Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ancestor to a thought

Dave and I have been holding up the front end of this semester's postings with our massive, well-toned biceps! Lest we weary too soon (or we weary of us), please join in, contributors!

Dave's post on historicism and the wonderful comment thread it gave rise to made me think further about those ideas and assumptions that are somehow in our blood, even if we never personally imbibed them. I remember having a conversation with a brilliant young student at Hunter College in which much of what she said about herself and her friends reminded me of Judith Halberstam. Since Halberstam's work had introduced completely new thoughts into my brain, I assumed my student had read her. She hadn't. New gender theories had been released into the environment. How exciting!

Dave seems to suggest that, in much the same way, eighteenth-century scholars make decisions about history that are Hegelian or post-Hegelian, whether we've read Hegel or not. Similarly, one could argue that, despite the possibility that no one involved in the production could name a postmodern theorist to answer the million-dollar question, Snakes on a Plane is a pretty definitively postmodern entertainment. (Or maybe this post by Geoffrey Chaucer about Serpentes on a Shippe! takes the cake, though I'm pretty sure "GC" knows his postmoderns.) At times it is difficult to tell whether the theory is describing the practice or the practice is somehow absorbing the theory.

In a later post, I will talk about my dissertation plan, which explores a very particular way in which Locke's epistemology seems to become absorbed into popular assumptions about print culture through a conscious and ironic manipulation by novelists. This is, obviously, a longer post for a different day, if, in fact, it could be spelled out in anything less than a dissertation. Let us examine absorption of theories, then, in a much more quantifiable setting.

Think back to your undergraduate or masters years and the theory, history, and criticism you read then, whether in classes or on your own. Whose were the names you were expected by peers to know? What ideas were you expected by professors to respond to? Think especially of those theorists that have no explicit place in your own current writing, but who impressed you, at some tender moment, with an indelible mark. Even if you now reject that mark (or have had the tattooist integrate it into a lovely butterfly), it remains a part of your intellectual corpus.

Below, somewhere in the comments, I hinted at some of mine. Here are three:

1. Jean Baudrillard's Simulations: I picked up Baudrillard while still a teen and thought he was magnificently convincing. Since then, I've grown extremely wary of the trickster-theorist style, the swaggering declaratives and ahistorical imagery. In fact, now I'm rather embarrassed that I liked it so much. However, the idea of the hyperreal simulacrum is rather fascinating against the backdrop of the massive growth of print culture in the 17-18th, and if it weren't for Baudrillard, I probably would not have taken such an interest in the history of representation. This leads us to

2. Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: I have never agreed with Ong's conclusions, but I liked reading this little book so much. I was impressed by the interdisciplinarity of his study, ranging through anthropology, classical languages, literary studies, media studies, psychology, and sociology. It was liberating to see so much work brought together so deftly and readably, and still yielding a clear thesis. After five (?) years, I haven't had occasion to cite Ong anywhere, but his departmentally liberated methods and his urgency stay with me. And, lest you think I had T-Rex arms as an undergraduate and had to stick to tiny books, my third is

3. Elizabeth Eisenstein's The printing press as an agent of change. She's been accused, to varying degrees of accuracy, of having had that old teleological curse on her, but when I read this book I fell in love. My copy of Printing Press is as crowded with excited exclamation-pointed notes as my copy of Tristram Shandy. When I hear people casually dismiss this work, I become a little enraged. No, we don't tend to think of the history of print culture in these terms anymore, and I do know that other works have attempted to force this one into full obsolescence. I haven't cited her in my work, and I know that to do so would be controversial, at best. But I'll always remember this as the book that made me care about print culture and understand the power of technology to do the opposite of what Ong says it does. It might alienate us, sure, but it also can also make us more equal.

(Should I subtitle all of my posts "Baby Photos"?)