Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Historicism, Slapped on the Wrist, then Around, only to be Reminded, via Pleas, Tears, How much It Is Loved One reason for theory's former ubiquity was that it sped up the researching and writing processes. No longer would a literary scholar have to read 70 novels to write a publishable article; 10 would suffice, so long as one had the applicable theory in hand. Thus was born a vicious cycle: because it didn't take as long to write an article, departments raised the standards of how many articles were required for tenure; and if more articles could be produced, more full-length monographs could, too. Theory's not responsible for this acceleration, but it's certainly complicit in it. The problem for scholars working now—in The Age of Historicism—is that they're working now, in The Age of Historicism. Theory is not what it once was; journals and publishers are demanding articles and books with a depth commensurate to pre-theory articles and books. The problem is, the codified acceleration of graduate and departmental standards have made it almost impossible for young scholars to produce such work. Reading seventy novels, hundreds of short stories, the relevant critical literature—reading that much takes time young scholars don't have. So they continue to produce theory-heavy scholarship which, unsurprisingly, hits the water with nary a splash and vanishes from sight. This problem is an exaggeration of an endemic institutional inequity, normally not worth the energy it takes to complain; however, the longer I work on my dissertation, the more I retrace the steps of my research and realize which tangents I shouldn't have taken, which shortcuts enable me to produce quality work quickly—the more I recognize how steep the dissertation-learning curve is, the more forcefully this particular institutional inefficiency chafes my notions of common sense and fair play. Not that this has anything to do with me personally, or the progress of my dissertation, except that it does. As I struggle to finish, I know that it would be in my best interest to invest myself completely in a single, overriding theory and ride it into the market. What's stopping me? For one, an honest assessment of my own work, one which recognizes my strengths—close-reading based on Himalayas of research—and weaknesses—brazen assertions about the validity of this or that to something or another. Will I ever, I wonder, produce something which meets my own standards? Or will I be coerced by market-forces into creating a substandard monstrosity of a dissertation, which I'll follow with a parade of inadequately researched articles unacceptable at even the most mediocre journals? Will The Other Henry James Review and Even More Postmodern Culture reject me? Could I live with myself if they did?
The Zone of Irritation I'm annoyed. I'm editing, re-editing and re-re-editing this week, so I have every reason to be. How else should I feel when facing: The awkward phrasing of the words intended to bring to the reader greater clarity through painful specificity. The lapses in register, from arid pedantry to way too fucking casual, often in a single sentence. The vocabular nonsense—the nouned verbs, the verbed nouns, the inexplicable revival of the Latin gerundive—any sufficiently detailed technical description requires. The vocabularian nonsense any insufficiently secure writer configurates to impress the easily impressed. And those only speaks to the prose. There is still the argument, burdened by: The claims so laughably overbroad only an idiot would believe them. The claims so laughably overboard only an idiot would believe them. Those passages only the writer can understand. Those passages not even the writer can understand. An unseemly penchant for parallel structures which, when coupled with the aforementioned vocabular and vocabularian nonsense, encourages the creation of inscrutable hypocorisms like "Pally." As I said, I have every reason to be annoyed with myself. (After those bullets, you do too.) But that's not why I'm annoyed right now. No, right now I'm annoyed by the way in which my annoyance radiates, how it establishes a Zone of Irritation from which nothing can escape. Beards, they can not escape it. Lettuce, it wilts. Other people's work? You must be kidding me. Take this claim, from an otherwise impressive book: Many domestic novels open at physical thresholds—such as windows or doorways—to problematize the the relation between interiors and exteriors. (43) How many? The author discusses three, but looking through my shelf of roughly contemporary novels, I can find no others. Not a one. The nature of the claim-structure is backwards here: I believe X, and "many" cherry-picked novels begin by thematizing it. This is the academic variation of the classic Sportscenter statistic: "On the second and third Wednesdays in March, Bobby Knight-coached teams have only lost to unranked opponents twice in the five years he's coached at Texas Tech." Only it's worse. The Sportscenter infographic remains faithful to its obscenely specific raison d'être, whereas the academic cousin hides its Wednesdays-in-Marchness behind a facade of general truth. The "many" employed in this passage obscures the fact that many, many more domestic novels don't open at physical thresholds. It also conceals the reason why many domestic novels would do so: they're domestic. We should expect thresholds and windows to appear frequently for the same reason we expect spaceships to make regular appearances in space operas. Why even make the claim? Why not focus on how often tables or children appear instead? Notice, too, the implication that the physical location where a novel begins is significant. Should the critic not establish that where a novel opens is more important than, say, where it closes? How could anyone even write this sentence? Isn't the dishonesty of the claim evident to anyone involved in any stage of the writing process? What about all those...

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