The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Sacred boundaries

Some blogs written for university presses have gotten really good, featuring excerpts worth reading even if (especially if) you have no particular interest in plunking down beaucoup bucks for a hardcover scholarly book. For instance, here’s a choice bit from classics/philosophy prof Paul Woodruff’s The Necessity of Theater, featured at the website for Oxford University Press, which looks closely at both drama and sports (those two forms of theater both American and Athenian):

Why does theater need a measured space? In order to practice the art of theater successfully, some people must be watching the actions of others. Whether your job tonight is to watch or be watched, you need to know which job is yours; the watcher-watched distinction is essential to theater. We shall see that even this can break down at the end of a theater piece, with marvelous consequences. But one of those consequences is that the event is no longer theatrical. When no one is watching, it’s not theater; it has grown into something else. Marking off space in theater is a device for meeting the need to distinguish the watcher from the watched. In most traditions there is a circle or a stage or sanctuary or a playing field…

“Sacred” is a word we have almost lost in modern times, like “reverence,” to which it is related in meaning. Sacred things and places call us to reverence, as to do sacred timed like the Sabbath; perhaps in out own century we are too alert to the dangers of idolatry to recognize that we are, still, surrounded by what we wordlessly take to be sacred. And Christians have come more and more to neglect the Sabbath. Like reverence, the sacred is best known in religious contexts, but, if we are to recognize it now, we must looked for it also in the secular world, such as the football field. I will say that a place for an object or person is sacred if it is held to be untouchable except by people who are marked off, usually by ritual, so as to be allowed to touch it.

What makes theater sacred? Ritual, or a tradition based on ritual, defines the space and calls for penalties against those who violate it. All theater, football games and Antigone included, is the heir of a long line of spaces made sacred for religious ritual. Sometimes the space is permanently scared, like the adyton, the un-enterable room in an old Greek temple. Sometimes it is sacred for the time of the event, and the boundaries of time and place work together. So it is with the stage, after a performance of Hamlet, if you are invited as a sponsor to a reception with the cast on the set. Nothing wrong now with setting foot on this space (although, if the performance was good, I dare you to step on the stage afterward without a shiver.) So it is also with a trial at law. For the time of the trial the courtroom theater is sacred and may be entered only designated people and used only according to certain rules.

Which leads me to question another kind of reverence at play here: why do these wry observations need to be in a book-length work, a monograph, for them to be taken seriously?

Let me back up. Before I read Woodruff’s excerpt, I also read Rohan Amanda Maitzen’s look at academic publishing over at The Valve, which includes 1) laments that nobody buys academic monographs, and 2) wonderment that blogs don’t seem to have really affected either the purchasing or accreditation habits of academics much.

Not everything in Maitzen’s post is in her voice, but it’s a good round-up — for instance, here she quotes Cathy Davidson:

If we believe in what we do (and I happen to be a believer), we should be writing for readers, first of all, and, second, we should be reading one another’s work and, third, we should be teaching it. Right now, a sale of 300 or 400 copies of a monograph is a lot. That’s appalling. The result, materially, is that we do not pay our own way and certainly not that of junior members of our profession. Intellectually, our students never learn the value the genre of the monograph because we teach excerpts in our courses, even our graduate courses. We do not teach the kind of extended, nuanced thinking that goes into the genre that our very graduate students will have to produce for tenure. We say the scholarly monograph represents the epitome of our profession and a hurdle to “lifetime employment” at a research university. So we do not practice what we preach, adding to the crisis in scholarly publishing and the crisis in the profession of English in particular.

Now, note that slippage: the need for “extended, nuanced thinking” actually turns out to be material primarily because it’s required for tenure. Monographs remain absolutely essential to the legitimation rituals of academia (especially the PhD and tenure), even as they’ve diminished in importance for readers both in and out of the scholarly spheres. They’re only important at designating who gets to go inside the temple. They don’t do anything to maintain the relationship with the audience.

This is something I wrestle with in my mind frequently — when is a “book” necessary? particularly as a “work” is now more frequently coming to mean an ongoing project composed of many, many individual pieces of writing, which are extended and nuanced and interlinked but frequently not a single thing with a clearly defined architecture.

In short, the book is not always necessary. In fact, it sometimes isn’t even a book.

But when it is, it should be one deliberately — not merely to invoke a ritual of time or space or authorship, but to genuinely fulfill all of those demands. As Mallarmé would say, the book should attempt the impossible and abolish chance. How can we do that? Where do we begin?

March 3, 2010 / Uncategorized


I was going to say longform fiction is a good justification for putting out a whole big book, but now it occurs to me that fiction, and really anything, can be serialized.

It feels like you’re looking for an indivisible work to justify publication in book form. Like an epic poem or a submarine’s technical manual.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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