While recently writing a review of Mark C. Taylor’s Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo for the online Los Angeles Review of Books, I was struck by the complete absence—one might even say, the aggressive absence—of any references to literary criticism in Taylor’s book of literary criticism. He evidently felt free to ignore entire books that had been written on the texts he interrogates, such as John Johnston’s fine Carnival of Repetitions on Gaddis’s The Recognitions, the subject of a fifty-one page chapter in Taylor. Suppose, as a comparable example, that I were to write a book on Heidegger, Hegel and Nietzsche and never referred to any previous work on these figures by philosophers, and moveover was able to convince Duke University Press to publish it (Taylor’s book is published by Columbia, where he teaches). Clearly, something unusual is going on here, and it led me to meditate on the contemporary state of publishing in the humanities.
One of the issues is cross-disciplinarity, and the extent to which a scholar primarily based in one field may be held responsible for mastering the criticism in another field. Taylor, described as a “secular theologian” in a back-cover comment, writes primarily on religion, philosophy, and art. Is this sufficient reason for exempting him from the basic requirements of consulting the literature of the field into which he is entering? I would say no, on the grounds that had he consulted the criticism on these books, his interpretations would have been richer and more informed. He presents as new discoveries many insights that have already been the subject of extensive commentary, and he misses some important textual features relevant to his argument that he would have noticed, had he read the criticism. But there is an ethical dimension as well. The scholarly enterprise, in whatever field, is necessarily a collaborative venture. It develops as a group conversation between whoever is interested enough, and trenchant enough, to contribute ideas, proposals, counter-proposals, arguments and rebuttals. When someone pretends that he is starting a new conversation and ignores the ongoing, lively and robust dialogue around him, he implicitly subverts this value and elevates himself above it, as if he were too exalted to notice (ironically for this notable lack of dialogue with literary criticism, Taylor’s subtitle places him “in conversation” with the four literary authors about which he writes, one of whom is dead).
Beyond the particularities of this instance, Taylor’s book—and especially its publication by a university press—raises a larger issue about the growing masses of scholarship in all fields, accelerated by the rapid retrieval of information that the web makes possible. If one were literally to research everything that has previously been written on any given topic, it is quite possible that such a task would take a lifetime, preempting the possibility of adding anything new. The sciences have largely solved this problem by deciding that anything published more than five years ago—seven or eight at the outside—may safely be ignored as obsolete and relegated to the history of science, a field identified with history departments rather than actively working scientists. In the humanities, by contrast, it has been traditional to regard the history of the discipline as central to the ongoing work of the field. In my Literature department, and in many similar departments, the one required graduate course is the History of Criticism. Is such a stance feasible today, given the massive and accelerating amount of material?
In practice, the humanities solve the problem not by temporal limits such as those implicitly at work in the sciences, but by fashion. Certain theorists and writers emerge as central; one cannot be a respectable scholar without knowing them and their work intimately (with the caveat that this is a moving target and changes over time, so that someone once central may fade into obscurity, and new names may emerge with startling rapidity). One may safely disregard almost everything else, except perhaps other scholarly books and articles written precisely on the topic one is investigating. This has the effect of bringing the material necessary to know within manageable scope. It also has the effect of narrowing the scope of inquiry, so that there are, for example, innumerable articles and books on Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, and almost no recent ones on Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, or Marvin Minsky, as well as a host of others no longer fashionable.
The role of web searches in determining who is cited is another factor increasingly pressing on scholarly work. A recent study of scientific articles revealed that the scope of references has shrunk in contemporary articles compared to those published twenty years ago, and that the range of references correlates strongly with articles that appear on the first screen of Google or other search engines. This is, of course, a self-reinforcing mechanism, since the more a given source is cited, the more it will tend to appear on the first screen, and hence the more it will continue to be cited.
The conclusion I draw from these thoughts appears at first counter-intuitive: the more information and instant access we have, the more group-think prevails, and the more privileged become the barriers to communication between fields. Both of these can be seen as strategies to manage too much information. Mark Taylor can ignore literary criticism because he is primarily a philosopher (and presumably the press can publish his book because his manuscript was sent only to other philosophers, not to literary critics). What we need are more eccentrics, more idiosyncratic thinkers inclined to excavate the ignored, the unfashionable, the offbeat. Unless, of course, such a thinker succeeds and becomes a fashion icon in turn . . .