As you may know, Bob, I was trained in one of the smaller and more obscure subdisciplines, a little thing we like to call ‘Intellectual History’ (or sometimes ‘intellectual and cultural history’ if we’re aware, however dimly, that people other than official intellectuals have an intellectual history). Even in the high academy we’re pretty ornamental and there aren’t usually a lot of us around. So it’s been a blessing of sorts for me to live and work just near enough to the Raleigh/Durham node of big research universities to be able to attend the meetings of the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar.
The seminar often brings in bigwigs to talk about their work in progress, and also offers a forum for members and their advanced graduate students. The level is high and the distribution of expertises is broader than someone outside our little field might think possible. In general the room is packed with very smart people who know a lot of stuff, so in principle it ought to be a thoroughly stimulating experience – you know, like a conference. And even better than most conferences, papers are distributed beforehand and we’re all there intentionally, so everyone arrives prepared on the topic of the day and there’s no need for the slow death of droning paper delivery.
In practice of course there’s a little of that droning, by way of introduction, but it’s mercifully brief and usually offered with some ad libs to keep it fresh. But by academic standards we get down to discussion remarkably quickly, and here is the perfect opportunity for the exciting exchange of ideas that we all imagined academe to be!, before graduate seminars, freshman surveys, and committee meetings blew our brains out like egg yolks. Except that even here, where conditions are seemingly ideal, that exciting exchange does not take place.
Why? Well, there are just some logistical issues when you’ve got 15-20 smart people who all have things to say and can’t say them at once. Can’t have the loud and the quick dominating the discussion, so everyone gets a turn. Time is limited so followups have to be moderated and tangents discouraged. And although everyone likes a good joke, we wouldn’t want to short the presenter on the serious discussion about her important work that she deserves.
The result of these reasonable considerations is that nothing resembling conversation actually takes place. Because she knows she’ll get one shot to say what’s on her mind and then the turn will pass to someone else with their own fish to fry, each speaker produces a well-crafted monologue so dense with premises and implications that the presenter can only respond to a fraction of it, of course with another monologue. And of course all exchanges radiate from the node of the presenter, with no direct interactions between the other participants. It’s all very orderly, lots of smart stuff gets said, it’s productive, certainly worthwhile, even beautiful in its way; and there’s no transformative effervescence, no spark, virtually no chance of the happy accidental flashes of insight that come from free-flowing conversation, improvisation, riffing call and response, theme and variation, the jazz of the mind.
I said there was no conversation, but that’s not quite right. There is, but it’s on a very slow and ponderous (in the sense of pondering) rhythm. As I sit in that room aching for something a little more upbeat, it occurs to me that success in the high academy is in part a function of tolerance for monologues, both delivering and receiving: relatively short ones like those in the room, longer ones like lectures and journal articles, really long ones like books. For ordinary mortals this kind of monologic sensibility is just plain rude, but for the beasts of academe it’s the measure of seriousness. We discipline our young to patience for the monologues of others, and patience for the development of their own; and tsktsk at the minds both bright and dull who won’t or can’t adapt to the deliberate pace of our conversations. No wonder serious academics are leery of bloggery.
Which brings me to my last point. The paper last night was by Lloyd Kramer, a very good historian who was engaged in it in a conversation about the right way to do history with his graduate advisors, now very old, and R.R. Palmer, now dead. There was a bit of a recovery of Palmer, an old-school big-picture synthesizer, as against the more fragmented, conflicted history derived from post-structuralism that followed. This is a conversation in which the monologues are at the scale of oeuvres and generations, or rather in which it is only at that scale that the apparent monologues resolve into utterances in a very ponderous conversation indeed. In the course of the ‘discussion’ Lloyd mentioned that one difference between these generations had to do with their understanding of selves and identities: as primordial and singular for Palmer, as dialogically constructed and plural for the post-structuralists. Here I wanted to say that it didn’t take post-structuralism to see self and identity this way, since the insight was there already in Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Mead and DuBois to name a few. But I held my tongue, and thought about what kind of selves are constructed out of dialogues that take hours, years, lifetimes and generations to unfold.