Monday, October 20, 2008

Scholarship and/as autobiography

Last week my reading group discussed Janet Adelman's Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice. This is the most recent of several books we've read that includes either explicit or implicit autobiography. Adelman's book is not a memoir-by-way-of-literature, like Reading Lolita in Tehran (or, perhaps more relevantly, Leonard Barkan's Satyr Square); it's a work of scholarship that opens with a several-page meditation on the author's Jewishness; the ambivalent reception that she and other Jewish scholars of the Renaissance once received; and her discomfort with Merchant itself.

I didn't feel that these autobiographical musings affected the rest of the book negatively, but neither, to my mind, did they affect it positively. For one thing, taken as autobiography, her opening anecdotes aren't especially interesting or evocative. It might have required too much text to make them better--Adelman's book is not, after all, a memoir--but as it is, these autobiographical moments work neither as autobiography nor as an entrée into the rest of her book.

By contrast, a book we read last spring, Jeff Dolven's Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, had what seemed to me both powerful and productive autobiographical resonances. Dolven's book, which deals with humanist education and the successes, failures, and revolts that it bred among Renaissance writers, felt personal without being in the least confessional. I got the impression from Dolven's discussion of some of the problems with imparting and assessing knowledge that he's a thoughtful, engaged teacher whose scholarly interests affect and inform his pedagogy. I don't know Dolven any more than I know Adelman, but that vague sense of the personality behind the text increased my interest in and enjoyment of his work.

So with those two books standing in for the others I've read that do similar things, I'm curious, first, as to whether my readers (especially those in other disciplines or subfields) perceive there to be a rise in autobiographically-infused scholarship; and second, whether or when you think such an infusion is productive.

If this is indeed a trend, I suspect it may be an extension of our belief that everyone has an agenda (and what seems to be a related rise in opinion- and personality-based journalism and punditry); perhaps some of us, especially those who work on potentially controversial or identity-based topics, feel that it's useful to foreground our own backgrounds, assumptions and prejudices. I understand that impulse, though I'm not sure I agree with it.

As the existence of this blog should make clear, I'm a fan of autobiography. Indeed, it wasn't until I began blogging that I realized I've always been attentive to authorial voice and persona; almost nothing, in fact, is more fascinating to me than the various ways we present ourselves to the world--and the degree to which those self-presentations are or are not in our control. But one of the reasons that I blog is to create a space for the autobiographical. The voice that I use in my scholarship is, I think, both personal and recognizably my own--but it is not explicitly autobiographical nor would I wish it to be.

Part of the problem is that autobiography has the potential to make our scholarship seem too personal and too partial. Yes, it's true that Adelman's Jewish last name might, all on its own, cause some readers to speculate about her reasons for writing on Merchant of Venice--just as my ethnic-Catholic last name or my friend's East Asian one might raise assumptions or expectations about "where we're coming from" when we work or don't work on certain topics; it's also true that all of us, whatever our backgrounds, have idiosyncratic and personal takes on the things we study. But to foreground the autobiographical in our scholarship isn't just to acknowledge the personal (which I support), but to imply that it's the most important part of our research.

Myself, I am interested in learning why people study the things they study and what started them on a particular project (or how that project intersects with and informs other areas of their lives). But I'm usually interested in that when I'm interested in the person, as part of a developing relationship; it's the sort of thing one chats about over a couple of drinks, or in the comments section to someone's blog. If I don't know you, it's your work I'm judging you by, not how affecting and interesting your personal narrative is--and indeed, I suspect that the better an autobiographical narrative is, as autobiography, the more inappropriate its presence in your book or article becomes.

But there's an easy solution here: get a blog!


Susan said...

I don't know either of the books you've mentioned,(though you have made me want to read Dolven) but I do think there is a rise of personal reflections in at least some parts of scholarly works. In my recent book, I used the preface to locate myself -- both in an intellectual trajectory (connecting the new book to my previous work) and to my life. I did that to acknowledge my standpoint. Having done that, however, I did not weave personal reflections into the rest of the book -- it is a work of early modern history that stands on its own. But it's also a book that I might not have written ten years ago -- and I am sure that I thought about the questions I addressed differently because of both my teaching life and my life in a particular city. So I see writing about that -- however briefly -- an acknowledgment of the contingency of my interpretations.

