Monday, June 22, 2009

Time scales

Giles Slade's Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America offers a history of planned obsolescence.
Made to Break is a history of twentieth-century technology as seen through the prism of obsolescence. America invented everything that is now disposable, Giles Slade tells us, and he explains how disposability was in fact a necessary condition for America's rejection of tradition and our acceptance of change and impermanence.
I recognize the irony of thinking this just after joining Twitter, which is perhaps the consummate purveyor of Benjaminian information, "[t]he prime requirement [of which] is that it appear 'understandable in itself'" (89). But it seems to me that the same desire for innovation as such characterizes contemporary scholarship: forward-thinking yet wasteful. Scholars keep hoping for the newest "killer app" -- indeed, we keep hoping to publish it ourselves (nobody wants to be doing ordinary science; everybody wants to be Einstein). And yet old theoretical ideas are still productive. I'm not talking about theory (TM) so much as scholarship per se. I just finished reading Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, which is ten years old and yet full of ideas that were new to me, and not only new but theoretically rich. We will certainly continue to teach Foucault and Barthes, but will we teach Dinshaw and Halperin? Perhaps this is just griping over canonicity, and perhaps my view of this is skewed by my position as a young(ish) scholar. But it seems, you know, wasteful to produce so much knowledge at what seems like a fairly pressured pace. I remember a professor talking about the time she spent reading George Saintsbury's History of English Prosody. "I don't know why I thought I had time to do that," she said, laughing. But: oughtn't she have that time?

One is tempted to argue for a "slow scholarship" movement parallel to "slow food." Like slow food, it would be problematic. It would require the revaluation of time (difficult), and if there ever was a golden age of slow scholarship it probably rested on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women and people of color, as in the case of food. What's odd is that in contrast to publish (something very innovative)-or-perish, the dissemination of literary-critical ideas through popular culture, and even in teaching, seems quite slow. Witness high schools: still New Critical and proud. And yet it is precisely mass culture that is (alleged to be) the culture of planned obsolescence. From a mass-cultural perspective, literary criticism itself is outdated. Or as Carolyn Dinshaw says of her historical period in particular, "This American present abjects the medieval -- in such manifestations as Gregorian chants -- as irrelevant, by definition lifeless and inaccessible" (177). What Dinshaw is pointing out is a conflation between the ideas of "old" and "obsolete." Perhaps what is at issue is not fast or slow but a multiplicity of time-scales, as Mark McGurl suggests, that are not (cannot be?) aligned.

Lorine Niedecker writes: "I must possess myself, get back into pure duration" (28).


(Via Harvard UP.)

Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968. I am aware of problems with these translations.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke UP, 2009.

Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works. Ed. Jenny Penberthy. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.

Every single university press is currently tweeting the Chronicle's coverage of AAUP. That's old news, Columbia UP!

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