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Showing posts with label academic writing and belles lettres. Show all posts
Showing posts with label academic writing and belles lettres. Show all posts

Sunday 27 October 2019

Review: Stefan Collini, The Nostalgic Imagination

Reading this book, I had the sense of someone successfully making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Stefan Collini is a conscientious researcher, who gets deep into the archives; a very alert and astute reader, able to pick up the significance of a parenthetic concession or an adverbial emphasis; and a fluent writer. He also constructs and sustains an interesting thesis which has wider implications than the local ones with which he is primarily concerned.

At the same time, I often felt that the authors and books  selected for analysis scarcely merit the very careful attention given to them. At times, something of what may be his exasperation shows through in asides which reveal a very nice, dry sense of humour. But his even-handedness does not allow him to go much further than that.

As universities began to develop imperial ambitions in the late nineteenth century,  new professionalised subject departments  put the squeeze on older forms of (often amateur) writing. In the new academic history, there was soon to be no place for the kind of general overview which cheerfully assumed both a general theory and a short set of moral, political or religious values to sustain narratives which offered readers a ready-made sense of how they (and, usually, their own country) had got to be where they now were. In England - and Collini is writing only about England -  a main victim of university professionalisation was what, as  a sixth former in the 1960s, I learnt to call The Whig Interpretation of History.

But there were still readers who wanted those general overviews and Collini’s principal thesis is that, in England, some part of the demand was met by the work of a group of writers and academics (nearly all with strong links to Cambridge University) whose official concern was with the teaching of English Literature, itself a new university subject, and officially focussed on its internal history and on text-focussed criticism. But, perhaps because less secure in its identity than academic history, university English Literature found room for historical and critical works which were stuffed with both general theory and moralising lessons. 

The general theory was most often pessimist, a story of cultural decline (T S Eliot, the Leavises) or, at least, fragmentation (maybe good-enough shorthand for Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams) - combined with ideas about how the situation might be reversed, redeemed, or at least made tolerable to the sensitive. The proposed remedies seem to indicate some weakness in the original nostalgic diagnosis: the Church of England, hill-walking, cycling, adult education. I had assumed there were  flirtations with fascism among those Collini discusses, but he does not mention any. It would have been good to have had a disclaimer.

Collini does not at any point mention Imperialism, even though the period he covers (roughly from 1918 to the 1960s) embraces both the peak moments of British Imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s and its precipitous decline after 1945. I infer not a failure on his part but a likelihood that, for his authors,  the Empire was a bit like your income or your sex life; it was something there but not talked about, as if you didn’t have one or any. You just drank the tea, sweetened with the sugar. In terms of his main thesis, that his authors all gravitated to nostalgia about the past, not thinking about Empire may have helped leave the nostalgia untroubled.

In retrospect, though they were reasonably well informed about history, the group of critics with whom Collini is concerned had no access to an adequate analytical understanding of language (pace Empson). That did not really become available  until the work of Wittgenstein, J L Austin, H P Grice - and from another source, Mikhail Bakhtin - enabled the kind of work then accomplished by writers like Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. The main achievement has been to create clear and useable distinctions between sentence and utterance, sentence meaning and utterance meaning, semantics and pragmatics. This has allowed a  recasting of  traditional rhetoric (which never distinguished sentence and utterance) and a  more sophisticated account of the field of author - narrator - implied reader - actual reader relations.

“Continental” semiology and semiotics as practised by Roland Barthes in the 1950s got underway in no better an analytical  position than the Cambridge critics, with Barthes professing to stare at images on the page much as the Cambridge critics professed to attend to words on the page. Both could only do it because of a great deal of only half-formed theory.

