"I passed through a euphoric dream of scientificity." Roland Barthes, bemusedly recollecting how he came to write The Fashion System. A similarly hubristic passage from Paul Ricoeur (from lectures in 1961-2; turned into a book, Freud & Philosophy: An Essay On Interpretation, in 1965.)
Today we are in search of a comprehensive philosophy of language to account for the mutliple functions of the human act of signifying and for their interrelationships. How can language be put to such diverse uses as mathematics and myth, physics and art? It is no accident that we ask ourselves this question today. We have at our disposal a symbolic logic, an exegetical science, an anthropology, and a psychoanalysis and, perhaps for the first time, we are able to encompass in a single question the problem of the unification of human discourses. The very progress of the aforementioned disparate disciplines has both revealed and intensified the dismemberment of that discourse. Today the unity of human language poses a problem.
Such is the broad horizon within which our investigation is set. The present study in no way pretends to offer the comprehensive philosophy of language we are waiting for. I doubt moreover that such a philosophy could be elaborated by any one man. A modern Leibniz with the ambition and capacity to achieve it would have to be an accomplished mathematician, a universal exegete, a critic versed in several of the arts, and a good psychoanalyst. While awaiting that philosopher of integral language, perhaps it is possible for us to explore some of the key connections between the disciplines concerned with language. The present essay is an attempt to contribute to that investigation.
Grand Unified Theory. Who can believe in anything of the sort today?
Did folks believe in it in the 60's?
Were gestures in this direction just light metaphysical poetry? Or might it have been that the desire to do good cultural studies was so strong, the subject is just so enticing yet unmanageable, that one gave in to wish-fulfillment power fantasies? Or does every critic turn Leibnizian when push comes to shove? In my dialogue I talk about how the New Critics never seriously believed poems were monads to be contemplated sub specie aeternitatis (so it's a bit disingenuous to lecture them, as folks often do, about their metaphysical delusions; no, at worst they suffered rhetorical excesses.) Today New Historicists can hardly seriously believe their 'resonant fragments' are monads with the metaphysical power to reflect the whole macrocosmic universe of circulating social energy. Greenblatt just talks like that because he likes to compose his little essayistic Cornell Boxes, take 'em or leave 'em.
An analogy with last night's post: 'Theory' started in the 60's as a
sort of glorious Glass Bead Game dream. Even when it recoiled into
post-structural, postmodern dreams of anti-scientificity it retained
that glassy quality.
In Hesse's novel the spiritual/intellectual ideal behind the game is traced back to the Greeks - from Pythagoras to Plato to Hellenistic gnosticism; across to Chinese and Arabic-Moorish culture, through Scholasticism and Renaissance Humanism; through the mathematically-minded 17th and 18th Centuries, "and on to the Romantic philosophies and the runes of Novalis's hallucinatory visions. This same eternal idea, which for us has been embodied in the Glass Bead Game, has underlain every movement of Mind toward the ideal goal of a universitas litterarum, every Platonic academy, every league of an intellectual elite, every rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, every effort toward reconciliation between science and art or science and religion."
One of the distinct charms of the novel - these are by far my favorite bits - are the dialogues in which characters come close to doubting that this thing - the Game - exists, or is what it is said to be. (The narrator is a bit of a dry plodder, trying to keep up with this, but he means well.)
The old Magister lecturing young Knecht: "As you well know, there are some who do not think well of the Glass Bead Game. They say it is a substitute for the arts, and that the players are mere popularizers; that they can no longer be regarded as truly devoted to the things of the mind, but are merely artistic dilettantes given to improvisation and feckless fancy ... The artistically inclined delight in the Game because it provides opportunities for improvisation and fantasy. The strict scholars and scientists despise it - and so do some musicians also - because, they say, it lacks that degree of strictness which their specialties can achieve."
Sound like anyone you know critiquing Theory?
And: "One word more, just by the way. Probably you too sometimes incline, as most good Glass Bead Game players do in their youth, to use our game as a kind of instrument for philosophizing. My words alone will not cure you of that, but nevertheless I shall say them: Philosophizing should be done only with legitimate tools, those of philosophy. Our Game is neither philosophy nor religion; it is a discipline of its own, in character most akin to art. It is an art sui generis. One makes greater strides if one holds to that view from the first than if one reaches it only after a hundred failures. The philosopher Kant - he is little known today, but he was a formidable thinker - once said that theological philosophizing was 'a magic lantern of chimeras.' We should not make our Glass Bead Game into that."
