Saturday, March 10, 2007

buy the book

I was intrigued by the aldaily blurb for this short Chronicle piece, "Trading Up With Gilgamesh":

"Who says academics 'can't write?' David Damrosch argues that a clear prose style is perfectly consistent with the highest levels of academic thought and expression..."
Marrying readability and erudition? Sounds like the principal (and most often failed) objective of erc's academic/blogging career! I'm reminded of one of the evaluations of my senior thesis:

"...it's not surprising that the language of the essay often mimics the abstractions that characterize post-structuralist writing. I would have liked...a more sparing use of semicolons."

Anyways, Damrosch--a former Yalie--recently finished a history of the Epic of Gilgamesh, not a rambling 35-page dissertation on unintelligible poetry. "Trading Up with Gilgamesh" begins with an exploration of the tenuous relationship between academia and commercial publishing. Damrosch insists that scholars desperately want to convey their ideas to the public (and make ton$ of dollar$), but are often unwilling to sacrifice the esoteric language that often accompanies detailed academic analysis in order to "start turning out sound bites in prose."

Like any good contemporary theorist, Damrosch's prose corresponds to his argument (uh oh, here comes another semi-colon); his writing is clear and entertaining, but never cliche. The article begins by describing the germ of his book's concept, or his frustration with "the rhetoric of a 'clash of civilizations'" proffered by the right and parroted by the press before the war in Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Damrosch points out, demonstrates the common background of Western and Islamic cultures, as its influences can be seen "in Homer, the Bible, and The Thousand and One Nights."

The article then transitions into Damrosch's struggle to find a publisher who would assist him in communicating his undeniably arcane subject matter in a lucid, interesting manner. In telling the story of his pursuit of the "perfect publisher," he situates himself as a sort of intellectual Goldilocks--the first press was too "hard-core" academic, the second was too commercial, and the third, Henry Holt, was "just right."

For some reason, I found this article to be strangely off-putting. The first time I read it, I couldn't ascertain the source of my discomfort; upon re-reading it, I realized that I felt betrayed by the structure of the narrative--the abstract beginning and specific ending. There's nothing unusual or wrong about an academic writing an article that endorses his or her trade book, but the offhand allusions that began cropping up halfway through the article--the subject matter, the names of the publisher and editor--simply took me off guard. It's like watching a guest on a late night talk show who begins by discussing politics and ends by yelling, "Yo, my album drops this week." Also, I realized that the piece was linked under "Essays and opinions," not "New Books."

Which isn't to say that this isn't a good piece (it's interesting and will take you about five minutes to read), but rather that I shouldn't form preconceptions about things based on blurbs.

20 comments:

Mark B. said...

It's funny because I find that annoying too but now it's almost the social norm that there will be a shameless, self-promotional plug in almost everything these days. I suppose you can't discard it however because they are all trying to make money in their own pursuits. I do, nonetheless, wish that it wasn't as overt and overbearing. Everything is commercialized though and if it isn't already... give it a few years.

PEG said...

Hah. Yes, I pounced on that aldaily blurb too.

I also like the semicolon comment. I once read a book when a character comments on a letter from another: "You see that semicolon? That's a sign of civilization." Since I read that, I keep adding semicolons to my sentences.

Mr.Wrongway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elmrockcity said...

PEG, what book is that from?!

Also, is your blog available to the public?

elmrockcity said...

Liam, why did you delete your comment? It made a lot of sense.

Mr.Wrongway said...

I thought it was ranty.

Anonymous said...

This is unrelated:

Why don't you read some philosophy and blog what you think? I am curious.

Not the po-mo bullshit. Real philosophy. Analytic kind.

For some po-mo bashing, see here:
http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/dawkins.html

Or how would you like if a Yale professor bashed it?
http://fleetwood.baylor.edu/certain_doubts/?p=453

Mr.Wrongway said...

i won't touch pomo or anal-philo. but from his article i surmise, 1. keith derose is an idiot. 2. he doesn't know it.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I think Keith DeRose is not an idiot (he is a rather good epistemologist) and he is way too patient with pomos in his article. Most people bash pomos without his patience.

It's common for philosophers to have a disparaging view of postmodernism. (I mean I am an engineer and I have a disparaging view of humanities and social sciences. But I like analytic philosophy more than I like anal sex.)

Derrida was once going to be awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge. All Cambridge philosophers petitioned against that and they didn't end up giving him the degree.

You should check out the Dawkins article as well. Curious to know what you think.

Anonymous said...

Or Wikipedia the Sokal Affair.

Alan Sokal is my hero...

I love it when scientists bash humanities types... (Sometimes analytic philosophers bash scientists, which I also enjoy. See Alfred Mele's Free Will and Luck, Chapter 2 for some Libet bashing.)

Mr.Wrongway said...

who said anal sex?

but since you don't take salt. the dawkins article is fine, even if Richie's mind is too righteous for my taste. the problem with DeRose's article is that he doesn't say anything that hasn't been said before and said better. He says that he wants to explain to parents what all this fuss about post modernism is, then he just fusses with it. He could have just listed some links.

Mr.Wrongway said...

obviously, props to sokal.

elmrockcity said...

I can't devote as much attention to Anonymous' flimsy commentary as I'd like to (my plane departs in a few hours), but a few thoughts:

While I'm by no means an expert in the tradition, I have studied analytic philosophy at Yale. My professor? Keith DeRose.