The general interest of Collini’s very readable book lies in its connection to the broader topic of changes in the hierarchy and distribution of writing genres brought about by twentieth century university expansion, an expansion which proceeded at an exponential rate. One result was a fairly long period when it seemed that the job of the non-science academic was to write unreadable and unread books, many to be published at astronomic prices by specialised publishing houses. At the same time, anything readable and read was regarded as inferior. But in  the last couple of decades  a clear movement has arisen to create “cross-over” books which can both function as core texts in serious university courses and appeal to a wider readership. Some of the American university presses have played an important part in this movement, though inhibited by increasingly censorious university environments.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Essay: Hobbyists, Writers, Academics, Journalists

Hilary Mantel is annoyed by those who ask silly questions at literary festivals – perhaps the problem is simply that intelligent question at a literary festival is an oxymoron – but, anyway, she is annoyed enough by the inane question Do you write every day? to want to snarl back, Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist? I saw a chance when I read that in The Guardian, 16th April 2016.

As academics got themselves properly organised in the twentieth century they marked their territory in two important ways. They invented ways of expressing themselves which form what is now the superordinate genre of academic writing, its presence most obviously signalled by the literature review and by footnotes and Harvard-system bibliographies and bad writing. In doing this, they successfully marginalised the superordinate genre of belles lettres which had hitherto allowed anyone with the right social background and half an education to put pen to paper and tell you what they thought about, well, anything really but most obviously, the future of civilisation -  unarguably a topic about which we are all entitled to an opinion. T S Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) can serve as a familiar-enough example of such belles lettrism though when you look closely at it, it’s really rather clichéd and I have criticised it on this Blog [ 12 November 2012] for that and other reasons.

But academics did a second thing. Enabled by institutions which provided them secure livings with salaries and pensions, they were able to see off not only the belles lettristes but also the hobbyists who had pursued knowledge as a pastime which might or might not result in the occasional publication which might, occasionally, be a very good publication. But for hobbyists, their salaries and pensions were elsewhere and pursuit of those might occupy a good deal of time, certainly enough to inhibit daily writing. For me, the stand-out but already anachronistic hobbyist of the twentieth century is the Reverend W. Keble Martin, author and illustrator of The Concise British Flora in Colour. This is what Wikipedia says:

The Concise British Flora was published in May 1965 when the author was 88. The book was the result of 60 years' meticulous fieldwork and exquisite painting skills, and became an immediate best-seller. He completed over 1,400 paintings in colour and many black-and-white drawings before the book was finally published.

Nowadays, for any academic who allowed themself to think that they could be that late-flowering then a Research Assessment Exercise would prove a grim reaper. Ah, yes, Reverend, still working on that Flora are we? Perhaps you would be interested in our restructuring plan. Have you thought about early retirement? You’d have more time and we’d be shot of you.

Academics, as they have invented themselves and been invented by their hosts, are not only pushed into productivity but into gregariousness. They are more or less obliged to put themselves about, though when I look at online CVs I find it hard to believe that the obligations are quite so ferociously extensive. Believe the CVs, and it seems that academics are pedalling furiously simply to keep the aviation business airborne. As for all these editorial boards or the journals which enable them, some must surely be no more than Potemkin fronts designed to impress a passing benefactor; they surely can’t all be for real.

More importantly, I suspect this kind of gregariousness, made possible by the co-operation of others like you but combined into the competitive context of academic research, also leads to the kind of group-think which makes some university departments fairly indistinguishable from theological seminaries and political groupuscules, both completely sectarian in their thinking. True, it was only in the twentieth century that universities really sought to distinguish themselves from seminaries, hoisting the flag for the pursuit of truth in a context of tolerance, but there are many signs that they have become half-hearted about that pursuit and are now reverting to an older type of institution, one which valued conformity and distrusted difference and which doled out livings only to those who subscribed to the right articles of religion.

Some hobbyists are gregarious, but not all. Some are recluses and eccentrics and simply disappear from view into the bottomless pit of research they have selected: Who was Jack the Ripper? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Who did Queen Victoria actually sleep with? But this is actually one of the reasons why hobbyists can be important. They don’t have any economic dependence which might push them towards conformity with any prevailing orthodoxy, they can decide for themselves what is important, and they can find their way into whatever research methodology they find comfortable.

