçus, speculations, elucidations, emendations, and jokes – and its later aridity, talking long and saying little. Grad school can’t alone be responsible for thinning that fannish energy. As proven by the tender verdancy of academic weblogs, the joy of shared discovery continues ready to burst out, given half an opportunity. There’s something herbicidal about professional academic publishing itself.”

Now I think I know what Chun would say about me (an academic) quoting such stuff. “Congratulations. You have now discovered, at great length, and considerable bother to other folks, that you really don’t like actual scholarship, for which you blame scholarship. You like to have your brain and spinal column diddled with enthusiastic, moderately high-level bookchat. Fine. Now hush. There are scholars at work here.” I don’t think this is fair, but the barb does graze the flesh. I may be a little guilty of talking as though my distaste for certain necessary features of academia (e.g. it is not a fanclub) is a plan for reforming academia. This would be a quite fundamental – and rather funny – sort of confusion on my part. But I’m pretty sure that can’t be the whole story. Largely because, as per above, literary studies is presently not a well-regulated scholarly community, with busy little bees storing away new honey of knowledge in neat little compartments. It’s anarchy and Romantic riot. Maybe that’s good, maybe it’s bad, but – under the circumstances – might as well please yourself. (Isn’t that the Romantic thing to do?) Certainly vain pantomime of sober scholarship hardly seems called for. Chatting about what you like in the ruins is at least not flagrantly inconsistent with the actual nature of ruins.

Where am I going with all this? I’m supposed to be talking about academic lit studies blogging. Well, so I am. It seems to me that blogging offers literary studies the chance to grow something that it desperately, desperately needs: a less flagrantly non-functional circulatory system for its massive, bloated corpus.The publishing crisis is symptomatic: circulation down, in terms of the bottom line. And this is because circulation is down in so many other senses; folks just plain not talking to each other.

But why is lit studies substantially worse off than other fields – even other humanistic fields – which must be equally afflicted with the problems of large population and overproduction, leading to skewed supply and demand in publishing? I think mostly it’s the straw of Romanticism that breaks the beast’s back. Consider the following email from Lawrence La Riviere White, published by Ray Davis over at Pseudopodium. It is the specific occasion for Ray’s confession – quoted and linked above – that basically he’s a fanboy about scholarship. Lawrence (with whom I myself have shared the occasional, edifying epistle) writes:

“How much of “actual scholarship” turns out as (to use Kierkegaard’s word) chatter?

For example, during the last Cornel West debacle, UC’s John McWhorter weighed in against Professor West. Professor McWhorter cited his own current project, some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics (& from my small experience w/that field, those folks really can pare down an issue to the thinnest shavings). At this point I say to myself, “Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I’m sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?” Given my own experience trolling through journal after journal, I’m not going to bet my mortgage on it. & I’m not alone in this belief. Professor Wai Chee Dimock, a one-time guest of honor at our school’s graduate American Studies conference, advised us to remember that the shelf life for our writing is about ten years. In other words, no one reads this stuff anyway.

What’s to be done? Professor Dimock seemed to be arguing for lower standards. Don’t get too hung up on anything you’re doing just now, because you’re going to be on to something else soon enough. If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes & it’ll change. This smacks of rank professionalism to me. Don’t worry about the point of the game, just play it. I am too much of a romantic, but also too much over-invested in artifacts, to keep that down. If it’s pointless why don’t we just skip it? More silence, please. & when we do speak, perhaps a formal recognition of the insubstantiality of our discourse. Essays instead of books. Feuillitons (why I feel that word should be translated as “firecracker”?) instead of essays. If we can’t prove anything, why not have fun? Put a bit of sparkle in it!”

Needless to say, I agree. Except it is impossible to have silence. Academy won’t stand for it. Must be hurdles for scholars to clear, by way of earning and keeping their jobs. (I wish I could think of another way.) So this is the hard thing: we have to learn to live, with dignity, with the effluent of institutionalized logorrhea. Better plumbing is a notion that springs to mind.

Also, there is a crucial difference between a field like linguistics – or philosophy – and a field like literary studies (or American studies, interpenetrating with literary studies the way it does.) For better or worse, linguistics and philosophy are just plain better ordered. (Not necessarily better, but more orderly. That’s all I’m strictly taking to be obvious.) Let me stick with philosophy, which I know a little about. You may dislike analytic philosophy, think it is a meaningless sort of scholastic sideshow about nothing. You may think our problems are just updates of good old ‘how many angels can dance on the head of of a pin?’ But at least you can find signs directly you to the room in which that little puzzler is being intensely pondered. And little cubbies off from there: morris dancing on the head of a pin. Breakdancing on the head of a pin. Maybe it’s all meaningless. But if you have some modest contribution to make – on the assumption that it’s not all meaningless – there is a place to make that contribution where it can be heard, in all its modest non-glory. And for sure the system isn’t perfect. But you don’t always need to shout to be heard. The people in your room agree about what counts as an argument, so can just make your argument. Everyone else has read a lot of the same books, and there is considerable overlapping consensus about which ones were actually good. That’s nice. (Maybe it’s all desperately wrong-headed at bottom. But it is orderly on the surface.)

