Whigging Out

A lot of people were wondering, in the aftermath of the investigation into Ward Churchill, about whether many scholarly works have the same kind of dubious manipulations of evidence when examined closely. Quite a few people inferred from the apparent reluctance of many faculty to routinize such scrutiny that where there is smoke, there is fire.

I really don’t think that’s the issue for many scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Part of it, as I’ve suggested before, is that we know that some people with very valuable insights and ideas are also prone to odd parsings of texts and evidence. Foucault is a classic case of it. Even if you disagree with him on every philosophical particular, his work is still “good to think” for a practicing historian. If nothing else, he leads you to think about some things having a history that you never were inclined to regard as historical before. We also know that scholarly lives are in motion, and people who write a crap book at some point in their lives also write fantastic work at other points. That’s true even in the sciences: you don’t toss out path-breaking scientific work simply because the person who did it at a later point in their life turns into a raving loon.

I think thought that many of us twitch a little at the thought of microscopic scrutiny because we never quite make peace with the heuristic and practical limitations that we place on our research projects. That was brought home to me this past week when I read through a colleague and friend’s paper at our conference. She’s writing a transnational history of skin lighteners, and her work to date on the subject simply blows my mind. She’s found out all sorts of amazing things, and developed some really interesting interpretations of that history at various key points.

The reason her paper also makes me feel odd is that my first book addressed skin lighteners a bit. Reading my friend’s paper, I feel excitement but also a kind of strange sense of shame. Why didn’t I know all this then? Did I stop my work too soon? Not read enough? Not look at enough? She’s found sources, materials, facts, that I couldn’t even have guessed at when writing in 1989. Nothing that contradicts anything I said, or makes me out to be fundamentally wrong, but there’s just so much more information, nuance, texture.

I ought to feel great about this. It’s the normative picture of knowledge that we paint for outsiders, about how knowledge gets richer and better and deeper as time goes on. In the sciences, I think there’s far less anxiety about having past work revised, overturned, superceded, though even there, plenty of people rush to the barricades of the paradigms in which they were raised. In the humanities, I think the conflation of the personal quality of mind of scholars and the scholarship that they produce is what makes this kind of progression of knowledge an anxious rather than invariably welcome phenomenon. We are our books and articles, in some fashion, and so when someone comes along and says, “You were wrong” or “You didn’t know enough” or even just “There’s so much more to it”, you often feel a kind of faint twinge to the ego, an implied rebuke. It’s wrong to feel that or think that, but hard to shake the sensation nevertheless.

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2 Responses to Whigging Out

  1. Ralph says:

    “… you don’t toss out path-breaking scientific work simply because the person who did it at a later point in their life turns into a raving loon.” But, once you’ve made the concession that this sometimes happens, isn’t that an argument against tenure? Especially given the ever-increasing high cost of higher education and, now, the assumption that most students will graduate with a burden of debt, isn’t the risk that they will be taught by some “raving loon” simply too high?
    I agree with your larger point, however, that the more normal experience is that, if we are fortunate to live long enough, many of us will have the interesting experience of being revised. Unless the person attempting the revision simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about, there’s an odd kind of pleasure that someone else would have thought my work worthy of revision.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Teaching is one of the things that complicates the question. If you tenure a person because of their research, and the path-breaking quality of that person’s research was made possible in some respect by a kind of unpredictable, idiosyncratic intellect, then someone later on becoming a “raving loon” would be arguably the thing that tenure is meant to protect–the freedom to pursue ideas wherever they want and however they want. If the tenured person’s responsibilities are largely or entirely to research, then the harm that they might do by going off in a crazy direction is very limited, and possibly what seems lunatic might later on turn out to be a breakthrough. But yes, if that person is also teaching, and their teaching is a kind of abuse of students in some respect, then you do have a problem you can’t just ignore.

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