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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Breeding and Common Property

Posted by Andrew Seal on 05/31/09 at 09:44 PM

Following a trend, my post on Breeding is, abashedly, about me. There were a few moments where I felt, as a soon-to-be grad student, to be called on, as it were, by Professor Davidson, both because of my disciplinary interests and commitments and because of where I stand within academia.

For one thing, I found a comforting number of similarities to another book I’m reading right now, Matt Jacobson’s Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. (Comforting because, like Aaron, I feel a bit of a stranger to the eighteenth-century; while part of the real pleasure for me of Breeding was the feeling I had of being introduced in an almost personal way to the various authors Davidson lines up, still, feelings of familiarity, even when a little forced, are nice.) I saw or thought I saw a few significant parallels between the micronetworks that find their hub at the word “breeding” and those that cluster about the term “civilization”—it occurred to me on multiple occasions that “civilization” might be considered an heir to some of the ambiguous legacies of “breeding,” as it too contains that Möbius property of twisting into its opposite when taken far enough. Davidson’s pages on “improvement” and “degeneration” in particular spoke to the dynamic Jacobson traces in American culture which can be summed up in Teddy Roosevelt’s lines, “Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” While industry and not husbandry has become the dominant metaphor for the improvements and degenerations of “civilization,” I thought I detected a similar logic at work.

But what I’d really like to talk about is a passage near the very end of Breeding. In Davidsonian fashion, I will quote amply: 

I had an interesting experience with these sentences of Foucault’s [from “What Is Enlightenment?” about the “blackmail” of Enlightenment] on the first day of a graduate seminar I taught at Columbia on the idea of culture. As I asked the students to unpack the meaning of the words, it slowly dawned on me that my questions were being greeted with the silence not of reticence but of utter incomprehension. What had seemed to me like a fairly straightforward assignment of a well-known problem that affects scholars across the humanities and social sciences was completely opaque to them: they had no idea what Foucault was talking about. This led me to start thinking about what happens when those of us educated, perhaps, in the seventies and eighties (and in a particular set of departments at a particular set of universities) assume that every new set of students will have read exactly the same things we have. New English Ph.D. students, even those specializing in eighteenth-century studies, are likely to have read only a tiny handful of works written in the eighteenth century and to have spent little time contemplating the legacies of Enlightenment. Those who come to the eighteenth century by way of history or political philosophy or postcolonial theory will be more likely to have some familiarity with Kant and Foucault’s arguments about Enlightenment, but may well be ignorant of the writings of Pope and Swift. In this kaleidoscopic world of reading, it seems to me very risky to make assumptions about a shared language or body of texts. Critical writing necessarily places demands on its readers that many readers either do not chose to undertake or may even be incapable of undertaking. That is the nature of the enterprise. But there are many reasons one might nonetheless contemplate making it more hospitable, in particular by not shying away from discussing works that may seem hyper-canonical but with which, when taken as a group, few readers are likely to be thoroughly and universally familiar.

To speak bluntly, how many college students read even those eighteenth-century texts most widely accepted as canonical: Gulliver’s Travels, say, or Locke’s Essay? How many students doing doctoral degrees in English who are not specializing in the eighteenth century are likely to know Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality? I do not ask these questions to indict the American educational system. (197-8)

I suppose I can’t help feeling a bit accused in this passage—I don’t mean that such is Davidson’s intention, but just that I feel implicated in this general ignorance that Davidson is describing, not merely because I am closer in age and position to these rather clueless grad students of hers, but also because her book made me feel my ignorance by simply teaching me so many things—most of all, how to reach past figures like Foucault and dig into this period without abandoning, ignoring, or suspending the critiques we have made with and after Foucault. Breeding poses, acts upon, and evaluates so many vital methodological questions (which previous Valvers have brought out very well, I think) that it is, in many ways, much more useful to me at this moment—trying to figure out some of my methodological attractions, commitments and liabilities before I start course-work—than something which may be more topically related to my studies. I feel more informed of the methodological options I will have, and better prepared to weigh those options. And all this in addition to providing a wealth of richly contextualized information which was a thrilling expansion of my knowledge in its own right.

That said, I wondered, after finishing Breeding, whether some of the specific methodological choices that Davidson makes are as useful to someone in my position as some of the options she discards, and whether her citation of her students’ lacks didn’t commit her to writing a bit more with the graduate student in mind. Admittedly, her anecdote about her graduate seminar is slight in relation to the rest of the book, but it takes on increasing importance when one considers the commitment Davidson makes at the end of the book to the continued utility of the idea of perfectibility—if perfectibility can rightly be tried out on any class of people, one would think that a professor would jump to apply it to grad students.

