Research That Matters: Knowledge and Novelty

OK, I admit it. My previous post about reading and research is also disingenuous. In a university context, research is not just “purposeful reading” or “reading in pursuit of knowledge” or “reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question.” University-level research, research that is publishable in professional venues, research that is eligible for funding, is research that produces new knowledge.  The research mission of a university is to move the frontier of knowledge, to add to the world’s sum of knowledge, to be at the cutting edge of knowledge… I know that! I’m only sort of pretending not to know it when I ask why research that serves other academic purposes, including teaching and individual intellectual development, does not earn a researcher the same support or the same professional credit.

But I’m pretending not to know it because “the pursuit of new knowledge” is not as obvious, or as easily applied, a principle as it sounds. One possible line of questioning begins with “new to whom?” The degree of hyper-specialization that characterizes the contemporary university is the result of the standard answer: new to other specialists in the field. This is obviously the right standard, isn’t it? It doesn’t advance knowledge to repeat what has been done before, to redo what has been tested. You can’t discover what is already known; you can’t have progress in a field unless you are constantly finding out something new.

This makes perfect sense, right? And yet it isn’t 100% obvious that what I’ve just said applies as well to literary research as it does to, say, research in genetics. What counts as a “discovery” in literary scholarship? Turning up a lost manuscript? OK, that’s an easy one. Explicating and contextualizing the work of a previously unknown or little-known author? Yes, good. Overturning a longstanding theoretical paradigm? Yup, I think so. Proposing a new reading of a novel based on paying attention to a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Well, OK. Contradicting a proposed new reading of a novel based on an alternative interpretation of a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Constructing a large theoretical claim based on readings of novels that pay attention to details usually disregarded? Yes, fine. Applying a theoretical framework from another discipline to a novel in order to read it in a way that it has never been read before? Yes! Of course! These are exactly the kinds of things literary scholars do (not all the things they do, but how long did you want this paragraph to get?). I wouldn’t argue that understanding texts in new ways doesn’t produce something reasonably called “knowledge.” At any rate, all of these activities affect the way we think about things. If our activity leads us and others to think in a new way, to see something in a new light, that moves some kind of frontier, surely.

But it seems to me there’s a difference that is at least worth thinking about between the importance of doing something new in genetics (or whatever) and pursuing novelty in literary studies. In some kinds of research, work that isn’t new and that doesn’t take into account every other recent discovery will be useless and irrelevant to anyone. But the drive towards novelty and hyper-specialization in literary studies is itself generating a great deal of work that is relevant only to other specialists, and even then, not so much. There is no large project or inquiry, after all, towards which incremental additions are being made; there’s just a proliferation of pieces often with little connection to each other. Even to other specialists, the work of keeping up is not only nearly impossible now, but also (and relatedly) of diminishing importance.

I’ve written about some aspects of this situation before, here in this post on Mark Bauerlein’s “The Research Bust.” I don’t think this kind of observation has to lead into an argument for the cessation of literary research, or for insisting that literary scholars return to doing only certain kinds of research that are more measurably productive of new information (for the case against literary “readings” and in favor of “a more traditionally scholarly conception of literary study”, see this post by D. G. Myers, also triggered by Bauerlein). One reason that I would support people continuing to do new readings is that we can’t be sure where inquiry will take us, and our sense of what “more traditionally scholarly” research is a priority might well be affected by ideas arising from rethinking texts we thought we already knew. If these new readings are truly driven by intellectual curiosity, by attempts to puzzle through problems, however abstract, then there’s value in them, for the researcher as well as for the audience of other people also interested. “Who can say,” as George Eliot remarks in Middlemarch, “what will be the effect of writing?” And I think we ought to have the same open-minded assumption about thinking. (If the research is not truly curiosity-driven, on the other hand, then we might remark, with Dorothea, “what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?”)

But I don’t think that the only paradigm for valuable work in literary studies should be one derived from a scientific model, as if a similar cumulative advance of information is ongoing, or one that disregards the other kinds of audiences there are for literary understanding. The reason the umpteenth interpretation of Middlemarch is important to at least some specialists is that they already know a whole lot about Middlemarch — but lots of people don’t, people who would be interested in knowing more. Our focus on novelty underestimates the value of what we already know, even though unlike old theories of the atom, old ideas about books have not lost their real-life significance; it also undervalues the skills we have at making what we know accessible to people who don’t know it yet, and reduces our audience to each other instead of trying to imagine how we could be part of the broader literary culture. The ‘cutting edge’ is actually a much less important place to be in literary studies (as well as a much more shifting territory).


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