When Knecht is debating with the Benedictine Father, mulling the appeal of the Protestant theologian Johann Bengel: "Bengel once told friends of a cherished plan of his. He hoped, he said, to arrange and sum up all the knowledge of his time, symmetrically and synoptically, around a central idea. That is precisely what the Glass Bead Game does."
When the Father (who likes Bengel but dislikes the Game) objects this was a generic Enlightenment aspiration, Knecht retorts that really Bengel aspired to higher synthesis of Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment (although Knecht doesn't use these terms). Bengel's is no 18th Century notion of an encylopedia. "What Bengel meant was not just a juxtaposition of the fields of knowledge and research, but an interrelationship, an organic denominator. And that is one of the basic ideas of the Glass Bead Game. In fact, I would go further in my claims: if Bengel had possessed a system similar to that offered by our Game, he probably would have been spared all the misguided effort involved in his calculation of the prophetic numbers and his annunciation of the Antichrist and the Millenial Kingdom. Bengal did not quite find what he longed for: the way to channel all his various gifts in association with his philological bent produced that weird blend of pedantry and wild imagination, the 'order of the ages', which occupied for him so many years."
Again, the Glass Bead Game - like Theory - promises to meet Schlegel's thoroughly Romantic demand, yet in a cerebral, architectonic manner: It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two. So the Glass Bead Game has every virtue and but one small defect: that the world in no wise admits of its being played. (To adapt John Barth.)
Now the irony of comparing scientifistic dreams of Theory to the Glass Bead Game is that, in a sense, the narrative chronology is reversed. In the novel the advent of the Game marks ascension out of a dark time which future historian Plinius Ziegenhals memorializes in his great work, The Age of the Feuilleton. Our author admonishes us: "As we read, we should remember that it is easy and foolish to sneer at the mistakes or barbarities of remote ages." What follows sounds very much like one of those NYT MLA-bashing pieces. (But also like a description of the blogosphere, no? And much that is printed in the NY Times.)
We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. they reported on, or rather "chatted" about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly these manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were free-lance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of "writer," but a great many of them seem to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.
Among the favorite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. they bore such titles as "Friedrich Nietzsche and Women's Fashions of 1870," or "The Composer Rossini's Favorite Dishes," or "The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans," and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as "The Dream of Creating Gold Through the Centuries," or "Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather," and hundreds of similar subjects. When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been people who devoured such chitchat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and of decent education should have helped "service" this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, "service" was the expression used; it was also the word denoting the relationship of man to the machine at that time.
Of lectures given in this dark time:
The members of the audience at these lectures remained purely passive, and although some relationship between audience and content, some previous knowledge, preparation, and receptivity were tacitly assumed in most cases nothing of the sort was present. There were entertaining, impassioned, or witty lectures ... in all of them a number of fashionable phrases were shaken up like dice in a cup and everyone was delighted if he dimly recognized one or two catchwords. People heard lectures on writers whose works they had never read and never meant to, sometimes accompanied by pictures projected on a screen. At these lectures, as in the feature articles in the newspapers, they struggled through a deluge of isolated cultural facts and fragments of knowledge robbed of all meaning.
Hence the need for some rigor, such as the Game exemplifies (or does it?)
The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to pruning the plant back to the roots. The young people who now proposed to devote themselves to intellectual studies no longer took the term to mean attending a university and taking a nibble of this or that from the dainties offered by celebrated and loquacious professors who without authority offered them the crumbs of what had once been higher education. Now they had to study just as stringently and methodically as the engineers and technicians of the past, if not more so. They had a steep path to climb, had to purify and strengthen their minds by dint of mathematics and scholastic exercises in Aristotelian philosophy.
Obviously in the world that you and I live in what we have, to the contrary, is decline from a fond dream of Glass Bead ludology down to a riotous yet vegetative pseudo-philosophical overgrowth. Kudzu as humanism. (I could never learn to think of Theory as a friend, but perhaps I could learn to think of it as a frond.) Remember when the Duke English department imploded in 1997 - or '98, whenever - and was placed in the care of a biology professor who specialized in plant respiration? (I'm remembering that right, no?)
