In considering the relationship between the introductory paragraph of an academic essay and the logic of the argument that follows--and I am asserting that such a relationship exists and that, therefore, some combinations of intro. and argument are more felicitous than others--I think it might be instructive to think about how the introductions I've written affect the material which follows them. To continue yesterday's inadequate analysis of the State of the Field intro., I dip into my archives and produce one of the approximately 17,491 introductory paragraphs I've written for the first chapter of my dissertation. Comments on its shortcomings follow:
In his review of three recent books on American literary naturalism in the latest Modern Fiction Studies, Jeffory Clymer wonders whether “the withdrawal from organizing interpretations around naturalism per se may…represent a critical exhaustion with reconciling the genre’s inconsistencies.” These inconsistencies, Clymer argues, undermine “certain strands of Foucauldian New Historicism” by “demonstrating how brittle, monolithic, and ultimately unrevealing [they] can be.” The brittle quality of these monolithic accounts of naturalism result, Clymer implies, from the genre’s foundational inconsistency: its desire to depict a deterministic world in which the individual is governed by nature and its frequent, didactic appeals to individualism and human freedom. From a philosophical perspective, as John Conder ably demonstrated in Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase (1984), pessimistic determinism and an optimistic belief in free will and the possibility of moral improvement are reconcilable positions. Employing Hobbes’ notion that freedom works within inscribed terms and Bergson’s notion of a durational self, Conder reconciles determinism and individualism by arguing that the former produces the latter. Though philosophically sound, Conder’s argument relies on individual Americans naturalists developing in toto theories that would catapult Bergson to international celebrity when they were first published in 1907. In this dissertation I will focus on the theories of human and social development available to American literary naturalists at the time they were writing. Produced by the “evolution vogue” following the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), these models embraced or refused Darwin’s advances with wildly different degrees of enthusiasm or opprobrium. Over the next 50 years, these systems would develop in an echo chamber, the cacophony of each contributing to the cacophony of the whole. Deafened by too many incompatible propositions voiced so intelligently and authoritatively, fin de siècle authors cherry-picked individual propositions from larger theoretical schemes. Each author created his or her own idiosyncratic combination of essentialist, determinist, individualist and developmental principles drawn from the representative set of evolutionary concerns. The necessarily idiosyncratic nature of these selections, as well as their rationale, has been obscured by the presentism of the historians and historians of science whose work granted literary scholars access to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era’s intellectual milieu.
This introduction, like Dawes', opens with a subtle assertion about the timeliness of the article to follow. Weathered hat in humble hands, eyes sounding the floor for evidence of structural uncomformities, this intro. says, nay, shucks "Smart people like Jeffory Clymer are publishing about the problems I address in important academic journals like Modern Fiction Studies." Then, with a boldness born of short summary, it raises its eyes, puffs its chest and says "But even smart people publishing in important journals sometimes miss The Big Picture." Clymer is correct, I claim, only insofar.... I count Only Insofar kin to the State of the Field. Because the State of the Field implies that the critics and scholars who've traversed the Field before you are correct Only Insofar as the contingencies on which your argument stakes it claim have been ignored. But not all State of the Field introductions employ the Only Insofar logic.
Another popular variation is Kill All Fathers, in which you survey the State of the Field, find its current inhabitants unfit to waste the air you breath and start a conflagration. Your readers are reminded of Dresden in '45 or Cambodia in '69, '70, and pretty much the rest Nixon Administration. They witness this orgy of intellectual genocide and then find it difficult to take you very seriously. In the following, the introductory paragraph strangles some fathers. The footnote desecrates their graves. To wit:
The development of the evolutionary “modern synthesis” and the preeminence of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) have combined to frustrate attempts to assess the impact of evolutionary theory on American political and social thought in the first decade of the 20th century. Because Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and George Simpson incorporated Darwin’s mechanism of speciation into the “modern synthesis”—the synthesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Gregor Mendel’s theory of genetic inheritance—the social and political theories of evolutionary thinkers who challenged Darwin have largely been forgotten. Following Hofstadter, generations of social and literary historians have discussed social Darwinism as if it were the only application of evolutionary thought to social policy popular between 1890 and 1910. It wasn’t.*
* I am not alone in my reevaluation of the effect Darwinism had on American politics. Many historians have taken issue with Richard Hofstadter’s claim, in Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), that social Darwinism dominated the manifestations of Darwinian thought in American politics. In Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (1979), Robert Bannister argues that social Darwinists were not nearly as prominent as reform Darwinists, among whom he numbers Oliver Wendell Holmes, who “argued that evolutionary theory supported combination and group solidarity over individualism” (11). Following John Dewey, Bannister claims that classical liberals “rarely laced their prose with appeals to Darwinism …. Rather, they were suspicious if not downright frightened by the implications of the new theory. Such was even the case with Herbert Spencer and his American disciples—the stereotypical textbook social Darwinists—whose world view remained essentially pre-Darwinian” (1). Furthermore, “New Liberals, socialists, and other advocates of positive government appealed openly and with far greater regularity to Darwinism to support their causes” (1). See also Donald Bellomy, “Social Darwinism Revisted,” (Philadelphia, 1978); Burton J. Bledstein, Perspectives in American History 1 (1984): 1-129; Hamilton Cravens, The Triumph of EvolutionThe Culture of Professionalism (New York, 1976).
Here I present the State of the Field as roughly equivalent to the current State of the Union. This seems like an effective way to "intervene in a critical discourse." After all, attacking the inadequacies of All Fathers clear-cuts a swath of territory in which your argument can range free. Unfortunately, this development enrages All Fathers, and they respond with protestations of your inadequate schooling, your relative inexperience and your attitude. As often as not, these protestations hit home. This is because Killing All Fathers occurs during the earliest stages of intellectual development--speaking both generally and as regards particular projects--and should be avoided unless you want to communicate your intellectual immaturity to the profession at large. True to form, I stole this intro. from the file "dissertation 1.0." That would be the first draft I ever wrote of my initial dissertation chapter. The example of Only Insofar above comes from "dissertation 1.38." That would be the 38th draft of my first chapter. The 36 interim drafts occupied my energies for the better part of a year. A year in which I researched tirelessly; learned what I had only assumed and unlearned what I had assumed incorrectly; and, in a manner of speaking, stopped being a critic and started being a scholar.
I should add that I still think I'm right and Hofstadter wrong. Only I now know that can be communicated without debasing his intellectual legacy. Over the course of the dissertation I will demonstrate with careful arguments, calculated gambles and a wealth of archival material that Hofstadter's thesis is correct, you guessed it, only insofar...