Gratitude absolved of responsibility

Lately I’ve gotten interested in reading Clyde Barrow‘s Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate liberalism and the reconstruction of higher education, 1894-1928. It’s out of print, but I found it used and had it delivered. When I cracked the cover open after a couple of weeks, I was interested to find this note on the inside cover, written in a nice cursive script in what looks like blue ballpoint:

barrow inscription

To Kent,

Thanks for all of your help. I won’t hold you responsible for its content, but it couldn’t have been written without your assistance many years ago.

Clyde W Barrow

It’s always curious to encounter the traces of strangers’ personal relationships to each other. One gets the sense that these two people didn’t know each other all that well, that they had encountered each other “years ago” when Barrow was working on his dissertation, and that when the book finally appeared in print, the author, still then near the start of his career, was delighted to finally be able to show people what he had produced. There’s a nice sense of self injected into the professionally cordial tone of this note; while the author signs his full name instead of just his first name, he signals that the project was dependent on this other person, that it “couldn’t have been written without your help.”

I’m interested in the particular mixture of gratitude and absolution from responsibility that we see here, in the combination of “thanks for all your help” and “I won’t hold you responsible for its content.” This mixed message is one I’ve seen a lot in scholarly texts, but I never entirely understand what’s driving it. In this case it appears in the second person, but often it’s more impersonal, a sort of announcement to the reader: Thanks to X Y and Z, who are in no way responsible for the remaining errors in the argument, something like that. But does anyone really imagine that people named in the acknowledgements are responsible for someone else’s texts? Does association imply endorsement? It’s as if it was assumed to.

Why, more generally, is it that we scholars feel obliged to mix gratitude with an obligatory insistence that we don’t take responsibility for anyone else’s work? Is it a reminder that we live in a regime of private intellectual property, as if the tacit message here was actually “X Y and Y shouldn’t get the formal credit here; these ideas are officially mine.” Or is it just a matter of rote imitation? As if young generations of scholars just stick in this phrase because they’ve seen it elsewhere and feel like it must be normal? Or perhaps it’s more practical than I give it credit for; perhaps enough people have been burned by having their names associated with other people’s bad academic claims that they started this as a mechanism for limiting intellectual liability.

I note that the identity of the Kent in question remains mysterious. No Kents are mentioned in the Acknowledgements, but Barrow does repeatedly mention the existence of unnamed collaborators. At one point he thanks “some still anonymous individuals at the Chicago Historical Society, Nevada Historical Society, and Kansas State University Archives”; later, he’ll finish the acknowledgements by saying, “There are of course many friends and colleagues who have contributed in their own way.” Perhaps one of them was Kent.

As a matter of fact, Barrow starts out his book by commenting on its place in the university system — fittingly, since it is a book that aspires to analyze that system. Here’s what he says:

The industrial character of contemporary university work is never more readily apparent than when one acknowledges the many people who have contributed their labor to the production of those commodities we call books. The intellectual labor process is now a socialized and genuinely collective effort that takes place on a national and even global scale. It requires many kinds of labor, occupational skills, clerical support, and administrative services by persons who are often invisible to the university professor. Many anonymous people should therefore be recognized at the outset as an integral component of the production process which resulted in this book.

One wonders, though, if Barrow’s book really is so similar to mass-produced industrial commodities. The letter to Kent doesn’t seem very commodified. Would someone who work on an assembly line making thousands of identical automobiles, grapefruits or iPads really write a letter saying “I won’t hold you responsible for the content of this grapefruit, this iPad, this automobile”?