And it is exactly the question of how to apply perfectibility to grad students that perplexes me in light of the book’s methodology. In part, this may just be a recapitulation of the excellent questions John asked about the differences between doing pedagogy and doing historiography, only graduated one level up. But this is also about how I’d really like to use Breeding for a model on how to do historiography, but struggle to square a few things about the book with the unresolved questions I have about how I should be writing and researching more generally.

For one thing, there is the way that primary sources are handled. Scott praised the way that the long blockquotes felt like more than simple citations and more like reading the primary sources themselves, but isn’t it tempting in a way to take that kind of feeling at face value and feel empowered rather than intrigued? Davidson pointed out in the comments to that entry that the format was blog-like, and Aaron pointed out that the absence of links was a very serious difference there, and one which fundamentally altered the dynamic of primary sources and secondary comment. Not being able to link (except by endnotes) to the original sources in their entirety is one problem, but I feel that the larger problem is that the length and substantiality of so many of the quotes also feels like completeness, and I’m not sure that Davidson’s commitment to “patterning the material not so much like a monograph as like an oratorio or a grand country dance, so that echoes and responses and recapitulations would emerge from a congeries of voices” doesn’t give the reader a sense of false independence from the primary sources after all. Similarly, Davidson’s commitment to synechdoche becomes most vexed precisely in the kind of discursive environment when there is very little overlap among (often vague or faulty) senses of the whole—in Davidson’s grad seminar, her students’ inability to grasp anything like the whole she assumed was “common property” was what led to the disconnect on Foucault. Taking the part for the whole becomes a high-risk strategy when the concept of the whole is seriously unstable and largely incomplete.

Secondly, I would like to quibble with the larger commitment to the “writerly” which is of obvious importance to the way the book is shaped and the way that these primary sources are selected (and, I’m tempted to add, improved or cultivated). I should confess to a certain temperamental aversion to Barthes in particular and generally to self-conscious “writerliness” (which I have often taken to mean nothing much more than making greater demands on the printer and typesetter who has to accommodate one’s “writerly” frills and typographical frivolities), but I would also say that Jenny Davidson is about the only writer whose allegiances to “writerliness” are actually pleasing to me. (I did wonder, however, about the lack of illustrations—citing Sebald as an influence and avoiding the use of any images—apposite or inapposite—seemed strange to me.)

In a very simple way, this is a complaint that “writerliness” doesn’t seem like something grad students can aspire to—or that aspiring to it might be deforming while under the constraints and obligations of graduate study. I’m speaking from ignorance, however, and maybe it’s actually quite accessible to grad students, and should even be encouraged. I guess I’m wondering if the “writerly” monograph doesn’t seem too much like a “walk,” and not enough like, appropriately enough for this book, husbandry or cultivation.

This is, I acknowledge, a very odd thing for me to be complaining about—that Davidson makes it seem too easy, in effect—but especially in a book that is also so self-conscious about the perils and promise of various notions of selection, the passage by Barthes that Davidson cites seemed to me alarmingly weak on this very question:

…I took the Neutral for a walk not along a grid of words but along a network of readings, which is to say, of a library. This library, neither analytical (I didn’t follow a bibliographic program: cf. the intertext that is handed to you) nor exhaustive: infinite library: even now, I can read a new book in which certain passages will crystallize around the notion of Neutral as a whimsical sourcery: I read, the water-divining rod rises: there is Neutral underneath, and, for this very reason, the notion of the Neutral expands, inflects itself, modifies itself: I persist, and I transform myself at the same time. (from Barthes’s The Neutral)

This “whimsical sourcery” and “water-divining rod” business seems to me kind of baloney, cloaking the actual work of pruning the material one has collected in the archive by re-imagining that process as a kind of academic Maxwell’s Demon who sits in the stacks and sorts the relevant and irrelevant for you. Obviously, the hard work of cultivation did go into Breeding—or if Jenny Davidson has a demon or a divining rod that sorts her research for her, that’s not fair, and I want one.

It’s not that I think non-standard methods of selecting sources and constructing narratives and/or arguments from them are dangerous to me or any other grad students. But I think there are better, more direct ways of justifying a methodology that is more lateral or ergodic or something than using Barthes’s “sourcery”—I really liked the allusion to Perec and “rule-based schemes of a fairly stringent nature,” though again, this may be something temperamentally peculiar to me.