I am honor-bound add that I don't think feuilletonism is bad, pace
Hesse. Quite the contrary. For one thing, it would be the pinnacle of
hypocricy for a blogger to denounce it. No, it is as fine a thing as
you can make of it, which can be very very bad or really quite good. I
notice that Scott McLemee
wanted to have "feuilletonist at large" on his new letterhead. (What a
wise lad he is to wish to be called that. It is a tricky crown to wear, so a firm resolution to wear it well is in order.)
Partly I guess I just think that literary studies needs to deflate itself down
to the point where it can admit that much contemporary 'scholarship' is
just bad feuilletonism. The cardinal vice of the bad feuilleton
is not admitting you are a feuilleton - say, because you are pretending
to be rigorous philosophy, or scholarship. Admitting your true nature is the first step. (If two thirds of the books in literary studies
were turned into articles, and two thirds of the articles - and 95% of those with silly titls - were demoted to blog posts, the whole business might perk right up. A blog post with a silly title can be good and
At this point I probably owe an account of 'feuilleton'. Actually, this is pretty important of you want to understand what Hesse is on about. Let me snip a few bits from my dissertation, where some of this came up:
In Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Politics and Culture, Carl Schorske discusses Viennese passion for this peculiarly late-romantic literary bloom. [Not that the word has ceased to be used to describe a kind of journalism.] The conventions of the genre, as Hesse knew it, are indicated as follows:
The feuilleton writer, an artist in vignettes, worked with those discrete details and episodes so appealing to the nineteenth century's taste for the concrete. But he sought to endow his material with color drawn from his imagination. The subjective response of the reporter or critic to an experience, his feeling-tone, acquired clear primacy over the matter of his discourse. To render a state of feeling became the mode of formulating a judgment. Accordingly, in the feuilleton writer's style, the adjectives engulfed the nouns, the personal tint virtually obliterated the contours of the object of discourse. In an essay written when he was only seventeen, young Theodor Herzl identified one of the chief tendencies of the feuilleton writer: narcissism. The feuilleton writer, Herzl said, ran the danger of "falling in love with his own spirit, and thus of losing any standard of judging himself or others." The feuilletonist tended to transform objective analysis of the world into subjective cultivation of personal feelings ...The feuilletonist exemplified the cultural type to whom he addressed his columns: his characteristics were narcisissm and introversion, passive receptivity towards outer reality, and, above all, sensitivity to psychic states.
Karl Kraus on why this is a very bad thing - unless done very well by a few truly exceptionally talented souls. Quoting from Janik and Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna:
To Kraus ... the feuilleton destroyed both the objectivity of the situation described and the creative fantasy of the writer, since, while distorting the news as facts, it prevented the writer from coming to terms with the depths of his personality by demanding a response to a ready-made situation. So it both reduced the essayist's creativity to the level of word-manipulating and prevented the reader making any rational assessment of the facts of the case.
To prove that this was the case ... [Kraus] was in the habit of submitting pseudonymous letters to the editor, comprising sheer nonsense couched in mock scholarly language ... One of his most celebrated nonsense letters described an earthquake from the point of view of a mining engineer. It included fictitious distinctions between "cosmic" and "telluric" tremors, and in the course of his description, the mythical engineer relates how the mysterious Grubenhund beast became restless and began to bellow.
Alan Sokal hoaxing Social Text, anyone?
This point about rigorously separating subjective and objective factors (yes, a fraught opposition) is very delightfully portrayed in The Glass Bead Game:
At one point Knecht speaks about analogies and associations in the Glass Bead Game. In regard to the latter he strictly and rigorously distinguishes between "legitimate," i.e. universally comprehensible associations; and those that are "private" or subjective. he remarks: "To give you an example of private associations that do not forfeit their private value although they have no place in the Glass Bead Game, I shall tell you of one such association that goes back to my own schooldays. I was about fourteen years old, and it was the season when spring is already in the air, February or March. One afternoon a schoolmate invited me to go out with him to cut a few elder switches. He wanted to use them as pipes for a model water mill. We set out, and it must have been an unusually beautiful day in the world or in my own mind, for it has remained in my memory, and vouchsafed me a little experience. The ground was wet, but free of snow; strong green shoots were already breaking through on the edge of streams. Buds and the first opening catkins were already lending a tinge of color to the bare bushes, and the air was full of scent, a scent inbued with life and with contradictions. There were smells of damp soil, decaying leaves, and young growth; any moment one expected to smell the first violets although there were none yet ... "
And so forth. He synaesthetically associates the scent of the sap of the cut elders with Schubert's spring song, "Die Linden Lüfte sind erwacht". The conjunction means, for him: spring is on the way.
