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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Real Thing

Posted by Daniel Green on 04/12/05 at 01:59 PM

Jared Woodard of the weblog a Gauche asks of secondary literature, “Who reads it, and why?”

Secondary literature - the journal articles, essay collections, book-length commentaries - naturally follow from the desire of readers to refine their understanding of texts, to call attention to overlooked or undervalued arguments, and so on. The hope being, I imagine, that at various points in time (new centuries require new valuations) we will arrive at workable and approximate conclusions from which we may then take purposive steps either in the direction of concrete activity - given our newfound knowledge - or laterally on to some other academic question.

But all that assumes an audience; not just an audience of scholars, but an indirect public who would be influenced if not by the arguments themselves, then at least by the application of those arguments. That decisive link - the move to concretion - has long been lacking. Who is reading secondary literature in the humanities except for humanities scholars?

While I would agree that at one time secondary literature in literary study was essentially an attempt to “refine [our] understanding of texts,” it seems to me we are long past the time when this could be taken as the primary justification of all the “journal articles, essay collections,” etc. that this discipline generates with such apparent ease. The study of literature has ceased to be concerned with compiling a body of scholarly interpretations of and arguments about specified works of literature or authors but has become an end in itself, arguments about what to argue about, “scholarship” in which literary texts are used to interpret secondary sources, to illustrate favored theories and critical approaches, rather than the other way around. “Secondary literature” is what literary scholars are expected to produce in order to earn tenure, not what they write in order to illuminate literature as a whole, which no longer even serves as the ostensible subject of literary study in most “advanced” English departments.

Indeed, the notion that literary study is working its way toward that point in the future when “workable and approximate conclusions” might be reached, either about the nature of literature itself or about particular poems, stories, or novels, has become mostly preposterous. The only “purposive steps” taken by literary study in the last twenty years are those which erase the achievements of the previous generation of scholars in order to advance the newest and the latest in academic criticism. The future is the time when the “arguments” made by those jumping on past theoretical bandwagons are definitively shown to be ludicrously mistaken and the most recent fad is demonstrated to be the real source of critical insight.

Similarly, the “indirect public” to be influenced by literary scholarship was for most of the past century assumed to be the students passing through the English department; they would be the beneficiaries of the “knowledge” being produced by such scholarship, and some of them would be inspired enough by their own study of literature to want to go on and perhaps become scholars themselves. (As much as I dislike the way in which literature has been removed from the study of literature, I can’t agree that the audience for scholarship lies in the “general” public. There’s ultimately nothing wrong with the fact that “secondary literature in the humanities” is necessarily written for the benefit of other scholars.) Presumably, something like this model still prevails for most literature professors, except that much academic criticism does seem to be designed to have some sort of cultural and political effect (although it certainly isn’t written in a language that would enable it to have an immediate political impact) and that the attempt to influence student attitudes is quite explicit. The goal is not so much to acquaint students with the various useful ways in which a literary text might be understood but to convince them that one way--the method used by the professor, the outlook deemed most socially progressive--is the right way.

It’s good that graduate students and younger scholars ask questions about the role of such things as secondary literature. It shows that current norms governing how academic scholarship is to be defined might be challenged. If the desired goal is “concretion"--some plausibe effect on the way educated people understand a given subject and are able to see its relevance to their own lives--perhaps a change in scholarly business as usual is in order. (Perhaps blogs can contribute to such a change.) Concretion in philosophy or theology would look different, of course, than a similar effort to bring literary study out of the ether of unexamined assumptions. In my opinion, the foremost of these assumptions is that creating secondary “literature” of their own is what should preoccupy literary scholars, rather than helping to focus readers’ attention on those writers, poets and fiction writers, who have created the real thing.


I am to the Whig Interpretation of Literary Theory as Catiline was to Rome, but not because the “older” approaches were superior to these “fads” you mention. Rather, I distrust the assumption that progress is possible. Whatever literary theory might be, it’s not pyramidical. Thus, I support and appreciate complex theoretical writing. Its suggestability helps us approach the “unknown unknowns.

By Jonathan on 04/12/05 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with a lot of what’s in the above post, but I think all of us have had an experience where a piece of secondary literature really knocked us on our ass and changed the way we thought (for me, this was Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages). There are still critics writing works like that, whether you agree with what they write or not. Stanley Fish comes to mind (and I agree with almost nothing that he has written).
For me, literary criticism’s greatest value is mnemonic. Reading, writing, and thinking critically about literature helps me remember it better. If we all had flawless memories like Harold Bloom we would never need to read literary criticism.

By on 04/12/05 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the specific question of writing for “the ‘general’ public”—it is normally assumed that this means writing for less-educated, less-intelligent, less-curious, less-adventurous readers.