[HINT: I don’t actually think analytic philosohpy is scholastic nonsense. I’m just saying. If you did think that, you’d still have to admit its pretty well-regulated nonsense.]

In literary studies, you have to shout to be heard. 30,000 people having a conversation, no settled fields to subdivide this conversation; no agreed methods – not even in the most elementary sense; no agreements about what counts as evidence, or if there is such a thing as evidence, or whether it would be a good thing if there were. No agreed aims. It is all but structurally impossible to be frank and modest and positive and get noticed hereabouts. A modest, sensible scholar could not survive in an English department of Shelleys.

And speaking of Shelley, the closest this massive body – literary studies – has to a circulation system are occasional eruptions of sheer celebrity. Discussion grativates to, orbits around, a few ‘stars’, in the absence of any other agreeable focus point. And being frank and modest about what one is doing is no way to become a star.

What I have just said is grossly oversimple, but I do think there is a lot of truth to the thought that literary studies evolved a ‘star system’ as a way of getting any sort of circulation, when other stuff gave way. Whether you think these ‘stars’ really are bright and admirably energetic, or just so many metastasizing cancers on a sick body, you’ve got to admit that trying to facilitate a scholarly conversation between 30,000 people by means of a few nodes, which are basically single persons who specialize in being noticeable (e.g. often outrageous if not shamelessly self-promoting) is not self-evidently optimal. It is worth considering whether alternative communication lines could be laid.

I snarked mercilessly at an essay by Peter Brooks a few months back. Well, he deserved it. But the piece did have a few ‘alcoholic’s moment of clarity’-type moments, for which I hereby commend Brooks, and requote him lamenting the sorry state of the journals:

“We have placed a premium on “original published scholarship” that leads to a certain critical hyperventilation, the promotion into books of what should not be books, and the claim to significance where one would prefer a modest elucidation.”

Brooks advocates that English profs get together and lobby for money (and a pony?) to start new journals of review – mediating organs – to get things moving again. But I think there isn’t a lot of money for that sort of thing. Anyway, it is most likely simply to reproduce the hyperventilatory problems we have already got. The journals need a new journal like they need a hole in their head. (Some might say the hole would be preferable.) Really a new kind of reviewing – a whole new style of academic journalism – is needed. Because people are obliged by the dynamics of the system to hyperventilate. Because they have to shout to be heard. And then everyone else is obliged by the self-same dynamics to cultivate a certain deafness, except to the most earth-shattering noise. Lest they be eternally distracted by stuff that isn’t really worth bothering with. And so it goes.

So Romanticism makes for heavy-breathing and the pressure to overpublish leads to hyperventilation. And yet the blood just isn’t flowing, is it? Big thing lies on the floor, gasping in and out in great gusts like a landed fish. Nothing doing.

What we need – what blogs could (I hope) provide – is more or less what Lawrence White is asking after: more frank yet faintly sparkling modesty about what it all really amounts to. That’s why I seized on chat – not the right word; but it connotes enthusiastic modesty, which I like very much. Brief thoughts presented as brief thoughts, not puffed into articles. Article-length thoughts not made to pad out their bosoms to look like books. Everything what it is, not another thing. I shouldn’t use absolutist language like that. It ticks people off. It shouldn’t tick them off, but it does. But maybe you see my point about institutionally obligatory pretension having a downside as well as a potentially Romantic upside. And really I’m just saying: after decadent Romanticism, i.e. kitsch, a touch of Modernism goes nicely. Less functionless ornamentation, if you please.

And, on the positive side, academic lit blogs not just should but absolutely MUST hunt for, expose and ruthlessly advertise good stuff that really is out there. Very important to realize this potential, positive, boosting effect of academic lit blogging.

An anecdote: when I told some English prof friends that I was reading many issues of the PMLA cover to cover, back to back, to see if it was any good, they all looked at me as though I told them I whittled my own grape nuts for breakfast. Reading the PMLA, just to see if it’s ‘interesting’, struck them as an inherently absurd sort of activity. But they admitted that PMLA is a top journal. So we have a problem. PMLA precisely ought to be the sort of general organ lit studies types go to just to find something new and engaging that isn’t quite in their area. It ought to be readable that way. It needn’t be popularized, by any means. But it must not pretend to be more than it is – which, frankly, it now tends to do. And folks know it. So they stay away.

