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Wednesday, 13 July 2005


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Adam Kotsko

Early in the post, it could have really gone any number of directions, including: "Adam Kotsko is the reason I hate English scholars," even though I'm not an English scholar.

This post does make me want to engage more seriously with Miller, however. I've tended to distrust lit-crit epigones of French thinkers, preferring to go straight to the source, but he sounds better and better to me.

Michael Bérubé

Great post. Two quick things: one, I wasn't really on that bus. I was kidding, in order to make Mark B's claim sound even more hyperbolic. And two, J. Hillis Miller really is erudite. As was de Man. If only they'd been on that bus!

Timothy Burke

Curiously, though, I think it may be fair to attribute at least some of what rode in with postmodernist and poststructuralist thought with the fading of the sort of erudition that Miller possesses. Though I think it's more intricate than that, really, and that's why I decided to frame some of my responses to the book in terms of a trip down memory lane.

But the point you're making is made in the anthology by John Ellis, that the superstar theorists and humanists in the American academy increasingly practiced (and trained others to practice) a mode of scholarship in which you only had to know the last thing that was said that had sufficient catchet to serve as a touchstone for a theoretical discussion, not the deeper older lineage of things said that produced the last thing.

I do think there's another kind of erudition out there in the academy now, but it's not the thorough sort like Miller's--it's more eclectic, more scattered, less canonical. In any case, neither type, the old thorough canonical erudition nor the new eclectic scattered kind are rewarded by the academy or desired by it, for the most part.

Scott Eric Kaufman

I don't know if it says more about my impression that all the "names" in the discipline are godparents to each other's children or to my low, low opinion of my compatriots...but I honestly believed it entirely plausible that you and Mark sat on the same shuttle going to or from an MLA conference and that he had chosen to spare the young lady further anonymous humiliation. Or it could be that I didn't read the original post very carefully...but either way, I now have a choice to make: do I correct myself so that I might look good, thus rendering your comment utterly cryptic, or do I leave evidence of my skills as a reader up there for the world to see, mock and subsequently shun? Hmm...


Blog etiquette requires that you leave things as is.

Anyway, it's a good post, so that trumps any evidence that you missed a Berubean hyperbole so improbable that it could only be pedagogical irony.

I knew a polymath or two in graduate school. One of the brightest people I knew failed his exams...

Rich Puchalsky

Scott, what you're talking about is inevitable, and has nothing to do with literary studies, because it has occured in every field. There is no way in which people now can be as field-spanningly erudite as they could even 40 years ago, because there is so much more to know now. (Whether this new information is valuable or not is an open question in many cases, but no one can argue with its quantity).

As for "I was kidding", who knows whether the "Michael Bérubé" who left the comment here is the real one, or if he was kidding when he said he was kidding? There was no indication that the claim to be on the bus was supposed to be read as fake in the initial article.

One thing that I truly do think is specific to Theory (in informal chat, anyway) is the widespread use of the "I was only joking -- couldn't you *tell*?" defense. It enables people to retract any poorly thought out statement, personal attack, or (in this case, if the M.B. commenting here is the real one) unexpectedly popular and therefore potentially falsifiable fake story under the guise of wittiness, while throwing up a squid's retreating ink screen of implied dullness on those who "didn't get the joke". And, of course, in order to prepare for this defense to be used at some uncertain future time, you must write everything as if you are not entirely serious. The end effect is somewhat creepy, because it becomes an institutional style that others have to duplicate even if they don't use this defense. I started reading Holbo because he was witty, but eventually I started to wonder whether his serious pieces would be a lot better if he could force himself to write in earnest.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Esprit d'escalier! (Except, I know, that shouldn't count in online forums, but still!) I should've mentioned this earlier, but I've actually ridden on a bus (not shuttle) with Derrida and Hillis, and all they talked about was their cats. So, um, ha! Were there an emoticon representative of "lamest (but 100% verifiable and true) cop-out ever," I'd have used it there. (But really, Derrida, Hillis and I did spend time at a bus stop talking about our cats.)

Amardeep, have no fears: I wouldn't have altered it, etiquette or no. For I have no pride, no shame, and am more than willing to admit when I'm wrong. Except for those days when the rage gets the best of me, but they're very, very rare.

Rich, I'm pretty sure that was Michael. His style is unmistakable, and were it not, his IP address would still give him away every time. To be honest, I respect Berube beyond the telling of it--I wasn't kidding when I said that his book was one of the cornerstones of my hellaciously crap Honors Thesis...but really, his columns in the Village Voice--founded, I feel strangely obliged to add, by the keynote speaker at this year's ALSC convention, Norman Mailer--and The Employment of English earned him his reputation (in my book) both as a scholar and a wit. As for Holbo, well, I'm late to the scene, but I will say this: I read many, far too many, tremendously dull but breathtakingly long explications of people's beliefs; and of those that I've read, John's are by far the best, so I'm sticking with him. Could he do with an editor? Maybe. Has he abused the implicit privileges granted him by his nom de adjectif "holbonic"? Perhaps. But for my money, I'll take his windiness over other's any day.

