We would like to rewrite the scholarly essay. The Humanities scholarly paper is perceived by most of the public at large, for whom higher learning and scholarship is a source of anxiety and suspicion, as inaccessibly written, jargon-laden, irrelevant, and trivial. None of these criticisms matter to most Humanities scholars, who, in accordance with their own anxieties and neuroses, simply want to get on with the socially thankless but intellectually rewarding task of solving the particular scholarly issues with which they have confronted themselves. We want to make certain that the scholarly/artistic essay enterprise continues, even if it does so “by other means.”
Here is some contemporary background for this difference in opinion. What scholars have learned in the decades following World War II is that the “lofty indifference” with which we tend to perceive the public treatment of the scholarly enterprise, and that we think is simply the way that scholars have always viewed the public, in fact existed largely as an enabling narrative of learning, and that it is based on an inattention to the fact that higher learning has always depended on public support of one kind or another. In other words, scholarship has always been historically situated, and we ignore our own situation at our peril.
The traditional bricks-and-mortar university version of the Humanities is under assault from several directions, including from within.
- While the frontal assault on tenure – which is to say on academic freedom – is largely unsuccessful, a different kind of attack has taken place: a war of attrition in which the institution of tenure is slowly being eroded by replacing retiring faculty with “adjunct faculty”: non-tenurable instructors and graduate students.
- The size of the classroom keeps increasing – along with the difficulty of teaching individual students — as a consequence of the rising cost of a university education.
- The emergence of digital media – and especially of the Internet – has helped popularize the notion that learning might do quite easily without a bricks-and-mortar institution at all. We are ambivalent about this development along perfectly traditional lines: on the one hand, universal access to knowledge is a good thing. On the other hand, scholars worry about a) who will control the means of information dissemination (it should not be Apple, Dell, or Comcast).
- Although these trends are difficult to quantify, popular support for the Humanities seems to be eroding since the 1980s. One practical example of this is the general success of the attempt to erode government funding for the NEH and NEA since the 1980s.
- Also, the sense of unity between (both undergraduate and graduate) students with faculty has eroded since the end of the era of mass campus protests for Civil Rights, and against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid.
- The formation of scholarly disciplines – once a boon to research because it helped sort out the objects and methods for study – has often become stultifying because, while we recognize the need for interdisciplinarity, we have a difficult time
- Because scholars themselves are trained to focus their attention on their research enterprise, we most of the time forget to train that attention on our own material circumstances. We tend, in other words, to accept the status quo and to resist change if it means our attention is diverted from the task at hand. As a consequence of this anxiety about change, we are often conservative in wanting the institution itself to remain stable, even if it means not supporting, for example, the right of graduate students and adjunct faculty to a voice in institutional and disciplinary governance.
- Poststructuralism – the dominant critical and methodological mode in the Humanities in the United States from the early 1970s – often itself seems to demean the Humanities enterprise as itself simply an exercise in the imposition of ideology as truth on unsuspecting students.
History of the Essay
Standar accounts suggest that the scholarly essay was invented by Montaigne and, perhaps, Erasmus.
Why can we change the essay form: a plea to Humanities scholars couched in a familiar logic.
One of the lessons of poststructural criticism is that all human artifacts are historically situated, that is to say that they are not eternal forms, but are influenced by the cultures in which they originate. In literature studies we understand that the European novel form becomes popular at a certain moment in the development of a bourgeois class that wants to see itself and its interests reflected in a new kind of narrative. Or we understand that the material form of the book is itself always evolving in response to different cultural requirements. As poststructural critics (by which I mean scholars subscribing to a mode of inquiry that resists the totalizing of meaning implicit in existentialism, new criticism, and traditional structuralism), we are rightly suspicious of totalizing critical assumptions.
Other attempts to change the essay
The idea that the essay form is malleable is not, of course, completely original. Ironically, for early post-structuralist (especially Derrida), this critique included of course writing itself, and even the essay. Early texts about deconstructions like Of Grammatology experimented with the essay form itself, inventing new orthographies, leaving in words that were orthographically struck out, or using Germanically long sentences in a playful way. Of course three or four scholarly generations later, this playfulness has solidified into an often-opaque prose style in which graduate students and untenured faculty have to be initiated in order to publish with good university presses in order to
The great but not completely unexpected irony we expect is to see the greatest objections to the notion that the essay form might be changed will come from scholars who think of themselves as poststructuralist (who in their own work will take it for granted that the object of their study is culturally determined) – that, for example, the desire for simplicity in prose will be mistaken for the desire simply to pander to the public (rather than pandering to a university press editor).
One objection will inevitably be that the new essay is “always already” being refashioned. In a very real sense this is true. For the last few decades we have seen the rise of creative nonfiction, a marvelously ambiguous rubric covering a number of interesting sins. And, in fact, some of the first assays into the form (then called “new journalism) – Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism – provoked an enormous amount of critical interest. As any number of our literature colleagues, however, will observe in the honest defense of their own period of study, the creative essay has as long a history as the essay itself, for example in the conceit of the object of study speaking in its own voice, as in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly (1509).
And of course the essay has been written by other means as those means have arisen: television and film documentaries, for example.
But the point is that these alternate explorations in the essay haven’t, by and large, been done by us – by scholars and university artists – in a way that effects institutions and disciplines themselves. Creative nonfiction remains distinctly an object of study, not a mode within which – for the most part — literary criticism gets done.
What we will do.
Oil painting rises as the dominant form of expression in European painting because of the coextensive emergence of new technologies and ideologies. While it is always difficult to say whether and to what degree the current historical moment is in fact presenting an ideological shift, the facts of economic globalization, global warming, and the increasingly hysterical attempts to hold on to traditional notions of nationhood all suggest that something important is happening. And the Internet is still in early days. This is perhaps the moment to think about changing forms of representation in some fundamental ways. . . .