Renaissance critiques of scholarship and ironic reflexivity

The Renaissance seems to have been a particularly rich moment for internal critique of the academy. I happened to be reading a bit of Erasmus‘s The Praise of Folly (1511) today and was struck by its hilarious, bitter parody of medieval scholastics. For instance, on scholarly publishing:

Of the same stripe [i.e., belonging to the party of Folly] are those who strive to win eternal fame by publishing books. All of them owe a great deal to me, but especially those who scribble pages of sheer nonsense. As for those who write learnedly for the judgment of a few scholars and would not hesitate to have their books reviewed by such true judges as Persius or Laelius, they seem to me more pitiable than happy because their work is a perpetual torment to them. They add, they alter; they blot something out, they put it back in. They do the work over, they recast it, they show it to friends, they keep it for nine years, and still they are never satisfied. At such a price they buy an empty reward, namely praise, and that only from a handful. They buy it with such an expense of long hours, so much loss of that sweetest of all things, sleep, so much sweat, so much agony. Reckon up also the loss of health, the spoiling of their good looks, weak eyesight (or even blindness), poverty, envy, the denial of pleasures, early death, and other things just as bad, if there are any. Such great suffering your wiseman thinks is fully repaid by the approval of one or two blear-eyed readers.

This book was first published in 1511, which means that the 500th anniversary of its publication was last year. It’s safe to say that European universities in 1511 looked quite different from today’s incarnations thereof. The printing press had only recently been invented; everything was taught in Latin; education was not for the masses, and had not been yoked to post-Enlightenment nation and workforce-building projects. One could go on in this vein, if one were a historian. (I’m not.) But what’s so fascinating about this little bit of Erasmus is that, in spite of the enormous institutional, political, cultural, and intellectual gulfs that separate us from these early universities, something about the experience of academic work seems to have remained constant, along with certain of the work’s basic instruments.

For even today, scholarly work in the humanities is deeply text-centered, just as it was for Erasmus. And the psychological follies that Erasmus describes are quite familiar, for me and I suspect for many grad students in the humanities. Do we not all have friends whose scholarly work is a perpetual torment? Whose work—to use language Erasmus would not have used—is an immense locus of neurosis and barely sublimated anxiety? And is it not obvious to everyone that the coin of scholarly approval remains, precisely, praise, and that praise is still and always, existentially speaking, an empty, ephemeral reward? Do we not all know people—though not ourselves, of course!—or so we say in our better moments—who have slaved for weeks—if not months—or indeed years—striving for infinitesimal dribblings of warm feelings for our work—such warmth being of course craved but always inevitably despised for its inability to entirely satisfy our desire…

And then again, one notes Erasmus’s pithy diagnosis of the material circumstances of the scholar, which one would hope (in vain) to have improved in the interim. Said circumstances have improved for some, to be sure, but hardly for all of us. Poverty, envy, the denial of pleasures, weak eyesight—who has not encountered colleagues in such states? My eyes, to descend for a moment into the lowlands of biographical detail, were in decidedly better shape before I started my ph.d., and I venture to predict that similar things may have afflicted my peers, what with all the reading…

But I digress. Erasmus has more in store for us:

“Among the learned, the lawyers [but surely the following passage applies to others as well] claim the highest rank, nor could anyone be more self-satisfied than they are as they endlessly roll the stone of Sisyphus… piling gloss on gloss and opinion on opinion to make their profession seem the most difficult of all. For they imagine that whatever is most laborious is automatically also preeminent.

Let us join to them the dialecticians and disputants… fighting to the bitter end over some hair-splitting quibble, and, often enough, missing the truth entirely by fighting too much about it.

[As for the philosophers:] That they have discovered nothing at all is clear enough from this fact alone: on every single point they disagree violently and irreconcilably among themselves. Though they know nothing at all, they profess to know everything; and though they do not know themselves, and sometimes can’t see a ditch or a stone in their path… nevertheless they claim that they can see ideas, universals, separate forms, prime matter, quiddities, ecceities—things so fine-spun that no one, however ‘eagle-eyed,’ would be able, I think, to perceive them.

Contemporary philosophy has changed terminology in the meantime, now calling them “essences” rather than “quiddities,” but it seems to me that even today we can find philosophers who lay claim to intellectual superiority over what Erasmus termed the “unwashed multitude” while simultaneously having irreconcilable, or anyway irreconciled, disagreements about practically “every single point.” And the tendency to overvalorize “difficulty” in scholarship is, notoriously, still present. Just think of how saying “it’s more complicated” is a debating tactic, or look at the defenses of Judith Butler’s prose style that emerged last decade. That book about Butler is also a good illustration of what Erasmus terms “missing the truth entirely by fighting too much about it.” As is a well-known book by Marshall Sahlins which, in my view, is quite aggravating reading on account of its extreme passion for attacking its adversary (Ganath Obeyesekere) in painstaking detail.

No doubt there would be more that could be said about Erasmus and the phenomenology of humanistic research, if one were in the mood for a serious study on the topic. But seriousness would hardly be appropriate in this context, for Erasmus himself is not exactly serious; the text is, obviously, irony and hyperbole incarnate. William Clark, in his charming and ironic book about the origins of research universities, comments that scholarly irony is, precisely, not accidental. Irony “expresses and conceals a love-hate relationship,” he says, going on so far as to claim that irony is “an essential academic attitude about academia, that is, the essence of reflexivity” (20). The essence of academic reflexivity, he should have said, since academics are not the only ones who are reflexive. But it is historically interesting to reflect on the fact that, not only are the existential absurdities of humanistic scholarship still in some ways quite similar to what they were in 1511, so too is the ironic attitude that we use to fend off this absurdity. Irony is what allows us to detach from our milieu in order then to better attach to it. What luck for academia that it has writers like Erasmus to help strengthen our collective resolve!

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