Some journalists are able to free themselves up in the same kind of way and, even inadvertently, produce original work which stands up very well to academic scrutiny. So Svetlana Alexeivich who won the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t in any obvious sense a hobbyist, but she is a single-minded journalist who has picked her own topics and invented her own methodology. She’s under no group pressure to conform, though she has often been under direct political pressure to mind what she does. A superficial assessment might conclude that she is simply an oral historian and that, of course, oral history is accepted and practised in the academic world. No need to make a fuss. But she isn’t just another oral historian. It is not only that she has sought out those who have hitherto had no voice – most obviously in The Unwomanly Face of War, a best-seller when originally published in a first, censored, version in 1985; the uncensored version appeared in English in 2017 and I reviewed it here on 5 September 2017 . It is also that she has a distinctive methodology, of her own invention. First, she sits and waits and listens patiently, just as a psychoanalyst might. Second, she won’t always take No for an answer. She’s respectful but not deferential – she has a job to do.  She’s not making polite tick-box enquiries. Third, if they cry she often cries too. She can’t help it. It’s why she’s doing the research in the first place. But it certainly helps along the research because those she interviews feel they can trust her. She cries too.

You might argue that, well, she could have done all that as a Professor at Minsk University. But that’s not true. She would not have had the same ideas and, even if she had, she would not have been permitted to pursue them in the conditions prevailing in the then USSR. The Unwomanly Face of War was completed in 1983, after years of research. It was turned down flat for publication because it undermined official narratives. Perestroika made it briefly acceptable, with some of the sex and violence taken out, but with the turning back of the clock in the former USSR, it is now once again not acceptable. Yet, you might say, all it does is to interview at length Soviet women (and girls – many falsified their ages to join up) who fought at the front in the Second World War. The Soviet academics of the 1970s? They weren’t interested. Alexeivich was an eccentric or a trouble-maker.

But she is morally serious, producing work which is polyphonic and  inter-textual with major cultural and political issues, and that may be typical for a journalist but not for a hobbyist. Hobbyists are often trying to get away from that kind of seriousness, interesting themselves in things on which the fate of civilisation most definitely does not hang – things which are exotic and obscure and, at least apparently, pointless. In contrast, it might be argued, even when it looks pointless, academic work at least tends to fit into some larger, over-arching and morally serious project.

I am not sure this argument will stand up. It doesn’t take long if you riffle through the Fellows of Oxbridge colleges or Fellows of the British Academy to find those who are pursuing pleasant hobbyist research into the pointless, but for the fact that they are salaried and the hobbies are hallowed by long tradition. Yet there are only so many Fragments of the Ancient World which can be regarded as significant, or so much seriousness of purpose which you can strain from a study of Virginia Woolf’s breakfast.

Twenty years ago, I took early retirement from university teaching and at the same time decided that I would supplement my income by becoming a stamp dealer. Though I don’t present myself as a particularly up-market one – I don’t have headed notepaper – I do now possess a fund of exotic, obscure and pointless hobbyist knowledge. If, for example, you should want to know whether an Armenian stamp from the period 1920 to 1923 is genuine, or the overprint genuine, or the postmark genuine – well, then I am one of the three or four go-to people in the world who will give you a reliable answer, often with a narrative attached – the postmaster at Basargechar was an idle fellow who never cleaned his canceller and so, yes, this dirty smudged postmark you are showing me is most likely genuine because that is how they all look. In contrast, if you had shown me a cancellation of Novo-Bayazet, I would expect it to be crisp and clear – conscientious chap there.

But just as you could put Virginia Woolf’s breakfasts into a wider context, so I could set my pointless knowledge into a wider context which would, for example, point to the renewal of postal activity in 1922 – 23 as evidence for some success on the part of the Bolsheviks in turning around the country from the low point to which it had descended in the period 1918 – 21. I could also point to the evidence of ideological change which meant that for 1922 – 23 you can no longer find stamps cancelled as a favour for collectors and dealers, whereas in 1920, that is pretty much all you can find. The Bolsheviks chased the speculators from the post offices, if they had not already fled the country.