"The private association of mine is a precious possession I would not willingly give up. But the fact that two sensual experiences leap up every time I think, 'spring is coming' - that fact is my own personal affair. It can be communicated, certainly, as I have communicated it to you just now. But it cannot be transmitted. I can make you understand my association, but I cannot so affect a single one of you that my private association will become a valid symbol for you in your turn, a mechanism which infallibly reacts on call and always follows the same course."
Wittgenstein writes a lot about this, if you happen to have noticed. Part of his Krausian inheritance, in a complex sort of way. Anyway, if you want the feuilletonistic antipodes of this attitude, look to the likes of Judith Butler. Daniel Green linked to this review of the new Judith Butler reader. A quote from Butler herself:
Why drag? Well, there are biographical reasons, and you might as well know that in the United States the only way to describe me in my younger years was as a bar dyke who spent her days reading Hegel and her evenings, well, at the gay bar, which occasionally became a drag bar. And I had some relatives who were, as it were, in the life, and there was some identification with those "boys." So I was there, undergoing a cultural moment in the midst of social and political struggle. But I also experienced in that moment a certain implicit theorization of gender: it quickly dawned on me that some of these so-called men could do femininity much better than I ever could, ever wanted to, ever would. And so I was confronted by what can only be called the transferability of the attribute. Femininity, which I understood never to have belonged to me anyway, was clearly belonging elsewhere, and I was happier to be the audience to it, have always been happier to be its audience than I ever was or would be being the embodiment of it.
So her philosophy is a feuilletonistic mash-up of gay bar and Hegel; so that you can't really understand Butler's words apart from an appreciation of her biography. So argues the reviewer against critics like Martha Nussbaum, who deplore Butler's unrigorous employment of philosophical terms. "These moments of personal revelation in Butler's writing - and there have been more of them lately - expose the uncertainty and awkwardness of her early reflections on gender trouble. Sitting in the bar, she observed what could "only be called the transferability of the attribute"? While this is the kind of phrase that has led her critics to characterize her style as turgid, it's pretty clear that this style is not about intimidation but about love - you can almost hear her voice cracking as she writes it."
So what's the problem? The reviewer more or less tiptoes up to it: by letting this odd mix set into cement the shape and size - but not the substance - of rigorous philosophy or scholarship, you lose the love without gaining philosophy or scholarship. It should have stayed an honest feuilleton about reading Hegel in a gay bar. Which could have been a mighty fine thing. (You could have a genre of fiction that James Wood would no doubt describe as hysterical anti-realism. It might be OK.) Instead, it has turned into comic misreadings of J.L. Austin plus some arguments from authority. It's ripe to be punked in some Krausian fashion, since the relationship to that Hegelian language has become in a rather basic and deep sense inauthentic. (So say I.)
And the condition is catching. Consider moments like we get in this old Believer article about the MLA (which I still think is a pretty good piece of feuilletonistic journalism.) The author talks to Kim Emery, author of "Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (But I Owe My Job to k. d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts about the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies." If ever there were a feuilleton waiting to happen, the blank space under this title is the place for it. But then the writer sits down with Emery and the following exchange ensues:
The Kim Emery sitting across from me, however, furrows her brow and says, "It makes me batty when people say, 'Oh, queer theory is so difficult and hard to understand, and you need to write in a more accessible way so that people can understand it.' That can be really patronizing sometimes. But that's the language I've learned to speak, and those to whom I'm addressing it will best understand."
"Do you think that queer professors who don't do queer studies feel irresponsible, like they should be doing that stuff [communicating with folks outside the academy]?" The Kim Emery in my head very pleasantly responds, "Sure, of course they do. If they didn't, they would be ignoring—" The Kim Emery across the table rudely interrupts. "You should ask them," she says, "but I doubt it."
