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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: September ::
Impermanent Permanence
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0965.  Friday, 26 September 1997.

From:           Norm Holland <
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Date:           Thursday, 25 Sep 97 11:54:05 EDT
Subject:        Impermanent Permanence

Pat Galloway's comments on scholarship "sub specie aeternitas" pushed
one of my buttons.  Belatedly, I fear, I am coming to recognize a
geological shift in our attitudes toward permanence in scholarship.
Perhaps this will seem oldhat to others, but I am just learning it as I
look back over forty years in the scholarly game.

When I entered the profession in the mid-50s, we held scholarly ideals
like those of Pat's monks and indeed Pat herself, who seeks to write
"sub specie aeternitas" and feels she has fallen short if she doesn't.
Back in the '50s, we thought we were making permanent "contributions to
knowledge," as our dissertation instructions asked us to do.
Increasingly, I think we are no longer concerned with the long term but
with the now, the new, the immediate, recognizing that what we do will
be here today and gone tomorrow and feeling no discomfort about that.
What counts today is the size of the splash one can make, the amount of
publicity, the number of people who hear about what you do.  I'd say we
are witnessing a shift from permanence to broadcasting.

A few instances from the hundreds one could marshall:

  Under previous editors, the _New Yorker_'s aim was to publish
  writing of such quality that it could be read anytime in the
  indefinite future.  In the last few years, driven by falling
  circulation, the aim has become to cover at length the most
  recent craze.  To cover very well, to be sure, but who will
  be reading today's _New Yorker_ writers the way we read John
  McPhee or E. B. White?

  This week's change in the _New York Times_ from the good gray
  "newspaper of record" to a brightly colored imitation of
  _U.S.A. Today_, again, chasing a lost market.

  Our Dean has this year begun a list in his monthly newsletter
  giving high prominence to those faculty mentioned in the
  media, greater prominence than to those who publish this or
  that.

  Peter Gay subtitles his great biography of Freud, "A Life for
  our Time."  Would a 19C biographer have done so?

  When I read current criticism or theory (not, to be sure,
  medieval or Renaissance scholarship), I rarely see any
  references cited that are more than ten years old.  It is as
  though the scholars and critics who led the field in the
  '50s, '60s, and '70s have simply vanished.

  In my own lifetime as a critic, I have the witnessed the
  following "waves" of scholarly orthodoxy: philology;
  intellectual and literary history; the New Criticism; theory;
  critical studies (politics).  That's a lot, surely, for forty
  years.  Do they reflect real changes in ideas or simply a
  need to do something new, more "visible"?

I'm particularly interested in publication on the Internet as marking
the change, because I edit a peer-reviewed e-journal, PSYART, only one
of many peer-reviewed journals online.  When you publish an article on
the Net, you expose it to an audience, potentially, of millions (not
that millions would be interested in your reading of Donne, but they
have access).  To the extent that people learn of your ideas, you
achieve a kind of permanence, the kind that a memorable broadcast, like
Orson Welles' Halloween hoax, does: lots of people carry it in their
minds.  To the extent that people download your essay and treasure it in
their files, you achieve another kind of permanence.  But in exchange,
you give up traditional "library" permanence.  URLs disappear or move or
become unavailable.  An Internet article is not irrevocable; it can be
updated easily.  It can be moved, copied, deleted, changed, plagiarized,
melded with another essay-whatever-to a far greater degree than could an
article in the heavy bound volumes sitting on our shelves.  Yet the
advantages of e-publication in cost and convenience and, yes, wide
audience, are overwhelming.  One more example: our university president
wants radical cuts in the budget for print journals and a corresponding
increase in budget for electronic media, and he's right.

Why such a change from repository permanence to the temporary permanence
of broadcasting?  I would nominate the usual suspects: the media,
notably television; the constant consumerist push to have something new
and different; the commercial need for more and more sales; the pressure
on faculty to publishing anything and everything; simply the
technological change in the speed with which we do things over the
course of the century, radio vs.  letters, air vs. train, word processor
vs. typewriter.

I don't mean to sound like a disgruntled, aging walrus.  I will confess
to some discomfort with this shift in our idea of permanence, but
frankly I am more curious about its sources and its future than
regretful.  I do not think it makes sense to judge this shift good or
ill, better or worse than the previous state of mind.  I think one
simply has to recognize it as a change in the _Zeitgeist_, a very
profound change in one of our fundamental psychological traits, our
sense of time or continuity or permanence.  What is interesting to me,
and a bit amusing, is that it should have started in the frenzies of New
York and Washington and Hollywood (and Bollywood!) but percolated quite
rapidly, all things considered, to the formerly quiet groves of
academe.

Lots of luck, everybody  --Norm
 

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