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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scholarly Self-Loathing

I have extraordinary contempt for most academic attitudes. They seem to me—this is in a way a touch of genius—simultaneously self-serving and self-defeating. They're self-defeating because they are designed finally to make sure that you never get or achieve what you say you want to achieve, and they're self-serving because in a way that failure is the goal which, when achieved, allows academics the platform of high and lofty complaint they so love to occupy.

Stanley Fish

This blog is really about not being self-sabotaging and self-serving all at the same time. My attitude is that one should value scholarship deeply and strive to do it at the highest level, rather than speaking of if as something contemptible that we only do for professional advancement. When you really think about professional advancement, its purpose is to allow you do do more scholarship.

I think the problem is worse in Department of English or other literatures where the fashionable attitude of denigrating literature has led to a strange paradox of people devoting their lives to something they claim not to care about that much. Someone said of the Duke English Dept once (Fish's old dept.) that it was a group of people united only by their common hatred of literature.

So an essentially elitist activity--the study of literature at the graduate level--has to be justified by its political utility, and this political utility derives from the fact that the elitism is a self-loathing one and thus serves the interests of the common man by implication. The fact that humanists are both privileged--to be able to do what they do at all--and underpaid (in relation to years of experience and education) allows for this cycle of self-defeating yet self-indulgent attitude.

Exercising the intelligence at the highest level and encouraging, teaching others to do the same needs no apology, no political alibi. It's simply a valuable thing to do and that's it. Making the object of study the works of John Coltrane, Mark Rothko, or Lorine Niedecker requires even less justification. Studying and preserving the most valuable products of the human intelligence, while doing no harm to any animals in the process. What could be more transparently beneficial than that?

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