If someone told you which two out of ten pieces in the latest issue of PMLA were good, you just might go and read them. At least you might be interested to read a sharp, insightful digest of them. And that’s just the start. 500 journals and nuthin’ on. But actually: there are things on. But how will they get found and promoted? I’m not going to read 500 journals to find 50 good articles. It would be easier to research and write them myself. And don’t even get me started about the shelves and shelves of scholarly monographs. But a couple of them are probably OK. I wonder which ones.

In his post in response to mine Chun unbraids me for hubris in thinking I’ve got an Olympian perspective on the lit studies scene – just because I’ve read a few back issues of PMLA blah blah blah. Well, maybe I sound that way sometimes. In fact, I do. But in my sober moments I see that the problem is in fact that the place is so flat – no roads or signs or maps – that I can’t get anywhere, or see much of anything. So my complaint is not that everyone should be compelled to bow down voluntarily before my Zeus-like overview. My complaint that I don’t have, and can’t achieve, any such thing. And I don’t ask to see the whole universe sub specie aeternitatis, mind you. I just want something good to read when I want something good to read. I’ve read the ‘top’ journals; they are not good. Worse, they are not functioning as effective communication points to points beyond. Sometimes, poking around in minor journals, plucking books off shelves, I find very good stuff. But that’s just luck. That’s no way to run a discipline.

One of the main objections to academic blogging, predictably, will be that blog posts (comments boxes be damned) are not peer reviewed. Another objection will be that blogs are not exactly cures for ‘500 journals and nuthin’ on’ syndrome. (Treating the disease with the disease.) But these points miss the point, at least with regards to lit studies. Taking them in reverse: the blogosphere has (is?) a reputation economy, and of course it is most imperfect. Crap by the cartload. But, considering the size of the thing, it isn’t half bad. With a little effort you figure out where the good stuff is and you go there and you steer clear of the bad. That’s more than I can say for lit studies journals.

And the objection that academic blogs are not peer reviewed misses the point that I am advocating that blogs BECOME a giant, distributed network of peer review in literary studies. It is precisely efficient, comprehensive, fair, sane peer reviewing of this mass of stuff that is presently so desperately unreviewed that is needed. I simply don’t see any realistic way to achieve any leverage over this stubborn mass of overproduction, barring the discipline of literary studies disciplining itself, putting up street signs, building roads, even instituting traffic regulations that people try to obey (like: if you contradict yourself, that’s probably bad, not a sign that you are ready to move on to the next level.) Barring unforeseen development – e.g. discipline – literary studies will just be everyone breathing heavier and heavier and increasingly ingoring each other until it finally occurs to someone to cut funding. Which would be a damn shame.

OK. That’s enough for now.

{ 13 comments }

1

pro-lit 04.30.04 at 6:15 pm

Right, we’re romantic, and in our (my) eyes you guys show the symptoms of of a nasty case of clinical tautology. X=X=X=X=X=X

As Debord said of the spectacle, “All it says is: ‘Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.’ The attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances.”

We prefer the flip side: the particular, the contingent, the opening. What doesn’t fit, what suggests that there might be a fissure somewhere along the line…

We like the odd Q or W or -1 that tips the scale, might tip the scale…

You should thank us for doing this hard work. It is hard work. No apologies here…

2

des 04.30.04 at 6:34 pm

I do not know which to abjure:
The dreariness of scholasticism
Or the dreariness of idiocies,
The blogger wibbling,
Or just after.

3

chun the unavoidable 04.30.04 at 8:26 pm

There’s a lot I’d like to write about this piece, which I think is exceptionally admirable in the thoroughness with which it anticipates objections, however deadly they may be.

Just one brief note here for now, though: I just don’t get the publishing too much or publishing too soon stuff. If it goes through the peer-review (or editorial review) process, then it’s out there. It very well may be useful to someone who’s researching its topic, rather now or fifty years from now. It also may never be read again. That’s the gambit of scholarship. What I am having trouble understanding is the argument from personal incredulity about something being published. No matter how small your research area is, you’re never going to be able to keep up with everything in it. Reading everything published in literary studies rather obviously isn’t possible. It wouldn’t be possible if journals printed 1/1000th of what they currently do.

I certainly have had the feeling, which is often more pronounced after having something rejected (which does happen–not just to me–with alarming regularity, by the way), that an article I happen to be reading is undeserving of publication and indeed should probably be burnt in the town square. I try to recognize this for what it is, however.