But a difference remains. You can get a Ph D for setting Virginia Woolf’s breakfast into a larger context; it is not clear that you could get one for expanding on the tale in the previous paragraph. The former is High knowledge, the latter too Low. And if there is one thing which surely separates academics from hobbyists, it is snobbery – snobbery of similar kind to that which has Hilary Mantel dismissing the non-professional writer who doesn’t write every day.

The modern forms of snobbery are quite varied and include the self-righteousness of young academics who think they are radical or subversive or cutting-edge and consequently will only to reply to emails from people whose names and affiliations they recognise. They know who their Facebook Friends are and that’s what really matters.

But I have my own snobberies. I can’t quite take seriously my knowledge of Armenian postal history because much of it – not all of it - is second-hand. I haven’t done the archival research, both collateral and essential, for the obvious reason that I don’t read Armenian. I have to rely on the work of the late Professor Christopher Zakiyan who was a Soviet-era musicologist in his day job and a philatelist in his hobby-time. He researched the Armenian archives in Yerevan – no mean feat – and found many documents which cast a great deal of light on the work of the Armenian post office in the years after World War One and he published his work in Russian and some of it in English.

But the fact that I couldn’t make sense of the archives consigns me to being a researcher of the second-rank, except in those areas which do not require knowledge of the Armenian language. For example, I have re-constructed the printing history of one series of Armenian stamps purely forensically: you don’t need the archives to study the sheet formats, the paper, the gum, and so on. You need the stamps in front of you.

But universities are also full of researchers of the second-rank. A few years ago, I advertised to employ someone as an assistant on editing some of my earlier academic work for re-publication. I did not hesitate to interview someone who had completed a Ph D on a French post-structuralist thinker, only to discover during the interview that they did not read French. Well, I thought, surely that’s essential if you are writing about a living thinker who writes in French, not least because without that ability you have no access to the untranslated secondary literature in French. However good the translations of your subject may be, you are still limited in what you can achieve and in a Ph D there should be such a  prior constraint on the limits of your achievement.

That thought might get a Hear! Hear! from academics who are adepts at working in the original languages. But I am willing to qualify my snobbery. The original language matters less if you are, for example, a philosopher trying to engage with an argument which can be fairly well expressed in translation and which has already been fairly extensively discussed in languages other than the original. So if someone wanted to write a Ph D on Frege’s theory of Numbers in relation to his theory of language, I would not absolutely insist that they learnt German first - though I would say that they really had to look seriously into the nuances of meaning of Sinn and Bedeutung in German as well as in their English translations as Sense and Reference, and I would do that because I had somewhere read (in English) that this was probably going to be relevant.

But in arguing along these lines, I do incidentally weaken the snobbish belief that academics do it better. There will be hobbyists who outsmart them for purely chance reasons: they grew up bi-lingual, for example, or they travelled with a circus so have a head start in understanding circus life.

Ah, but what about Methodology? Isn’t the real problem with hobbyists that they are methodologically naïve? Well, I am sure many are – just as are many academics, those for example who still conduct banal and pointless psychology experiments. I’ll agree that many hobbyists are heavily into making lists, accumulating facts, and not doing much more than assembling a cabinet of curiosities even if they title a work A History of Victorian Lamp Posts ( I hope there isn’t one; I don’t want to upset anyone). But it’s not inevitable and it is not a distinguishing mark which leaves all academics comfortably on the other side of the line. For some academics, methodological sophistication does not rise above playing safe with the routines of academic writing.

Sunday 11 March 2018

Review: Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion

 Click on Image to Magnify

Since I stopped teaching in 2000, I don’t have to read anything. I make my own choices. In practice, for new books it means being guided by what I read about in reviews and by what I see on the Waterstones tables. For old books, it means reading what I feel I ought to have read or want to read again. But the desire for ease and familiarity surely keeps me away from some authors – ones I have never got to grips with, etc - and more generally from very long books. In addition, the anxiety of influence keeps me away from books which I think might deal in the same topics as I am currently trying to think about. I want to have my shot at them first.

