Daily Archives: June 10, 2012

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Examples, not Objects

Dear John,

I find Ralph’s reply to your last useful in its offer of “examples” as an alternative to “objects.”  Ralph asks us if we can agree that

institutional practices that are guided by particular examples, especially by examples that have functioned as very important in our early attraction to a practice or discipline, would seem less susceptible to balkanization, more likely to provide the basis for establishing new relations, than practices wedded to objects. I like examples because, in the same gesture, they explain to me both why Shakespeare is more important to me than Soyinka and why Soyinka is important to me.

I think we can agree, but agreement requires us to put back on the table some features of disciplinarily that have dropped out of our last few exchanges.

Of what is “Shakespeare” an example? “Literature,” “drama,” “poetry,” “English genius,” and “adaptation” are the first of several possible answers that come to mind. Likely the wide range of possible answers is one reason why Ralph regards Shakespeare as an “important” example (in addition to the fact that this example has been formative for him). Is it the same example in each context? Does Shakespeare mean the same thing in high school as at university? Certainly my discipline would find a major difference between a filmed stage performance of The Taming of the Shrew (about which it would care very little) and 10 Things I Hate about You (which it might treat as generic hybrid or star vehicle more than as a Shakespeare adaptation)Is a rose a rose? With respect to those examples that have formed academic disciplines, I think the answer has to be a qualified “no.”

This was an issue several posts back when you pointed out that as a “film” person in English, I am pigeon-holed and pigeon-hole myself by an object-centered account of discipline. I could only agree, but my main point in this thread was that my English colleagues and I mean different things by “film.” It is not the same object, because it is an example for different sets of arguments. “What is film?” is an organizing question for film and media studies; “What is Literature?,” not so much. I think that in English that the reverse is the case, with the difference that a very powerful disciplinary strand in English assumes that all cultural production can be treated as literature-like (“film” here might be an example of “narrative”). Film and media studies, I would say, sometimes acts as though it wants to secure the completing claim that all cultural production is media-like (“novels” here might be an example of “print media”). Not surprisingly, I like the imperialist ambition of my discipline much better than that of yours. Since your discipline is so very much better funded and institutionally entrenched, I also get to imagine my counter-imperialist claim as one of righteous rebellion against your discipline’s tyranny. But of course this is precisely the battle narrative we want to interrupt, by pointing out that neither discipline makes sense without the other and that overall structure and function of the humanities at present cannot be understood absent the media practices emblematized by “Hollywood.”

If this remains our goal, and I think it does, then we need to remember that the risk of talking past one another remains significant. “What is film?” and “What is Literature?” are not even the parallel disciplinary questions they may appear, because (as our discussion of “realism” brought out), consideration of the material carrier  (e.g., photosensitive emulsion on a flexible plastic base) has been front and center in film studies, whereas in English that question was largely consigned to the marginal subfield of “the history of the book,” until the impending demise of the codex brought it out retirement under the banner of digital humanities. Words like “film,” “print,””media,” and “mediation” mean differently in the disciplines that, like it or not, shape our approaches. Object-orienation points not to a consensus about what the objects are or how they differ from other objects, but to the unruly disputes, shared vocabularies, acknowledged and unacknowledged premises that animate academic practice. If objects keep disciplines in their lanes (as you say), they do so in part by making it difficult to recognize what’s going on next door, even when we’re looking right at it. The conceptional shift from objects to examples helps us here, because it requires us to ask “what is exemplified?,” a question more likely to disclose incommensurate premises and zones of dispute than the question “does this differ from that?”  Understanding differences of exemplification strikes me as a necessary first step in developing shared examples.

I am not taking back my initial point that examples are not unities. We cannot say in advance that examples point to commensurable explanatory contexts for which they are examples. But I am qualifying this point, because it seems to me that any decent explanation of that incommensurability is bound to transform the example into the common property of a new explanatory context.

I am trying to decide whether this notion runs counter to your “fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient.” I find the idea of specialized teamwork inherently appealing but practically difficult to imagine without shared examples capable of permitting a collective organization of  the labor. Absent such organizing examples, self-suffcient specialization sounds to me like alienation. I might have a sense of myself as a highly specialized cog in a machine without much idea of how I participate in its overall function. This may in fact characterize the academic humanities at the moment. I take that to be one way of reading Ralph’s comment about the uncertainty involved in conceiving the adversary these days.

So can we say that we need some shared examples as well as, because it really is not possible to know everything, some proprietary ones?  It seems to me that we are developing a set of such examples, including “Criticism, Inc.”

Mark