Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One advantage scholars of [historical] literature [versus literature from sources that are still producing, ie, from authors that are still alive] have over some of their brethren in the social sciences is the luxury of finitude. One might want to transcribe all of an author's journals, or find all of the extant printings of a particular version of a book or pamphlet. The goal is to track down every artifact that remains about a work or author, catalog it, and then contextualize.

Contextualization has a tendency to be "reduce" finitude through its critical fads. Most any time someone from the continent has an epiphany -- my line runs me from Spinoza through Emerson and Nietzsche, up through Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, et friends, just to name the seismic shifts; the larger fads are more obvious, like moves gender and identity studies, labels for new periods (are we post-post-non-modern yet?) -- everyone scrambles to wring every last bit of nuance from using that new epiphany as a filter for approaching what was seemingly becoming more and more fini.

Even so, the fads don't make the fields less exhaustible, ironically enough. Instead, aside from situational shifts in the canon, literature largely stays literature. It would be impossible to talk about the American intellectual without going through Boston and Concord, even if one was just to say that there is too much emphasis wasted by scholars on New England thinkers and thought. And there's still plenty to say about reader response that won't be said solely b/c reader response is passe. For now.

For all the turns, the study is fixed. There is a flexible canon.

Elsewhere, I'm finding an increasing number of scholars scrambling after research, and research whose worth is measured by the bottom line. I get the feeling (though not having experienced the period from behind the curtain, I wouldn't know) that the distance between academic work for learning's sake and the financial forces that make the first possible has quickly grown much smaller. Before, research was useful to the commercial sector not because of intent, but because enough squirrels, acting as if they were functionally blind from business' perspective, eventually dug up something interesting enough for business to appropriate. Now, research often isn't funded unless its proposal includes ideas that explicitly talks about how that work will be useful, with "monetarily" only slightly under erasure.

A symptom: Inside of an institute of higher learning being able to make an aggregate case for its usefulness and then having a similarly aggregated bucket of resources (read: dollars) from its benefactor (read: state governments), individual researchers are being told to make the same argument at the micro level. "Find external funds to supplement our primary funding sources." When you aggregate, you can hide. The office of maize production is going to find out something that'll help agriculture, and can be used to argue for the funding of the institution as a whole. An individual researcher asking for money for their specific project cannot as easily or completely hide their personal political biases, even if those amount to no more than "learning for learning's sake." This also seems to make students a secondary priority, not so much because they come after research in the professors' minds (which is expected in a research institution), but because it becomes less about exposing students to great thinkers than proving the worth (and thereby receiving the funding for) of the exposure that they do get. Less about privilege, more about finding mules for money.

This is one of the reasons I particularly enjoy studying fossils like long dead authors. There's enough momentum attached to the worth of these studies, a place where it was and, to a degree, still is accepted to learn for learning's sake, that they can continue to provide something of an alternative to the sorts of zero blind capitalistic influences that have permeated so many other areas of the public university.

(Though that said, I wonder if the folks learning strings at Cambridge and Oxford in the 16th and 17th centuries were just mules to pay for the "research" of those instructors, too. The more things change, perhaps? At least then the -- at worst -- dupes were students, not the taxpayers and, now, professors themselves.)

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