That, of course, is a distinctly non-academic way of thinking and a very risky one too: in all likelihood, someone else has already taken the same shot as I am aiming for - and been shot to pieces, too.

In the arts and humanities, academic thinking and writing carved out its niche by insisting that you read other people’s work first and, ideally, to the point of exhaustion. You could then write a literature survey, groaning under the weight of the footnotes and Bibliography attached, before trying (ideally) to turn a small trick of your own at the end, essentially  a small step up your career ladder. In many cases, you simply pointed out other people’s mistakes and omissions. In practice, the results were often unreadable and, deservedly, pretty much unread. Life had been so much more fun in the days of belles lettres when anyone with leisure and the ability to turn a phrase could write an essay about anything they pleased – and publish it! If it means I can do as I please, I am all in favour of belles lettres. True, I don’t expect anyone else to pay me.

Though I knew Denise Riley as a fellow-student in the 1960s and 1970s – she designed the cover for my first book Language, Truth and Politics (1975) – I kept a distance from her later work, partly because of the anxiety of influence and partly because I suspected it would be Too French for me. Recently, I decided it was long overdue for me to take a look at what she had been up to in the past forty years.

Her short (I liked that) book of essays Impersonal Passion, published in 2005, was a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it, found it accessible, thought it dealt deftly with the problems which surely arise (even more so now) when you try to engage with issues contentious within academic feminisms and where there is at least some pressure to go for safety in numbers. At moments, it is very funny, though Riley only occasionally lets herself enjoy the pleasure - notably in the essay “Your Name Which Isn’t Yours.”  Finally  – this was no surprise – it is exceptionally well written, everywhere turns of phrase to die for.

There are footnotes and heavy-duty books cited, and Riley knows an awful lot of stuff, but the visible apparatus is slight compared to the evidence of Stakhanovite effort traditionally displayed in  heavy-duty academic writing. 

I think this book of essays belongs to belles lettres not to academic prose, and that is all to the good as far as I am concerned, though the question  is legitimate whether the production of belles lettres is the proper business of universities.

When I say belles lettres, I am not just congratulating the author on her abilities as a writer. For example, as one part of the evidence, a lot of the time she uses indirection – not an academic trope at all - to come at central controversies in culture and politics by means of small, everyday examples which may not seem to have much to do with the public domain unless you, the reader, make the connection – Riley often indicates the links but never harangues us about them. So she writes about how difficult it is to tell the truth using a conventional formula often deployed to lie; about the ways and by-ways in which your own name is, well, not really yours because someone else gave it you and you just put up with it; about the odd persistence of hurtful words which seem to have a much longer life than real bruises; about the querulous questions Why? and Why Me?  All this is done both delicately and probingly. She avoids overt autobiography and I think this may still be an academic inhibition – once you allow autobiography into academic writing, anything goes. So she uses “she” to give third person examples where as a post-academic I would at least feel free to use “I”.

Belles lettres has its own weak points. If you can write well, you can always spin things out so that you go on and on making a point not because that is the way to make a point but because you have been asked for five thousand words. Traditionally, the genre of belles lettres did not stoop to include political or religious tracts. It was meant to seduce rather than harangue and though the controversial was not excluded, whimsy was accommodated rather more easily and that was a weakness in the genre and directly related to the social class of both likely writer and likely reader, free of the pressing worries which were addressed by the tract.

I see I am on 876 words;  I used to write a thousand automatically in these circumstances of a book review. So I’ll tell you that I thought of an example which perfectly demonstrates Riley’s claim in chapter Six, that we often tie ourselves and others in knots if we try to tell the truth with a conventional formula.

Somewhere in the world, there is a person whose dog once ate their homework. Next day, they went to school …. The sensible thing would have been to LIE, it would have caused so much less anguish all round.