(Unless we throw Burke or Gass into the equation. I could read Burke forever, and Gass's language is just too lush for me to resist.)

Rich Puchalsky

The IP address matches? Drat. Well, my phrasing was too harsh, and would have been softer if I had really thought that it was likely that the comment was real. Bérubé is a great writer, and sorely needed as a highly readable public interlocutor for literary studies. But how much of the story was "just kidding"?

I mean, here's what Bérubé added to the story:
"Hmm. Either this is a trivial exchange, or it signals the professional meaning and moral (!) barrenness Theory accrued in the Nineties. I think Bauerlein wants to go with (b), myself. But I’m not going to fault him for predicating this part of the argument on a story that a colleague told him, for, as it happens, I was on that very shuttle bus, and I can tell you that the conversation unfolded almost exactly this way. If anything, Bauerlein is being too kind to this jejune young woman, for as I recall, she couldn’t even spell “erudition.” She didn’t simply ask, “what’s that?”; she asked Bauerlein’s colleague to write the word on a pad of paper for her. "

None of that says "I'm kidding"; it is entirely plausible that Bérubé might have been on a shuttle bus returning from an MLA event, and there are enough poor students to make a request to write down a (mis-heard?) word not too unusual. Nor do I understand how the supposed confirmation that the event actually happened and the addition of the request to write "erudition" on a pad make Bauerlein sound more hyperbolic. It was already clear that he was hanging a lot on a second-hand anecdote. Unlike the Sokal hoax, it doesn't appear that we are being asked to believe something so internally incoherent that we should know better.

Unless Bauerlein made up the story from whole cloth, which I strongly doubt -- though who knows, I also strongly doubted that Bérubé would have just made up his part, and to some extent still think that there is some miscommunication going on -- then there was an actual person riding on that bus asking those questions. Given the way this story has travelled, I don't think that it's that unlikely that she will hear about it and pop up with her own version on some blog or other. I would say that it's almost certain that Bauerlein's "alive in archives" guy will hear about it and possibly do the same. And the needing to have erudition spelled part of the story is highly humiliating. Why add this tidbit?

I don't know, maybe this is nothing worth commenting on. But really, isn't this method of encouraging the hermeneutics of suspicion going a little too far? When you write "I've actually ridden on a bus (not shuttle) with Derrida and Hillis, and all they talked about was their cats" should I assume that you're kidding too? Should I just assume that Ehrenreich flatly made up the "So you believe in DNA?" incident, rather than simply being sceptical that she got it entirely right at second hand? It is a commonplace that Theorists attack notions of objective truth, but rarely so directly.

With regard to Holbo, I don't think that there's anything wrong with him going on at length. I just meant that since a large part of his serious argument is that Theorists should be serious about argument, it doesn't help when he uses techniques like lifemanship in the midst of an otherwise serious essay, or devotes such a large amount of an essay like his mock-Platonic dialogue to satire. A lot of it looks like a preemptive strike; he knows that some of his targets will deride him for being a boring analytic philosopher if he isn't witty 100% of the time.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Timothy, I missed your comment the first go round, but all I'll say is: the situation in which no erudition of any type is rewarded frightens me.

Rich, I agree with your assessment of the "erudition exchange." As I said to Michael, not only the exchange, but the possibility that he may've witnessed it as well, all struck me as very plausible...but I can also see how my own notions abouot the close-knit community of "elite" academics would predispose me to thinking it so.

Actually, my comment about riding a bus with Derrida and Hillis Miller's true. Shortly after one of Derrida's public lectures, he and Hillis were catching a campus shuttle up-the-hill to some faculty reception. I was in Hillis' seminar at the time, so he called me over and started telling Derrida what I was working on for his seminar. Because it's up to Derrida when a conversation with a grad. student's finished, I ended up on the bus with them...and shortly after it got moving they started talking about their cats. The really impressive part of that story is that Derrida remembered my name two years after a brief, fifteen minute conversation I had with him when I was a prospective student. (I got the special audience because, being a "wait-lister," I wasn't accepted until long after the official prospective meet-and-greet.)

Bill Benzon

So just how bad is it these days?

