Friday, November 18, 2005
Who is King of the Cats?
I had a disturbing realization earlier this week. The students in my graduate Shakespeare class were asking questions about the stylistic options available to them as critics. How long should one’s footnotes be, and why? [Answer: part of the fun of a Representations essay is the mini-essays in the footnotes; I know some people who read the footnotes of a Representations article before they read the body of the text. But long footnotes do slow readers down and distract them from your argument. Some of those Representations articles with fascinating footnotes do not really make arguments; like squid, they emit a cloud of ink and then skedaddle.]
How should one acknowledge a suggestion from a friend or colleague - by thanking a list of people in a single footnote, or by tracing each individual contribution separately? [It depends on the relationship between your community of friends and your larger audience. Often critics thank the readers of their manuscripts as a way of claiming authority and protection.] How playful can an article be? [Answer 1: It depends on where you want to publish. Answer 2: To thine own self be true. Answer 3: The playfulness of many critics has an elephantine ponderousness. Answer 4: The best critics use anecdotes, parables, parodies, imaginary interlocutors, aphorisms, allusions, and even magical spells and curses.] I asked the students which critics they admired. Which works of criticism had made them want to become graduate students? Did they experience abrupt conversions, like Saint Augustine? I urged them to find excellent models which they could imitate. Imitation is an under-valued practice, just as originality is an over-valued trait. The students asked me which critics I admired and imitated, and I gave them a sample of my eclectic canon of criticism. I warned them that following my lead could get them in trouble.
It was at this moment that I had my disturbing realization: despite what I had just said, I no longer felt like an apostate, a refugee, a helot, a member of the resistance. I no longer needed to rely on silence, exile, and cunning. My internal censor, my covering cherub, had left town. That mob of critical gangsters and ideological hit-men no longer ran the Fulton Fish Market of ideas. The agora was empty. What would I do without my enemies? Had they ever really existed, or had they been just Blakean emanations of my own anger?
I am of course exaggerating slightly. But I had spent years feeling excluded from the center of my scholarly field. And suddenly I was unsure of where that center was located. Stephen Greenblatt used to occupy a pretty central position in the priesthood, but after the publication of Will in the World, that amiable but rather speculative tribute to Shakespeare, Greenblatt had been cursed with bell, book, and candle by even his closest allies. And no one had taken his place.
Perhaps, like the former Yugoslavia, my field has split into smaller states that are about to go to war with each other. Or perhaps it has simply become more democratic, like Poland.
Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors from their jambs!
Let joy be unconfined!
At the same time, at the point of application in the classroom, or at the departmental level, even without a global center you still might have “a historically well-determined little pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.”
I love footnotes. Love, love, love them. I sometimes buy a book, just for the length and shere number of footnotes it contains. Yes, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel was my favorite book of the year.
Must critical articles make arguments?
By a funny coincidence, look for something on Strange and Norrell and the King of the Cats on Crooked Timber real soon (or at least in the next couple of weeks).
See Elaine Scarry on the continued importance of footnotes:
The relation of footnotes to striking and novel assertions is widely misunderstood in our culture at the present moment, perhaps because we ourselves have not devoted enough time to teaching everything that is folded into the display of research. (At present, original work is assumed to be footnote-free, and complex footnotes are assumed to signal a laborious summarizing of what we all already know.) I mean by scholarly research the use of footnotes to make both transparent and available the paths of evidence that lead to the argument, an argument in which something actual is at stake. With such notes, the argument can also be placed in the company of alternative explanations and counterarguments, so that its accuracy can continue to be queried and tested. ["Beauty and the Scholar’s Duty to Justice,” Profession (2000) 30]
See also the following essay, which consists almost entirely of footnotes, as an experiment in sub-notation:
Lisa Samuels, “Relinquish Intellectual Property," New Literary History 33.2 (2002): 357–74.
So where can we see the list you gave them, that “eclectic canon of criticism”? Do tell. And who among them uses magical spells and curses? I’m pretty none of my favorite critics do that, although some of my favorite critics’ favorite critics (Robert Duncan, for example) do.
And what does this all have to do with the death of Swinburne?