I've ALWAYS read the prefaces, forewords, and introductions to books, because at least historians usually tell you a lot about how and why they are taking on the subject. And I like to remember that the people whose work I'm reading are people, not disembodied scholars.

Flavia said...

Hi Susan, and thanks for your thoughts. I agree that a preface is an appropriate place for such reflections (as are the acknowledgements--which I likewise always read!). Part of what's odd about Adelman's book is that her autobiographical reflections aren't confined to a preface, nor is there really a clear sense of how they relate to the rest of her book; rather, they come as the first few pages in the book's introduction--which then segues almost immediately and without much transition into a more traditional sort of introduction.

I don't mean to imply that I think autobiography has no place in scholarly works (as the end of my post seems to assert); I'm just trying to think through the ways in which it's more or less useful, or appropriate.

Sisyphus said...

It sounds kinda like Adelman was doing the same thing as Susan says, but didn't/couldn't use a preface and so just tucked it all at the front of the introduction. (now, introduction vs preface and what should go in an intro, that's a whole nother discussion we could have!)

I wouldn't say I've seen a _recent_ trend in situating oneself/one's biography before discussing one's work (unless you count recent as going back to the late 80s); the trend I've seen would be very senior scholars doing this, like they've produced 3 or 4 books before this. I always wondered if it was about considering one's long trajectory in the field, even if that wasn't what was being described biographically.

Ooh, and the one exception would be that in WS I've seen more of a trend _away_ from the autobiographical remark, or at least doing it in a more condensed way.

Flavia said...

[T]he trend I've seen would be very senior scholars doing this. . . . I always wondered if it was about considering one's long trajectory in the field.

Sis, this is exactly what one of the members of my reading group suggested, and I do think that's a likely explanation for some such autobiographical moments: at that stage in one's career, maybe one has the desire to look back and reflect on one's trajectory, or feels the freedom to do so, or both.

And I'm interested in what you say you've observed in Women's Studies--do you have a theory about that?

meg said...

Heh. I *do* know Dolven, and now I need to go read the book to get a sense of the autobiographicality of it (which I wouldn't have guessed from knowing him -- really nice guy, though).

Like Sisyphus and others, I think of the trend as being located in the late 80s/early 90s (Cathy Davidson, Alice Whozit of *French Letters*, etc. -- even Susan Howe). But the trends of senior scholars eventually float down to plebs... perhaps it's just taken 20 years.

Alternatively, a different voice could be a response to the crisis in scholarly publishing. I can hear it now: "We really like your argument, but could you lively up the writing? Maybe have a more personal voice? Something not to sound so, well, academicky?"

Pamphilia said...

I'm with meg on this one- Alice Kaplan of "French Lessons" seems to have started this. But then again, look at the semi-autobiographical philosophical story in Martha Nussbaum's "Love's Knowledge" for an earlier example.

And I'm going to have to take a second look at the Dolven book too, since I never thought of it (or him) that way!

Thanks for a beautiful, illuminating post, Flavia.

e. fiction said...

Hmm, I guess I should ponder more the implications of my own general mistrust of autobiographical impulses in scholarship (or, to spin it more positively, my admiration for someone like Foucault for so rigorously avoiding autobiography). I guess I must, at some sort of gut level, believe in something like distance or (*grimace*) objectivity. Or, at the very least, a believe that even if scholarship is motivated by personal concerns, both the topic and the results of that scholarship can transcend those particular concerns. Does this make me a reactionary who clings to Enlightenment ideals that facilitate all sorts of exclusionary principles? Or am I appropriately wary of the limits of identity politics?

In any case, some autobiographical moves in scholarship seem so contrived & hard to believe. (The opening of Gender Trouble come to mind.) I suppose I do like the way Rita Felski has mused about her own lower-middle-class roots, and I should check out Dolven's book (which I guess I should've read already anyways.)

/ End rambling. Back to grading.