Monday, February 15, 2010

Give the People What They Want

Feeling particularly cynical about academia, I was thinking about how sometimes a particular essay ends up making a reputation for someone, and then, many years after the reputation has been made, the elite positions attained, you go back and reads the essay, and you realize that it wasn't all that great, that there were major flaws, and you wonder, why did this essay do so much for this person's reputation?

The answer, I think, is that the essay gave the people what they wanted. And for doing that, the author was rewarded.

Sometimes this is done is a relatively small-scale way: the critical establishment doesn't like a claim and so the board of a major journal decides to reinforce the orthodoxy. For example, Patrick Conner makes some very significant claims about the Exeter Book. These are never published in Anglo-Saxon England, but Richard Gameson's "refutation" of those claims is published at exceedingly great length. Likewise, and much more egregiously, Tom Shippey writes a critique of some of Walter Goffart's theories about Beowulf being influenced by a specific Latin text. Almost immediately Goffart's critique of Shippeys' piece appears in Anglo-Saxon England even though other articles, already accepted but not published, had been languishing for (literally) years.

But sometimes the "establishment" is just about everyone in a field. An inconvenient set of facts has come to light, or a new theory has challenged some significant orthodoxies, or a revisiting of historiography has shown that a foundational claim is problematic. When it is not just a minor conspiracy of editors, but the sense of the field as a whole, an essay can become immensely influential and its author celebrated for doing the job that the field wanted done, even though the essay, in hindsight, wasn't particularly good.

Larry Benson's "The Literary Character of Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Poetry," PMLA 81 (1966): 334-41 is the perfect example of such an essay. Enormously influential at the time, this essay is embarrassingly bad when you actually read it as opposed to mindlessly citing it to show that Anglo-Saxon texts derived from literary sources have the same 'formulaic density' as those that might be oral compositions. Setting aside the fact that formulaic density is a terrible measure of orality (a point that had been made by Albert Lord in the 1960s), Benson's essay still fails to do anything more than assemble some clumsy statistics that clump together all different kinds of formulas and quasi formulas without reasonable differentiation. Even worse, Benson is essentially searching for Homeric formulas in Anglo-Saxon texts, even though the Anglo-Saxon system works much differently. The essay may be useful as a counterpoint to the somewhat over-the-top cheerleading for orality done by Francis Magoun, but as an argument on its own, it should have been convincing to no one.

Yet it was convincing, not because of its intrinsic merit, but because it gave a lot of literary scholars in the 1960s exactly what they wanted: a reason to ignore all that new, confusing oral tradition stuff. Benson was rewarded for this with publication in PMLA (which really doesn't publish much medieval scholarship any more, though it did back then) and widespread citation.

There are other examples, but this is just the most egregious that I know. Efforts to locate Beowulf firmly in time of the manuscript (I'm not really talking about Kevin Kiernan's work here, even though he does this, because Kevin isn't giving anyone what they wanted) might be an example. I think that in another ten years people will see that Spivak's "Three Women's Texts" and Said's Orientalism are also examples of giving people what they wanted (a reason to rush as fast as possible to postcolonialist political readings) but aren't particularly well done in themselves.

The elephant in the room, though, would be J.R.R. Tolkien's "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics". This text, so dear to my heart and which I've worked on for so many years, could be the ultimate example of giving the people what they wanted. The field didn't know it, I think, but it dearly wanted Beowulf as a literary work rather than something historical. Tolkien gave them this, and so in that sense I would have to damn him like I do Benson, Spivak or Said. But there's something different about "The Monsters and the Critics," also, because Tolkien wasn't only giving the people what they wanted. Yes, they got their literary Beowulf, but Tolkien also wanted them to see how the literary rose out of the historical. Tolkien thought that the Beowulf-poet knew his history, that references, as Tolkien saw them, to the Heruli or to Scedelandum in, or to the Heathobards or to Hengest were basically historically accurate. That wasn't what the field, at the time, wanted from "The Monsters and the Critics," and so it didn't take that path (and to be fair, Tolkien was not exactly clear about the specifics of his views; see Finn and Hengest, where the nearly the whole story has to be pieced together from footnotes). It took what it wanted and rewarded Tolkien for providing that.

The lesson seems to be that if you want to be influential and eventually powerful, give the people what they want.

(And if you care about the intellectual quality of your field, you might want to strongly question--even stubbornly resist--getting what you think you want).


John Cowan said...

I think the factors you mention will tend to make even a bad article popular, famous, and influential, but it will also, by the same token make a good article popular, famous, and influential.

Per contra: In the Nobel-Prize sciences, future winners tend to have highly cited articles, but the most highly cited article ever in chemistry is basically an explanation of how to do gas chromatography; for 20 years or so, anyone that did gas chromatography for any reason at all cited it. That didn't make it Nobel-class work.

Carl Anderson said...

Interesting suggestion that "B:TM&TC" essentially fulfilled an until-then unrequited and unrecognized (?) desire to see Beowulf as a literary work, and likewise that Tolkien was interested in showing how the literature grew out of the history. (We may well reinvoke the stones/hall/tower metaphor here!) Nonetheless, I have often felt that Tolkien was, in some respects, too successful in reorienting Beowulf-scholarship towards the literary. A strange side effect of this, it seems to me, is that our understanding of the historical context or background to the poem (whatever that might have really been) remains essentially where it was in Chambers's and Olrik's day. Similarly, I feel like -- almost century further on down the road -- we should perhaps have improved, or at least tried to improve, on that understanding ... but haven't really done so ....

Michael said...

Carl, I agree. It's a major failing that we haven't progressed much beyond Chambers and Olrik. That's why I like the Beowulf and Lejre book so much, even though there are, I think, some flaws in the argument. Tom Shippey's Afterword is pretty close to my view. I think that the Beowulf poet knew his history very well indeed and set his poem in that history.

Steve Muhlberger said...

This post shows why some of us would like you to post more often.

John Emerson said...

I still remember the bold way Tolkien slipped in his assumption that Beowulf was written by a priest, without even arguing it.

Tolkien seems to have been arguing two things, literate-civilized vs. oral-barbarous origins, and a literary-aesthetic rather than simply philological-historical reading of the text. But you can read a barbarous text for it literary value, and in doing so you find that the barbarians were not brutish, stupid, and unfeeling.

Lisa L. Spangenberg said...

The other thing about Tolkien is that he was deeply read in the poem itself, not just what was written about the poem by other scholars and critic.

I'm increasingly frustrated by scholarly articles that, honestly, seem to be written by people with very little familiarity with the primary text itself.

Carl Anderson said...

I would jump right in with seconding endorsement of the Beowulf and Lejre book, which I too like for all kind of reasons -- not least in that it seems to be a step towards moving beyond Chambers and Olrik (and so, IMO, a much needed step). Still, though Tom Shippey's Afterword is as erudite and thoughtful as TS's work always is, I find myself uncertain about judging how well the Beowulf poet knew his history simply because I can't find ways of evaluating the historical accuracy of the picture he paints. Moving beyond Chambers and Olrik -- or at least revisiting and reassessing that material in the present day -- might offer reassurance (or not) .... But still have that move to make, I think.

Meanwhile, yes, please everyone run out and read the Beowulf and Lejre book, which I think has something for pretty much everyone in it! :)

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