I remain cheery and undeterred. "But isn't there more of an investment there? A more personal attachment to scholarly work than, say, with a medievalist?" She blinks and continues in the same evenly modulated tone of voice. "More than the medievalist? I doubt it. Your work is not always tied in personally in the ways one would expect; it's not always so clear. If you're going to do it"—graduate study, the sometimes-grinding life of the mind—"you have to have a personal investment, regardless. You spend endless hours engaged in really detailed research or thought, in sometimes really small and obscure things, so you have to be invested in it." I want the connection between the professor as queer theorist and the professor as queer person to be easy, direct, and immediately perceptible; she tells me that the connection is no more manifest than the connection between a Chaucerian by day and an obsessive minigolfer by night. I want to take two overlapping identities—queer theorist and queer person—and pound them into coalescence: a person who does what she does as a professor—otherwise so inexplicable and obtuse!—because of who she is as a homosexual. A professor who is just flooded in a torrent of deep inexorable relevance.
"Do you feel as though queer theorists are working through personal issues in their professional work?"
"I'd have to say no."
Now I've not read the paper in question - I tried to find it or something else by prof. Emery in our library and failed. But I've got to come out and speculate frankly: there is no way this woman is anything but a feuilletonist. (She is telling us how k. d. Lang got her the job, for heaven sake. How can that not be personal? And she writes about Judith Butler, which precludes it being the case that she does technical philosophy of a conceptually rigorous sort, since that's not Butler's bag.) And, since she is a feuilletonist who refuses to admit she is one, she is a bad feuilletonist. (There is a bare possibility that she is some sort of autistic poet genius, I admit.) [UPDATE: I'll let this last bit stand only as evidence that I done wrong, as per Jonathan Goodwin's comment below. It is outrageously rude to Emery. Saying someone's work is bad when you haven't seen it is just foolish. At Jonathan's sensible suggestion, I emailed to ask Emery for samples of her work, with a firm promise to treat it respectfully - and apologizing for judging her entirely on the basis of the "Believer" article.]
You see how the hide-the-pea game gets played. If someone criticizes you for not doing philosophy rigorously, say what you are doing is artistic and personal in a way that these soulless analysts cannot appreciate. You are writing out of love. If someone asks you whether you are writing out of love (in which case why does it taste like sawdust?), say you are doing some sort of rigorous analysis. Thus do you produce the illusion that we are back in the Glass Bead Game. Somehow you have pulled off the trick, done what theologian Bengel wants: found an organic intellectual denominator between the most diverse fields, without declining into some weird blend of pedantry and fantasy. But, honestly, you haven't. You're just shuttling the pea back and forth to avoid admitting you are a bad - since dishonest - feuilletonist.
Getting back to Glass Bead Games and architectonic pattern languages generally, one of the things that bothered me most about Eagleton's After Theory book was this glass pea game, as we might call it. He congratulates theory on having taken literary studies decisively past 'disheveled gentlemanly amateurism' and lazy reliance on murky, subjective standards of "taste". But when called upon to defend theory philosophically, against - say - analytic critics, he explicitly denounces them for being aesthetic philistines, for having bad taste, and refusing to see that theory was really brilliant high Modernist art migrated into the realm of scholarship (a proposition that is completely undemonstrable, but which Eagleton asserts with aristocratic authority.)
In my dialogue I was tempted to write that, just as theory is philosophically pre-dialectic - a matter of command, not reason-giving; so theory is aesthetically pre-Modernist, in an architectonic (or musical) sense. It is Beidermeier style, migrated into scholarship; it is late-Romantic mannerism. Every text is ornamented with fancy but functionless bits of philosophy, the more incongruous the juxtaposition - the farther the theory has travelled before being collected here, the better.
Again, a quote from my dissertation (from Egon Friedell, Cultural History of the Modern Age.)
