Saturday, November 12, 2005

Scholars and Fanboys

I've had a lot to write of late, but little time to do it. One of the books I'm editing has finally started moving again, so I've been able to turn attention to the individual articles. The last day for revisions of freshman composition papers was Friday, so I was buried under a stack of them. Finally, I wanted to use the three day weekend to make some repairs around the house. Progress on all fronts.

So, now I have time to blog again. In a post a little over a week ago, I made the following comment:

I can't think of another single modern author [other than Tolkien] for whom a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study.

Some folks over at The One Ring took exception to the idea that one has to be a philologist to study Tolkien. Drout weighed in; his comments can be reduced to "it takes all kinds to have a successful and living debate and discussion about the works of a dead author," though the larger argument is more nuanced than I've just made it out to be.

The original idea of the post was to defend modernists against the charge of snobbery against Tolkien; I felt that even though there is some justification to the charge of elitism, inexperience with philology was a more charitable interpretation.

The discussion over at The One Ring, then, seems to be less about the idea of philology, but more about the potential suggestion that those without training in philology should sit down, shut up, and listen to the Annointed Priests of Philology and Literature. Of course, that was not my intention -- though I can easily imagine some folks in academe taking that position.

What I meant by "serious study" could be teased out to mean "writing articles that will make a tenure and promotions committee happy" -- in other words, it was meant to underscore the distinction between literary scholarship and literary appreciation.

But is there a distinction? In the world of scholarly publication, such a distinction exists -- so if I say "such-and-such an author creates cool ways of looking at the world," I'm not going to get published, but if I say "such-and-such an author actualizes an ideology in conversation with the zeitgeist," I stand a better chance of publication, even though I'm saying essentially the same thing both times. Instead of "serious study," I probably should have written "serious professional study." Of course, now that medievalists have given sufficient cover to modernists, the modernists can publish on Tolkien without delving into philology at all.

But back to the original question: Is there truly a distinction between scholarship and appreciation, or is it simply a matter of being professionalized? When Drout writes,

we can differentiate between readings generated by the Philologist, the Fanboy/girl, the Modernist, the High-Culture Reader, the Movie-Obssessed Fan, the Film Critic, etc., etc. Each will bring something different to the table, and each will work within a different interpretive community and follow a different set of interpretive practices

... he seems to be talking about discursive communities. The model I prefer isn't a patchwork of communities, but a spectrum of appreciation, with the professional on the one pole and the amateur on the other.

When a Fanboy says, "I really liked that book because the hero seemed just like me," we recognize that as appreciation. When a professor says, "the text transgresses the generic norms to such a degree as to form a new genre," we recognize that as scholarship. Yet, in the end, both are saying the same thing: "The text works for such-and-such a reason." In fact, I think most scholarship boils down to this thought process:

-- Wow, that was cool.
-- Gee, I wonder what made it so cool?
-- Hmm, now that I think about it, I know what made it cool.
-- But how does that coolness work?
-- Ah, some guy has a theory for why things are cool. When I apply it here, you can REALLY see how cool it is.
-- Maybe I should write this down so other people can see how cool this is and enjoy it more.

Do that enough in an organized setting, and they'll give you a Ph.D. in literature -- but you are still a Fanboy at heart.

So, fear not, One Ringers ... we're all Fanboys here.

4 comments:

  1. "- Wow, that was cool.
    -- Gee, I wonder what made it so cool?
    -- Hmm, now that I think about it, I know what made it cool.
    -- But how does that coolness work?
    -- Ah, some guy has a theory for why things are cool. When I apply it here, you can REALLY see how cool it is.
    -- Maybe I should write this down so other people can see how cool this is and enjoy it more."

    Darn! If I knew it was *that* easy to get a doctorate, I wouldn't have slaved away for my MS in Physical Therapy!

    LOL! A wonderful and pithy distillation of the process.

    Enjoyed.
    ljcohen
    http://ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com

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  2. A fun way of looking at scholarship! My thoughts on this expanded into a blog of my own.

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  3. Great post!

    Is there such a thing as an Unlocked Wordhoard Fangirl? If so, where do I sign up for a membership?

    By the way -- and this is a bit off-topic -- what do you say to the idea, which I've seen tossed about elsewhere, that the success of the "Lord of the Rings" movies has also provided modernists with a strange kind of cover for studying Tolkien, by allowing them to approach the subject as a matter of "pop cultural studies"?

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  4. Researching Language via Tolkien seems fanboy-ish in itself, to me; maybe the nerdy-ness of both fanboy-ism and serious scholarship blurs the distinction in my own mind--and I say that as one who doesn't have the self-discipline or the mental stamina for either.
    I signed up for a listserv for Arthurian scholars once, for example, and couldn't understand a word they said. But I'm commenting here to make this one observation, that when I was introduced to the work of Robertson Davies, it was like taking an English Literature class, I found myself making regular trips to the library for Robert Browning, Sir Walter Scott, Oswald Spengler, Goethe, Rabelais, Robert Burton, Kant, Ovid--
    No other writer (and especially not Tolkien) inspired me so to chase down the context of words and phrases like Davies did.
    For what it's worth.

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