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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Finding What You Weren't Looking For

The best ideas are not the ones you start with, but the the ones you encounter as you work. So the initial stage of a project is where you have the intuition that there is something interesting to be found, if you look a little closer at something. You don't yet know exactly what it is. If you knew, then it would be because you already had done the looking. If someone asked you what you were looking for, you'd be rather vague. "I have a hunch."

(I'll give you a minor example from my own work this morning. I was contrasting the modernist suspicion of mass culture with the breaking down of high / low distinctions, when it suddenly occurred to me that it was the modernist intellectuals (non-artists) who were so anxious about cultural hierarchies. It was Ortega or Adorno or Dwight MacDonald who really cared whether something was lowbrow, middle-brow, etc... Pessoa or Lorca or H.D. had better things to think about. Gertrude Stein probably wanted to be mass culture. Schönberg hated Stravinsky, but he still thought Adorno's criticism of Stravinsky was full of shit. This insight of mine suddenly opened up a new line of thinking for me, because I had been confusing certain intellectual alibis for modernism with modernism itself.)

So you start looking at it the thing you thought was interesting. You have an initial hunch about why, but if you just follow through on that hunch, and find what you thought you were looking for, then you won't be doing it right. The really interesting idea will be concealed behind the more conventional thing you thought you would find. This is what makes my field "creative."

(A lot of graduate students seem at first to me like they would be creative, because they seem enthusiastic and fresh in their ways of looking at things, but being able to find something you weren't looking for is actually quite rare. Those more "unconventional" graduate students sometimes don't pan out at all. They are almost worse than the plodding, dull types.)

Creativity also flows from a certain precision in thinking. For example, you can read Lorca's duende lecture as his own poetics. But it is interesting he never talks about his own poetics there, presenting instead a theory of Spanish cultural exceptionalism. I don't deny that he is presenting his own poetics, a justfication for his own work, in this lecture, but you have to read his theory of Spanish cultural exceptionalism as an allegory for his poetics, since he doesn't present his theory as a theory of his own poetry in a direct way. And what are the implications of using a theory of cultural exceptionalism to explain your own poetics? All that, you have to look at, because you don't know what you will find in advance.

Once again, people who try to be creative and non-academic often miss the boat completely on this. To do creative work as an academic you have to be more, not less theoretical and self-aware.

1 comment:

Professor Zero said...

On the high/low distinctions, Iris Zavala wrote this book.

Colonialism and Culture: Hispanic Modernisms and the Social Imaginary, Indiana University Press, 1992. 240 pp.

Overly Bakhtinian for me but interesting. Danny Anderson caused me to write this essay on it.

"A Truck Named Rubén Darío: Modernismo as Chronotope and Cultural Resistance." Siglo XX / 20th Century 13 (1995): 321–328.

People like Lugones, Herrera y Reissig, the first Vallejo, inter alia, all appear to adore cursilería and so on. Poetry and not just the suave patria "se viste de percal y abalorio" (López Velarde).

I cannot stand Ortega y Gasset and I have difficulty with Unamuno as well.