February 26, 2009
The Burden of Knowledge
Life is short and the burden of knowledge is great. We academics have our ways of contending with this reality. Here are some.
Living large. With grand rhetorical gestures you point to all the mountain peaks of issues with which (so you say) you’re deeply familiar. Perhaps spike it all with a detail or two to inspire the reader’s confidence that you really do know what you’re talking about. This evokes a sense of mastery and yet does not commit you to proving it. It’s a sort of Ponzi scheme of scholarship. But as they say, when the tide goes out (or the critical reviews come in), we’ll see who has been swimming naked!
Note this! And this! This is the neurotic, nonstop footnote most typical of younger scholars. It’s the opposite of the living-large option. Fresh from doctoral studies, you are accustomed to not being trusted for any statement that’s not footnoted to the eyebrows. So you feel the need to show, or at least create the illusion, that you’ve read everything. And besides, it’s great fun to launch a tsunami of footnotes that threatens to submerge the running text! This affliction can only be healed by time and editorial therapy. But sadly, some strains are terminal.
See mah’ oeuvre. You are the profusely published pro who wants to cultivate the royalties of your extensive published corpus. So you take this tack: “On this, see my book on thus and so.” To which the reader responds, if it was important enough to mention it in this book, give me an adequate summary in this book of what you said in that book! Maybe then I’ll buy that book.
Breathe, man, breathe! This is the Barthian pleonastic option, being the incredibly long sentence that tries to get it all in, with breathless periphrases and rambling parentheses (and footnotes inhaled into the running text), and while it all works out grammatically, the readers, unless they are German, have a difficult time holding onto the subject, or the very point of it all.
Admire my lapidary polish. Quiet. An artist is at work. The crafted sentence lets those who know, know that you know. This is a high-minded idealism, but it doesn’t always work. And some folks won’t have the foggiest notion what you are alluding to. But the idea is to carry it off so skillfully and with such pregnancy that (to change the metaphor) the novice can wade and the expert swim in your gin-clear pools of prose. And neither one will be aware of the other’s presence!
Yo’ editorial momma! A clever trash-talking blame game, this one puts the burden on the publisher or editor for being so miserly: “In this brief amount of space allotted to me by the small-minded publisher and its editorial lackey, I cannot possibly delve into all the details this topic so richly demands. In fact, it’s against my better judgment that I’ve lent my considerable talent to this project at all, so you will have to be grateful for what you get.” Warning: Don’t diss your editor. We get the last word. And we are always write!
Perhaps you can expand this list of strategies. But consider this. Maybe you don’t need to get it all in or create the illusion thereof. And if you must get pious about it, think of it as the stewardship of ideas. Save some of your knowledge for another book. Some day you too may have an oeuvre worthy of reference.