(In case Typepad's links are still borking, if you've come from here or here, scroll down to my second comment for not-so-exciting story ... because seriously, I said it was about two people talking about cats. I hope you weren't expecting fireworks.)
Few of the substantial responses to Mark Bauerlein's recent review of Theory's Empire ignored the "erudition exchange" (quoted below the fold in full). Michael Berube, sitting in the very same bus, verifies that the exchange took place and even expands upon it. Apparently this poor graduate student couldn't even spell e-r-u-d-i-t-i-o-n. Even as the Theory's Empire symposium swung into gear, I couldn't stop thinking about the way people responded to the "erudition exchange." Sure, I could point to the irony of people forwarding the review around livejournal--"Look! I know why I hate English professors: they're not erudite anymore. They only repeat what other people say. Mark Bauerlein says so. Pass it on!"--but I knew its status as a meme with wheels had more to do with something other than a lazy confirmation of other people's supposed intellectual shortcomings. And I think it is. But until I started seeing the responses to Adam Kotsko's contribution to the colloquium, I didn't know what it was.
Now I think I maybe do: it's the erudition, dumb-ass. No, not the "erudition exchange," nor even what it's meant to convey. It's the actual lack of a culture in which erudition is valued as anything other than an ideal. What do I mean? As I re-read Hillis Miller's response to M.H. Abrams (whose response to Hillis Miller's earlier response to Abrams is the subject of Adam's response to Abrams) about criticism's parasitic but salutary relation to literature, I was struck (for the 91st time this week) by Miller's massive and intimidating erudition. He can jump from German Romanticism to Greek etymology to Hardy to Hebrew to Heidegger to Wallace Stevens in a single paragraph. Not only does he seem to remember everything he's ever read, he's able to contextualize it in the service of a deconstructive reading of a poem. Now, despite the evident hatred of the Right for the epistemic relativism deconstruction--at least in the Right's version--necessarily entails, I think even Alan Bloom would agree that Miller is a figure who's imbibed all his culture, Western Culture, has offered him. In short, Miller is a figure who puts to lie the conservative belief that Western Culture breeds traditional values. (Not that it's that difficult a notion to put to lie.)
Then again, it's not as if the Right has had to contend with figures like Miller lately, i.e. it's not like graduate schools are producing thinkers of Miller's stature anymore, and the reason, I'm this close to contending, isn't that students backslide into the sins of deconstruction, identitarian politics or advocacy criticism. No, the reason is that it's no longer necessary to read Heidegger before reading Derrida. (Not that there's anything to profound in that statement.) But, whereas it's always been easy to fake knowledge, it's never be so easy to be rewarded for deliberately avoiding the cultivation of erudition. What do I mean?
The balkanization of English departments encourages a culture in which who you don't speak to says more about you and your approach than who you do. To wit: I can only speak in very, very general terms about the work of Judith Butler. I sort of know she talks about gender and discourse, and I kind of the general outline of her theory of performativity. I would know more, but I don't need to in order to 1) complete my dissertation or 2) read the secondary materials necessary to complete my dissertation or 3) talk to the people at the conferences I attend in which I present sections of chapters of my dissertation. In other words, I don't need to know it, so I don't. 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.
This is not to say that I fit the characterization of the generation of critics who rejected deconstruction for a want of intellectual curiosity. (There have always been mediocre scholars, after all, for whom the hoarding of facts makes Vidal's epithet--"scholar-squirrels"--entirely apt.) It's that, institutionally, we're at a moment in which disciplinary balkanization in the humanities is a fact to be accepted. It's not a decision to be made. It's a fact instantiated by the failure of the humanities to produce polymaths anymore. It's a fact instantiated by the failure of the humanities to cultivate erudition anymore. I suppose why I've rambled on about this for so long is that before today I had considered balkanization a possibility, a direction in which we're currently but not inevitably headed. But what I recognize now is that it's not. It's a disciplinary fact to moon over, whine about, celebrate or what-not. But it's a fact.
I have to let that sink in now.
When a colleague of mine returned from an MLA convention in Toronto around that time, he told a story that nicely illustrated the trend. One afternoon he hopped on a shuttle bus and sat down next to a young scholar who told him she’d just returned from a panel. He replied that he’d just returned from France, where he’d been studying for a semester.
“What are they talking about?” she asked.
“Is there any new theory?”
“Yeah, in a way,” he answered. “It’s called ‘erudition.’”
“What’s that?” she wondered.
“Well, you read and read, and you get your languages, and you go into politics, religion, law, contemporary events, and just about everything else.” (He’s a 16th-century French literature scholar who comes alive in archives.)
She was puzzled. “But what’s the theory?”
“To be honest, there isn’t any theory,” he said.
“That’s impossible.” He shrugged. “Okay, then, give me the names, the people heading it.”
“There aren’t any names. Nobody’s heading it.”