I know about J. Hillis Miller’s erudition and that of many other scholars of his generation, and an older generation, Theorists or Not. They were my teachers. [There was a time I couldn’t pee because I was awestruck by the senior Renaissance scholar standing at the urinal to my right.] Tim Burke mentions a different, more eclectic, kind of erudition, but also laments that that is in short supply.

Is this a real decline, or is “oh where has all the erudition gone” another one of those standard complaints?

This is a real question. I don’t know what’s going on in academia these days. I’m not that close to it.

Scott Eric Kaufman

It's both a standard complaint and a real decline, at least in the narrow sense in which I've defined erudition, i.e. the ability to speak intelligently on almost any subject. I suppose it's a matter of knowing both widely and deeply. Most of the scholars of my--this, the current--generation, myself included, know one or two subjects very deeply, but we have a real problem with our width. As I indicated, I can swing wide but it's all shallows out there. (There's a strange implicit baseball/lake mixed metaphor in there, but you catch my drift.) I'd say there's very little erudition in the old sense, and precious little of the new because it's not encouraged anymore, intellectually or institutionally. And for all the excitement of the new, the more I read those old Critical Inquiries, the more appropriate the lament for the old strikes me.

Timothy Burke

I think one concrete way to track this might be to look at citations and references in the past twenty years of humanistic scholarship.

At this point, writing with very few footnotes but tremendous erudition is something that gets all but the most magisterial and institutionally powerful scholars spanked pretty roundly in peer review. So instead what you do is offer three kinds of citations, even when you're a mid-career scholar like me:

1) citations that prove you did your homework
2) citations that are reciprocal acknowledgements of scholars who acknowledge (or whom you wish would acknowledge) your work--kind of a gift-economy form of canon-building
3) citations which are directly about the supporting evidence and data for your claims.

But right now as I work a bit on an introduction to a 75% complete manuscript that's primarily about chiefship and colonialism in Zimbabwe, I'm finding myself thinking about Edmund Burke, George Orwell, Anthony Giddens, and a bunch of other things. I'm not sure I can write in such a way that all those thoughts become clear, and I'm not sure I want to, because I know that it's either going to look just like the normal process of citation (and thus in this case a kind of name-dropping) or more because people are going to tell me in peer review to get all that crap out of there and keep myself to the specialized literature.

This is a minor thing; the major point is that knowing lots of things outside your own field, and insisting that some issues require a deep vertical understanding of past knowledge in order to be well understood is something for which there is little obvious incentive in academia. I once had a colleague wander into my office about three years after I started here who looked at my bookshelves and said, "Do you read all this stuff?" and "Lot of things here that aren't about Africa." Said colleague is a nice person, I don't think he was trying to bug or intimidate me--it's just that it didn't make any sense to him that you would read unprofitably, in a way that wasn't of immediate use. I get the same question, politely, about blogging itself: "Doesn't that take a lot of time?", the subtext of which is, "Doesn't that waste a lot of time?"

Scott Eric Kaufman

Timothy, that's the careerist culture, I suppose. The idea that reading about literary theory qua literary theory--i.e. paying attention to the formal qualities of a text--is considered "wasted time" is a common one now. Citations are less citations now than elaborate defense mechanisms, preemptive strikes against imagined objections. (For them to be real, someone would have to them, whereas I'd wager more people read my blog than will ever read my academic work. (And maybe that's as it should be.)

Now, I'd be interested to hear more about the effect of peer reviews on articles/manuscripts. Can they really "recommend" work in or out of them? Or can they merely "suggest" the inclusion of something, say, in a footnote?

Sean McCann

I thought he was on the bus. What a disappointment!

There's only one other thing to add to your excellent post, Scott. One reason some of us are not going to become expert in Butler studies is that we're pretty confident it wouldn't be worth the effort. Erudition is down for structural reasons, yeah. But the overproduction of bloviation intensifies the dynamic.

Bill Benzon

"Now, I'd be interested to hear more about the effect of peer reviews on articles/manuscripts. Can they really "recommend" work in or out of them? Or can they merely "suggest" the inclusion of something, say, in a footnote?"

All of the above. Experience varies. There are horror stories, of course. But there are good stories too. I've got both in my personal history. I also believe in attending scrupulously to reviewer's comments if it is at all within reason to do so.

* * * * * * *

Beyond this, it's just sad. I've been reading the neuoscience literature for three decades. It's been proliferating at a fierce and accelerating rate over the last two decades. That's mostly because new technologies make it easier to get in vivo data about brain operations.

So, you have these droves of scholars who collect all this brain data (including all those pretty pictures that show up in Scientific American and on Nova), but don't really think about what it could possibly be that the nervous system is up to. Much thinking about how the nervous system opoerates is stuck in ideas and models that were old 30 years ago. Why? Because the production of new data has displaced the (very difficult) job of thinking about how the nervous system could possibly do THAT.

