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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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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Department of Everything Studies, Redux: Does Medium Trump Period?

Posted by Smurov, Guest Author, on 08/22/07 at 05:38 PM

In response to a conversation here, Timothy Burke proposed a “Department of Everything Studies“:

I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I’d call it Cultural Studies, but I don’t want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what John is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

He acknowledges the conventional complaint:

You have to give a syllabus that needs to be taught in a finite body of time some firm and justified limits. We can specialize in particular media for reasons of personal preference and intellectual competence. I couldn’t begin to write about music, but I can do fine with television and interactive media. Each of us has methodological limits that result from our training and our talents. I’m very bad with languages and linguistics: I couldn’t do criticism that required philology on any deep level. I’m not likely to ever be mathematically competent enough to do even simple statistical comparisons well. (emphasis mine)

A familiar voice responds:

[T]he traditional caveats apply: you’re unlikely to find a single instructor sensitive enough to the quirks of each medium to teach the course responsibly.  I’m sympathetic to this line of criticism, but it requires more of an instructor than the current system does.  Example: were I to teach a course on 19th Century American literature, I’d be duty-bound to include some Melville.  As I said, I’ve read Melville for pleasure since childhood, so with a month’s prep time I could pass myself off as a middling Melville scholar.  There are thousands of people more qualified to teach Melville, but since I’m nominally a 19th Century Americanist, no one would bat an eye if I did.

In an ideal setting, a Melville scholar would teach Melville and I’d glide in to close the century with Wharton, London, and Twain.  In an actual classroom, I teach Melville by proxy, on the basis of what I’ve gleaned from the Melville scholars no university can afford keeping in the wings.  I’m not the most sensitive reader of Melville, nor would I be the most sensitive critic of a show like Twin Peaks.  But give me a month to immerse myself in the secondary literature, and I’d be sensitive enough to teach it.  This isn’t to say I don’t sympathize with those who bemoan the teaching of works outside the media of their expertise.  I merely want to draw attention to the fact that we do something analogous all the time with nary a complaint.

I’m tempted to disagree—to argue that shifting between media is more difficult than shifting between periods.  What say ye?


I have been recently wading into new realms of the blogosphere and have been appreciating the more “literary” realms as opposed to the theological (which I should be relegated to).  I suppose in some respects I am enjoying the everythingness although I am increasingly aware of your own little tribe and dialect.
This was only the second post that I have read from here and it reminded me of my last post in which I was wrestling with the everythingness of my blog.
Likely unless we are in some really hard sciences we all think we (or our “discipline") can do and answer it all.

By IndieFaith on 08/22/07 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whether or not medium trumps period depends on one’s method. It seems to me that if you employ a heavily Theory-inflected method, then no, because Theory tends to reduce art to ideas and pays little attention to its physical substance. But if you’re interested in the physical substance—the actual sounds of music, the way a painting or a film looks, the rhythm of poetry and prose—then you need descriptive and analytic tools that are appropriate to the medium. Working up tools for a new medium may well be more difficult than shifting from the ideas of one period to those of another.

By Bill Benzon on 08/23/07 at 07:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Being attentive to art means being attentive in general.  Sure, there are particular things to pay attention to in the different arts, but no English scholar should be graduating with a BA without having had courses in the foundations of visual art and music criticism.  A quick read of Gombrich’s *A Story of Art* will give a smart person all s/he needs to make interesting observations about a painting.

I don’t buy the whole “I’m not a Melville scholar so I’m not the best teacher of Melville” argument.  As someone who’s taught Shakespeare, Bradbury, *The Odyssey*, and Kathy Acker, I can safely say that I never needed any specialist training to teach my undergraduates.  Covering the basics takes up more than enough time.  I never find myself wishing I knew more about the global economy of whale hunting while teaching *Moby-Dick*.  I’m just happy if the students can see that the book has something to say about democracy, can talk about the symbols and patterns of imagery, the form of narration and the structure of chapters (calm - chaos - calm - etc.).

By on 08/24/07 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, teaching undergraduates in a responsible way is one thing. Adding to the stock of human knowledge about culture is different. A quick read of Gombrich may well be adequate for the first task, but the second task makes a different kind of intellectual demand and sharp Gombrich-informed observation is less likely to be adequate to the purpose.

By Bill Benzon on 08/25/07 at 04:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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