Seeing this post over at Notorious’s place, as well as this article that a friend of mine shared on Facebook, has inspired me to post something that I’ve been thinking a lot lately because of the book project, and I think that it connects (maybe) to the way that (many) humanities and arts disciplines are devalued in a culture that has come more and more to emphasize “results” or “discoveries.”
Because here’s the thing: unless my scholarship takes a dramatic left turn, I am never going to discover anything.* I’m never going to produce “findings” that change the world. And if that’s how we define “producing new knowledge,” and if we define research as producing new knowledge, then the work that I do doesn’t actually count as research, even though it involves many of the same activities that people who DO discover things and produce findings do.
For me, my research depends less on making some discovery, or in producing some sort of “findings,” than it is about arriving at new interpretations on the basis of how I’ve evolved as a scholar, through reading, through thinking, and through reading some more, and finally through writing. I know: it sounds wildly exciting, right? But so a result of that is that “scholarly work” for me feels more like meditating than like being on a treasure hunt or doing an experiment. And it also means that everything that’s old is new again.
What do I mean by that? Well, I had this very strange moment yesterday as I was working on what will become the first body chapter of my book. I was reading, and thinking, and writing – you know all the things – and I thought to myself, “somebody wrote about this thing that I’m thinking… I feel like what I’m saying is something slightly different, but I need to use that article…” And then it hit me: I was thinking of the first article I ever published. I have reached the point where I’m in scholarly conversation with the me I used to be. And while I’m still interested in the same broad themes, my perspective has changed and deepened dramatically since 1998. But I’m not actually discovering anything. Nor am I finding anything.
So what is the value, then, in the work that I do? That really is the question that every scholar who does the sort of scholarship that I do asks consistently from graduate school onward. For some people, the answer about politics: by changing interpretations, we make a radical intervention in the possibilities for the ways that people will think about things. For some people, the answer is about preservation: our purpose is to ensure that literature continues to be valued within our culture. For some people, the answer is about the idealistic belief that literature makes us better people, or that it makes us better thinkers or more sensitive human beings.
While I do at various times answer that question in all of the above ways, I think that my answer most of the time is much more self-centered. I think that the value in the kind of scholarship that I do, in its everyday and most frequent manifestation, is that I like how it feels to push myself intellectually and to see what new stuff I can think and argue. That process is amazing for me, and it’s the part of doing research that I like the most. And no, I don’t think that is a terribly compelling argument for my discipline or for the humanities generally, when it applies just to me, but if we broaden the scope of what I’m discussing, then what I’m saying is that contemplation is valuable; deep thought is valuable; engaging with other people who are doing similar contemplating and deep thinking is valuable; adding to the potential interpretations of cultural texts and opening our minds to different ways of seeing cultural texts is valuable. Even if we’re not discovering anything and even if we’re not finding anything. Or, rather, even if the only thing that we’re discovering or finding is our own intellectual potential, our own way of seeing.
*Let me note that this isn’t the case for all scholars in my discipline. Depending on one’s approach, one might be doing a lot of archival research, or one might be doing research with human subjects, which fits better within a “discoveries” or “findings” model.