Imagine instead, for example, two brilliant and versatile brothers—one a physicist and one a man of letters—each writing for the other. Neither has the time to become expert in the other’s field, but both have a lot of curiosity and each respects the other. So what do they write?

By John Emerson on 04/12/05 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As one who is currently journeying through the annals of a university english department en route to the lovely Honours BA in English, I agree with what is being alleged. It is quite disappointing to witness a professor give a passionate lecture on an aspect of theory, however interesting, and then segue the next class into a halfhearted, or even what I like to call ‘book club-esque’ exploration of the actual text(so… what did you guys think of the novel? Did you like it?).

But I think that we really have to define what it means to concentrate on the literature. Several of my older professors get caught up in their own ‘obsessions’ that lead away from a real understanding of the work. Though it is instructive to analyze poetry through its form, and structure to do so to the exclusion of its content and message is also a negligible practice.

I personally do not think ‘secondary literature’ must be scrapped, as it has its own merits which are too numerous to list here. What I do think is that a balance must be struck, of treating literature as a work in and of itself while also including it within this greater theoretical discourse. Though there are relatively few academics whom I have seen capable of achieving this balance they do exist.

By on 04/13/05 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking as a member of the general public, this distinction between “theoretical” and “text-centric” doesn’t matter at all. Careerists playing career cards were just as dull in 1955 as they were in 1995. (Did Thomas Hardy truly _need_ exegesis?)

And they’ve never gotten less dull by condescending to their (or their publisher’s) notion of an idiot general public. As John Emerson hints, William and Henry didn’t bother talking down to each other, or to us.

I do wish that the producers of secondary literature could concentrate more on the literature and less on the careers. I suppose most of them do as well. (For that matter, I wish I could myself.) The academics I know and respect are clearly as frustrated by their compromises as we general publicans are by our own.

But that’s why we’re all here, right?

By Ray Davis on 04/13/05 at 01:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Neither has the time to become expert in the other’s field, but both have a lot of curiosity and each respects the other.
I’ve got half of your answer: the physicist would write like Brian Greene.

By on 04/13/05 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here at home I have an object lesson in what secondary literature should not be.

I won’t embarass the author, who I fear was writing under duress as a PhD candidate, but he wrote a book of about 150 pp. on the major Chinese poet Cao Zhi (= Ts’ao Chih). The book cited only a few lines of one poem plus the titles of a couple dozen others. It wasn’t a biography, either, which would have been OK because the poet was a crown prince rejected for the succession. And it wasn’t background on Chinese culture. It was almost all methodology, rather loosely keyed to the topic.

The Chinese-language bibliography of the study was very thorough. The guy had gone to an enormous effort to learn about the poet and his life and times, but he had been effectively forbidden to tell anyone about what he had learned.

By John Emerson on 04/13/05 at 09:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Its hard to resist the idea that scholarly articles and books in the humanities today have a single purpose: to establish or solidify a place for their authors in the hierarchies of their disciplines. Almost every article I read strikes me as a modern dance solo, a tortured maneuvering. Perhaps it has always been this way—perhaps the passage of time, and the corresponding passing of certain critical idioms, masks from us the element of posturing. But I don’t think so. When books and articles were written by people <i>who did not have to write them in order to keep their jobs</i>, or to move into higher positions in the institutional superstructure, it was far more likely that one would come across books and articles that were evidently labors of love—and that therefore could be a delight to read. Oddly, in the poor job market in the humanities that has lasted for nearly forty years now, almost the only people who feel free to write books that are delightful to read are those who have either abandoned any hope for upward mobility or who have settled comfortably into the stratosphere—and the latter can only produce such works if they happen to remember what it’s like to write as a human being. (What an enjoyable—and instructive—book Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory is, even if his Shakespeare biography is often ridiculous in its speculations.) In light of all this, it’s interesting to see some university presses doing reprints of scholarly ‘classics’ that may be to some degree out-of-date but that nevertheless reward reading and re-reading: the University of Chicago Press alone has recently done a new translation of Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages and reprints of Walter Ong’s book on Ramus and Frances Yates’s masterpiece The Art of Memory. Having recently done some manuscript reviewing for Chicago, I got a big stack of their books, and I find myself quickly setting aside the more recent in my field and turning to re-read books like those: my guilt in ‘not keeping up’ soon evaporates as I find myself getting wrapped up in masterful narratives and arguments—and I really think that books such as the three I have listed are <i>not</i> fully outdated, in that their insights have not yet been exhausted or even fully explored.

By on 04/13/05 at 08:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Abram’s “The Mirror and the Lamp” - ‘nuff said.

By on 04/18/05 at 05:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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