There must be parallel examples in other fields.

Adam Kotsko

So the conclusion is that an academic culture overly influenced by the French has contributed to turning all academics into Germans?

But the "read only the last generation and leave the rest to gather dust" thing strikes me as distinctly British -- at least that seems to be how they go about doing philosophy. (HA! Cheap swipe! Just kidding, guys -- except that I'm not.)


Setting aside who was there and who wasn't, clearly I'm having a slightly different reaction to the 'erudition exchange' to most people.

What it tells you about is not Theory or academia or erudition, but the naivete of graduate students. And it doesn't reflect well on either of them.

You have a) an enthusiastic follower of every latest fashion and b) a pompous ass. (He 'comes alive in the archives'? He's probably spent more time talking about being in archives than actually being in them.) 'No theory'? Come off it. (She's right on one thing: that's impossible, at least if you write theory with a small t.) Oh yes, and the most preposterous thing of all: there are no names and nobody's heading it? No leaders and no followers? B/S. Two minutes later he was probably telling her there were never any arguments either, and there were fairies down the bottom of his garden.

Michael Bérubé

If anything, Bauerlein is being too kind to this jejune young woman, for as I recall, she couldn’t even spell “erudition.” She didn’t simply ask, “what’s that?”; she asked Bauerlein’s colleague to write the word on a pad of paper for her.

That was the part that was supposed to give away the "kidding." I thought the idea of concocting a graduate student who didn't know how to spell "erudition" was a handy, tongue-in-cheek way of responding to Mark B's account of an exchange in which the young Theory-devotee is presented as being so stupid as to be ignorant of the meaning of the word "erudition."

Anyway, Rich (and everyone), yes, it's "really" "me," and I really am apologizing for not making the irony more explicit -- or for eschewing it altogether. The reason I dwelt on this exchange in the first place was not merely that it was a weak spot in Mark B's article (which it was), but that it obscured the curious (and, for many people, decisive) institutional conditions under which t/Theory appeared -- back in the days when it was much easier to believe that all the smart people did t/Theory and all its opponents were deadwood. As I mentioned on my blog, those curious conditions had the effect of giving some aspects of t/Theory a pass: if cranky old René Wellek is against it, it's gotta be worth doing! And as the entire exchange over TE has demonstrated, it's simply not possible to believe that anymore. Neither, however, is it possible to characterize all the young theory-literate members of the profession as credulous and/or ignorant.

Mike S

Perusing the archives, I came across this playful yet poignant thread.

Erudition or learnedness is a quality that seems to have fallen by the wayside, at least among the younger humanities profs and grad students I've been in contact with during my time as a student. Balkanization, as Scott refers to it, does seem to be partially to blame for this. By balkanization, I assume, Scott, that you mean something like specialization or ever hyper-specialization, wherein scholars become deeply immersed in and conversant with a period, genre, or topic-specific canon of texts.

So on the one hand, we have, for example, a Joycean scholar. She's published a couple articles in the flagship Modernism journals; she's TAed a few courses for a prominent Joyce specialist; and she's already got job offers from top tier universities. She's "on her way," so to speak. But if you ask her who wrote The Castle of Otranto, she guesses incorrectly.

Does this matter?

On the other hand, we have what is sometimes referred to as a generalist. Someone who's acquired more breadth than depth. Someone who's just as comfortable teaching a survey of Shakespeare's comedies as a course in Romantic poetry. Granted, these scholars are rare nowadays. But their erudition, once could argue, makes them perhaps more employable and more "lettered" than their Joycean colleague.

Because English departments will probably always have a need for both the specialist and the generalist, the issue of employment may be beside the point here. The issue I think Scott is getting at is an ethical matter. That is, do professional exigencies exist in the humanities that would (or should) necessitate a certain degree of superior erudition, beyond that typically demonstrated by docotoral qualifying exams? Do we, from an ethical standpoint, owe it to our profession and our students to become as erudite as someone like Hillis Miller? Or is it the case, as Scott explains, that:

"Miller comes from a generation--as the generosity, the genuine learnedness of Abrams' response (as Adam notes) evidences--in which I would've needed to know it. With so many its out there now, because I can't know everything, I won't try to learn everything, and because I don't try to learn everything, I won't acquire the massive and intimidating erudition of scholars past"?

Is this simply a generational phenomenon? Were Miller's teachers more lettered than those in 2007? Was there a more rigorous and far-reaching curriculum in the 40s and 50s? Is Miller simply a product of a different generation? Or is he simply more ambitious and more diligent than his peers?

I swear this post had a point, but it's late and I'm losing steam.

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