More importantly, I understand that the peer review process is contingent and has almost nothing to do with “value,” in almost any sense of the term. In any humanistic field–and this may be a romantic cliché–the truly good stuff is going to be much more likely to be rejected than the random derivative stuff (my rejections are of the latter class–in fact, I am striving to be more derivative).

4

Paul 04.30.04 at 9:29 pm

I don’t necessarily disagree with either Professor Holbo’s diagnosis or his cure, but then I’m an unabashed literary fanboy, not a scholar. And literary blogging is wonderful. Everyone should have one. What isn’t clear to me, however, is why this anarchical romanticism writ large in the discipline should be deplored, while thousands of literary bloggers who will replicate this anarchy–even more so, really, after we count bloggers-of-letters with no connection to the discipline at all (as well as varying degrees of knowledge of its practices, methods, or history)–is something to be desired?

5

John Quiggin 04.30.04 at 10:29 pm

A big problem for the university sector is that there isn’t a strong correlation between the need for teaching and the need for research.

As you say, it’s highly desirable that hundreds of thousands of young people should get a liberal arts education. Conversely, it may well be that the appropriate number of students of, say, high energy physics is in the thousands.

That doesn’t imply that a sensible allocation of research effort would have hundreds of times the effort devoted to lit studies as to high energy physics, but the structure of the university tends to push things that way.

6

tony 04.30.04 at 10:50 pm

There is certainly something to your argument. I was a literature student who passed on graduate school, not from lack of talent, but from despair at the current state of lit studies.

I think, too, another aspect to consider is the state of literature itself. The art is in a dreadful way these days.

Maybe I ought to start publishing on-line a running commentary of whatever I am reading at the time. I’d start with Blood Meridian.

And maybe I should take a look at movable type again. That server space I signed up for is doing absolutely nothing right now.

7

Adam Kotsko 04.30.04 at 11:17 pm

I’m glad you were able to get that anti-theory rant out of your system. Such things are good for the soul.

I’ve already responded to your basic proposal at length, as you note, but I have to get in one crack: “When I hear the word ‘rigor,’ I reach for my gun.”

8

Adam Kotsko 05.01.04 at 12:21 am

Okay, “rant” wasn’t the best word for it.

9

jholbo 05.01.04 at 12:48 am

No, it’s a rant alright. Rereading it this morning it’s a rant. (I guess I’m not cut out for diplomacy.)

10

Adam Kotsko 05.01.04 at 2:30 am

Looking back over it, ranting aside, I have to congratulate you for the idea of Chun as causa sui.

11

Mr Ripley 05.02.04 at 5:36 am

Uh, isn’t the Silver Surfer best-known for having defected to the good guys’ side?

12

Carlos 05.03.04 at 4:56 pm

Recently came across this gem:

“My day-to-day work is undertaken in an atmosphere of professional collegiality amongst [academics] who understand that their work will someday either be discarded, or become so unimportant that nobody will bother discarding it, and so they tend to learn to live with error. It’s not big deal.”

Sic. Not literary studies, but still a field where one does expect some minimal standards against error to be kept. But: scholarship? Wuzzat?

I can’t imagine the torpor that must be present in that department. Well, I can, but it’s like something out of Lovecraft.

13

Joshua Macy 05.06.04 at 9:46 pm

Will thousands of blogs merely replicate the anarchy? I don’t think so–they don’t seem to on subjects other than litcrit. For instance, Crooked Timber is a good group blog. Crooked Timber is also (it seems to me) fairly widely recognized to be a good group blog. The ability of blogs to generate reputation, to do so rapidly, and to allow interested people to focus in on the good stuff is pretty clear. There may be dozens of group blogs on CTish topics as good or better out there, but there aren’t hundreds, and there certainly aren’t thousands; and even if there were, that’s still a better situation than exists in academic publishing of litcrit. At least there’s an end of the thread that you can grab onto and start following, and people to communicate with on the way. That something is posted on Crooked Timber makes it a pretty good bet to be worth reading, and book and article recommendations by the Timberites worth reading if online, and at least considering otherwise. That something is published in PMLA ought to make it a good bet to be worth reading; that it’s widely recognized (Chunites notwithstanding) that that’s not the case is a problem. It’s a problem, though, that blogs are in a very good position to address, not because bloggers are better than scholars, or blogs better than refereed journals, but because blogs are a good tool for aggregating recommendations in a way that takes into account reputation, cheaply and rapidly. No one person can possibly read all the stuff that’s published, and some of it nobody reads, but everybody in the field reads at least some of it, and blogs have a lot better chance than word-of-mouth to allow at least some of the worthwhile stuff to bubble up to where a lot of people can become aware of it.

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