Thirdly, there was a particular line coming right after the Foucault anecdote that really perplexed me, pulling me in two very different directions. Davidson answers her questions about how much “common property” is shared by grad students by saying:

I believe many different routes can be followed to knowledge, and I am temperamentally averse to calls for canon-making and canon-restoration. (But I also believe that it is condescending and hypocritical to suggest that we do not expect our strongest students to acquire some body of knowledge that may as well be made publicly and institutionally accessible to all students in the form of lists and curricula.) (198)

This parenthetical comment seems to me to fit immediately into her reference to the “tyranny of low expectations” which comes only seven pages later. “[O]ur strongest students,” it seems, are learning under this tyranny. I honestly don’t know what to do with that possibility, but I’m sure it requires comment from people who have been teaching those “strongest students,” rather than from me.

What I’d rather address is the quickness of the shift from “our strongest students” to “publicly and institutionally accessible to all students.” Right now, I would honestly love if some of the kind of lists and curricula that Davidson recommends were made publicly accessible to me (fwiw, the Columbia English department does publish some model orals lists, which kind of serve this function). It would be tremendously useful to me as I get ready for course work to get a better idea of what I’m supposed to have read, and what might be considered “common property” for my discipline.

But this shift from “our strongest students” to “publicly… accessible” is a strange one; it’s mediated by “may as well be,” which is a rather airy phrase, especially for someone like Davidson who shows such remarkable courtesy to her readers. And it seems to me that it is this very point—the “may as well be”—that discussions of perfectibility continually run aground on—perhaps we could even see it as the “bent” of the idea. In trying to transition from an outright elitist project to something more broadly beneficial, there always seems to be a gap that is too quickly and too haphazardly covered. And in a way, I feel that grad students—particularly first- or second-years—might be sitting in this gap when reading this book, which is so good and so deft at making its methodology work, and so brilliant at consolidating so many ideas, sources, and terms.

Of course, I’m not saying that Davidson should have written a book that a grad student like me could emulate; obviously, professors should write the books that they can, and not the books that their students can. And one can probably see the obvious thread running through my quibbles with Breeding: I am worried about using it as a model for myself because I feel so distant from the sense of authority and confidence which Davidson so rightly and so nimbly occupies in this book.

Yet I do think that there is or ought to be a question about how much this book in particular owes to the students in Davidson’s seminar who can’t understand Foucault’s essay on Enlightenment because they own so little of its common property. That actually sounds a little more dire than I mean it to and states the case a little grandiosely, but as far as it does contain some truth, I think that this question ought to be posed. 


I cannot tell you what a luxury it is to be able to read this kind of high-quality meditation on my own work as I chew through the morning’s blogs! 

Too much here for me to tackle exhaustively, so let me focus on one thing where I think my own embeddedness in a particular intellectual context may have skewed my discussion.  It is interesting - I presented a piece that included those musings on canon/Gulliver to the quite large and thriving eighteenth-century group at the U of Chicago, and everyone there looked at me as though as I was slightly crazy in thinking that everyone had NOT of course read Gulliver!  But more generally, I do not think these texts are especially widely read. 

This, though, is a digression.  I really wrote those paragraphs as someone who teaches at an institution (Columbia) that has a required Core Curriculum of the Great Books variety.  If I were in charge, would I keep or institute such a curriculum?  No - almost certainly not.  There are some serious problems with the version we have of it here, not least that the Literature Humanities course (fall: Greeks/Bible; spring: Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions etc. through to Virginia Woolf), which most students take in their first year, is taught mostly by grad students and brand new junior faculty and older/emeritus faculty - it has stopped being a course that widely appeals to faculty in the prime of their career.  I am in many respects in sympathy with the course’s most vocal opponents - at its worst, it feels like an ideological hangover, a ritual part of the Columbia education whose intellectual payoff isn’t at all clear.  But the “hypocrisy” I signal is that of faculty members who simply want to abolish the core without admitting that, on some level, even if we don’t endorse a great-books approach, we do think that there is a canon of works an educated person should have read.  So that there remains something appealingly democratic about the fact that the Literature Humanities syllabus is there, available, online, for anyone who wants to get those books and read them and feel that they have read something that would give them some kind of perspective and context for talking about European literature more generally.  In particular, the Lit Hum canon includes a lot of works that private high school/prep school students are highly likely to have encounter in English and history classes at a younger age, whereas students from magnet public schools that are often stronger in math and science are significantly less likely to have read Thucydides and Aeschylus already - so that Lit Hum can do some equalizing across different educational backgrounds, of a kind that I think progressives and radicals as well as cultural conservatives would find desirable!

In case you are curious: the Lit Hum syllabus:


Hmmm, I’m not sure I’ve really clarified my position!

By Jenny Davidson on 06/01/09 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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