I've also read a great deal of "po-mo bashing" (when writing a thesis here, one is generally encouraged to exhaustively research oppositional literature). For those who are interested in reading accurate, compelling critiques of the movement (as opposed to just wiki'ing the dull Sokal affair), I would recommend Eagleton's "After Theory," or an excellent anthology I picked up this summer, "Theory's Empire."

I wish I had the time to fully unpack everything that's wrong with KDR's piece. Mr. Wrongway is right; the whole article could be supplanted with a handful of links, and a few anecdotes about "silly postmodernists" contradicting themselves (since when do we attack a theory by attacking the theorists' fallibility, rather than the ideas themselves?)

Aside from the anecdotes, his main argument seems to rest on two points of attack: the arcane nature of pomo advocates' language and the theoretical inconsistencies within the school (mainly, whether or not they are pure skepticists).

Again, refuting an idea on linguistic grounds is ludicrous. Every discipline--analytic philosphy included--has its bad writers. And, re: the inconsistencies, KDR completely undermines his point with his own argument in part one.

This is, after all, a professor who spent one day talking about Kant and two weeks on Thomas Reid...

Anonymous said...

"refuting an idea on linguistic grounds is ludicrous."

Can you explain that to me? How is he refuting "an idea" (po-moism is more like an intellectual fashion than an idea - it is incoherent, stupid and worthless) on "linguistic grounds"? Po-mos don't have just bad writing. They have atrocious writing. It's illegible. It's a melange of misused scientific terms. Do you want me to quote from the Dawkins' piece? I mean, Russell's language is sometimes bad, too but his ideas nevertheless shine. Language for postmoderns, on the other hand, is a piece of veil for pomos to hide the nonsense they are uttering.

Okay, here is a personal request. For me, go through DeRose's post, bit by bit, unpack everything, argue your case in a blog post. I want to read. I want to know just what you like about pomos.

Also, judging from your post titled "Beautiful Minds", I don't think you have studied analytic philosophy all that much, which is fine because obviously if you are into pomos, you won't study real philosophy.

Look okay my commentary may be flimsy. I just want to know how you can like pomos. And I am really curious.

Tim said...

Look up discomfiture in the OED.

elmrockcity said...

I don't have OED access outside of Yale, but revised.

Re anonymous' request: This blog isn't a forum for me to explain postmodernism to you--go read Jameson's "Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" or Lyotard before spouting the sort of generalizing definitions you find in the media.

Here are some of my older posts, which address ideas by Donna Haraway, Stanley Fish:

http://elmrockcity.blogspot.com/2006/11/intolerance-for-tolerance-for.html

http://elmrockcity.blogspot.com/2006/12/its-funny-situation.html

Anonymous said...

Tolerance was one of the values of the Enlightenment.

"Principles, Fish suggests, are always context-bound; as the forerunners of Western values, he throws Locke, Kant, Rawls onto the table."

Get out... Is the law of excluded middle also context-bound? Is the principle of superposition also context bound?

"Fish and Brown differ over the solubility of the tolerance/intolerance binary that she deconstructs. This is where Fish's argument gets trickier to read (you can tell he's getting worked up over the meta-levels of the problem)."

You might want to read a little book called "On Bullshit" by Harry Frankfurt. Or for some immediate antidotes, you should check the philosophytalk episode:

http://www.philosophytalk.org/pastShows/BS.html

I am saying this because I think a lot of what you write is bullshit. And I sincerely believe that Harry Frankfurt's thoughtful tackling of the problem may allow you to sort of break free of it.

Well, yeah, with that I'll leave your blog, I think. I might check back to see if you reply but I don't think I'll read it anymore.

I am sorry I had to be this harsh - and perhaps rude, too. However, I just think there are some philosophical opponents that deserve respect and there are others who are just beyond the pale. It is the latter group that I find it hart to be polite to and charitable to when I write something. It's really hard, even though it is a moral failing on my part.

(I don't have a blogger account, thus the anonymity... but I just realized that I didn't need a blog account to hve a name.. Huh this thing's changed...)

Matt said...

NOOOOOOO

ANONYMOUS, YOU WERE MY HERO BUT YOU HAVE MORAL FAILINGS SO NOW I'M NOT SO SURE

DONT LEAVE ELMROCKCITY WHERE WILL WE GET TRUTH????

THIS IS THE WORST DAY EVER NOOOOO

randall (psudonym) said...

A few comments about Anonymous:

1) Do you really expect someone to be able to conduct humanities scholarship w/o using the pomo trope, semicolons and all?

2) Isn't the pomo trope internally coherant?

A few general comments:

I think the only thing one should ask when writing a sentence is, "am I saying this in the most clear way possible, or am I embellishing it to make it appeal to a niche audience?". And then, "is this style mine or am I trying to pass it off as my own?".

In any field there is rhetorical posturing... whether it's the flair with which a mathematician draws her QED box at the bottom of a proof or a multi-semicolon pomo bonanza.

Pomo is a trope in which (fortunately) a gifted thinker can express him or herself brilliantly, and (unfortunately) a less gifted thinker can easily add sufficient complexity to render his/her writing unintelligible.

It's more of a comment on the academic world as a whole than on one specific discipline that this sort of mimicry is so often rewarded at the undergraduate level and beyond.

I think the writer of this blog writes fresh and interesting prose, has interesting and entertaining ideas, and that her occasional use of the trope under discussion is hot.

Mr.Wrongway said...

20 comments. wow.