Monday, February 28, 2005

Academic Instincts (I)

The first chapter of Marjorie Garber's recent book is about the amateur and the professional. One of its obvious charms is implicit self-reference, as for instance when Garber concurs with Gertrude Himmelfarb in lamenting the recent decline of footnotes in scholarly books (it's unprofessional!), two pages before presenting a string of uncited quotations about Shakespeare. Her books uses endnotes in any case.

It is hard to elicit a thesis from the chapter as a whole, which contains some fascinating anecdotes about the history of amateur and professional, in politics, sports and detective fiction – as well as intellectual life. Though she would never put it so crudely, Garber's theory may be this: the terms amateur and professional have a minimal or flexible descriptive content, and are principally used to express a certain sort of praise and abuse (though it is a quite unstable matter which one is used for praise and which abuse). This would fit with her otherwise curious reaction to the Sokal hoax, which she calls "risible" and "irritating" and which prompts her to observe that
humanists playing with scientific terms and concepts are often seen as less noble, and more ridiculous, than scientists playing with cubism and theology.
Her explanation of this asymmetry is that "the humanities […] are perceived as closer to 'love' than is science." Like the treatment of amateur and professional (on my tentative interpretation), these remarks – with their passing depiction of inquiry as "play" – suggest that questions of expertise are purely rhetorical. And so they obscure the real issue raised by Garber's contrast, which is about the idea of professionalism as the development of specialized knowledge or skills, the kind that are taught in a vocational school (towards the PhD), and that allow for systematic application.

I would have guessed that it is this conception of the professional that makes for anxiety about the profession of literary study of the sort that Garber describes – is there really a "profession" here? – and that fuels the worst kind of "theory".

Garber ends by examining the "so-called 'return to aesthetics'", attributing earlier fear of beauty to its apparent subjectivity:
[If] scholars could disagree about the aesthetic value of the work of art without one of them being right and the other wrong […] what then was the authority of the critic, or of the work of art?
But here the more cynical thought is that beauty has been absent from study, if it has, not because there is no way to know it, or to get it right, but because doing so cannot be seen as the application of professional knowledge or skills, and so it is hard to square with the self-image – or the training – of the literary academic. This strikes me as raising a real question, which Garber does not address: if our object is the refinement of taste, why suppose, as Garber does in the penultimate sentence of her chapter, and without argument, that "the professional makes the best amateur"?


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