A craze for satin-like surfaces: for silk, satin and shining leather; for gilt frames, gilt stucco, and gilt edges; for tortoise shell, ivory, and mother-of-pearl, as also for totally meaningless articles of decoration, such as Rococo mirrors in several pieces, multi-colored Venetian glass, fat-bellied Old German pots, a skin rug on the floor complete with terrifying jaws, and in the hall a life-sized wooden Negro. Everything was mixed, too, without rhyme or reason; in the boudoir a set of Buhl, in the drawing-room an Empire suite, next door a Cinquecento dining-room, and next to that a Gothic bedroom. Through it all a flavor of polychrome made itself felt. The more twists and scrolls and arabesques there were in the designs, the louder and cruder the color, the greater the success. In this connection, there was a conspicuous absence of any idea of usefulness or purpose; it was all purely for show. We note with astonishment that the best situated, most comfortable and airy room in the house – the "best room" – was not intended to be lived in at all, but was only there to be exhibited to friends. Every material tries to look like more than it is. Whitewashed tin masquerades as marble, papier mâché as rosewood, plaster as gleaming alabaster, glass as costly onyx ... The butter knife is a Turkish dagger, the ash tray a Prussian helmet, the umbrella stand a knight in armor, and the thermometer a dagger.
A book by Zizek is the literary equivalent of living in this house. In general, post-Theory eclecticism - Robert Schole's style 'crafty readership, 'traveling theory', a 'pragmatic attitude towards theory' - is, as I argue in my dialogue, an expression of sensibility, of unexamined taste. Since this is not admitted, we are ripe for Krausian critique.
So let us, rather, be honest feuilletonists so we don't get fooled by the bellowing Grubenhund in the night.
Anyway, I've gone on about as far as my energy will take me tonight. I remember that Amardeep Singh had an interesting post some time back, linking to a Chron of Higher Ed article about "smart criticism" versus rigorous or useful scholarship. I'll quote a bit from the article:
In the latter part of the century, during the heyday of literary theory (roughly 1970-90), the chief value shifted to "rigor," designating the logical consistency and force of investigation. Literary study claimed to be not a humanity but a "human science," and critics sought to use the rigor of theoretical description seen in rising social sciences like linguistics. The distinctive quality of Paul de Man, the most influential critic of the era, was widely held to be his rigor. In his 1979 classic, Allegories of Reading, de Man himself pronounced that literature advanced not intelligence but rigor: "Literature as well as criticism is ... the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself."
I will interrupt to note that the proposition that Paul de Man deployed 'rigor' except as a feuilletonistic gesture is subject to grave doubt.
Since the late 1980s rigor seems to have fallen out of currency. Now critics, to paraphrase Trilling, are bucking to be smart. This development dovetails with several changes in the discipline and the university. Through the 1980s and '90s literary studies mushroomed, assimilating a plethora of texts, dividing into myriad subfields, and spinning off a wide array of methods. In the era of theory, critics embraced specialization, promulgating a set of theoretical schools or paradigms (structuralism, deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, and so on). But while the paradigms were multiple, one could attribute a standard of methodological consistency to them.
Today there is no corresponding standard. Individual specializations have narrowed to microfields, and the overall field has expanded to encompass low as well as high literary texts, world literatures as well as British texts, and "cultural texts" like 18th-century gardens and punk fashion. At the same time, method has loosened from the moorings of grand theories; now eclectic variations are loosely gathered under the rubric of cultural studies. Without overarching criteria that scholars can agree upon, the value has shifted to the strikingness of a particular critical effort. We aim to make smart surmises among a plurality of studies of culture ...
Smart still retains its association with novelty, in keeping with its sense of immediacy, such that a smart scholarly project does something new and different to attract our interest among a glut of publications. In fact, "interesting" is a complementary value to smart. One might praise a reading of the cultural history of gardens in the 18th-century novel not as "sound" or "rigorous" but as "interesting" and "smart," because it makes a new and sharp connection. Rigor takes the frame of scientific proof; smart the frame of the market, which mandates interest amid a crowd of competitors. Deeming something smart, to use Kant's framework, is a judgment of taste rather than a judgment of reason. Like most judgments of taste, it is finally a measure of the people who hold it or lack it.
The promise of smart is that it purports to be a way to talk about quality in a sea of quantity. But the problem is that it internalizes the competitive ethos of the university, aiming not for the cultivation of intelligence but for individual success in the academic market. It functions something like the old shibboleth "quality of mind," which claimed to be a pure standard but frequently became a shorthand for membership in the old boys' network. It was the self-confirming taste of those who talked and thought in similar ways. The danger of smart is that it confirms the moves and mannerisms of a new and perhaps equally closed network.
I'll just stop there. This post has been me hoovering up material and venting steam. Hope you liked being privy to the dyspeptic operations of my organism.