Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Philology as Blood Sport: The Romanic Review's First Decade

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Philology as Blood Sport: The Romanic Review's First Decade

Article excerpt

It is not exactly fashionable today to call our field Romance philology. Describing a colleague as a "philologist" in fact might well elicit a less than cheerful response. It's even become vieux jeu to call ourselves literary critics. So how are we to refer to our metier in an era when so many departments have abandoned the term "French literature" to describe themselves in favor of portmanteau rubrics like "Department of French, Francophone, Post-colonial Studies"? One look at the tortured efforts to define a position in the MLA job listings makes clear how fragmented our domain has become. We now talk in terms of subspecialties--Feminist studies, Francophone, queer theory, post-structural theory (does anyone still do pre-structuralist theory?).

And still, most of us do have a dim sense that our field once was known as "Romance philology." And we would agree, I believe, that as a discipline, ours is an exacting one. But how, exactly, would we define it today? Most likely, we would parse it either as the work of the individual scholar responding to a particular vision of humanist activity, or as a phenomenon of institutional authority. Both views produce a history of practice, much as Rene Wellek once sought to write a history of modern criticism by cumulative analyses of the work of individual critics on one hand and schools of criticism on the other. I wonder, though, if it would occur to us to ask how a discipline like Romance philology emerges in a given time and place as an ongoing series of representational events in a carefully defined framework?

What is counter-intuitive here is the idea that a discipline is less a function of people per se than of a continuous stream of written communications. In other words, it evolves from the systematic publication of scholarly articles in a journal founded for and dedicated to that purpose.

But before pursuing this third way of defining Romance philology, let's look briefly at the first two modes mentioned. Erich Auerbach offers an excellent illustration of the first when he sets out to describe Romance philology in his introduction aux etudes de la philologie romane as "the set of activities that concern themselves systematically with human language, and in particular with works of art composed in that medium." In this account, philology serves textual transmission "in order," as Auerbach says, "to preserve from the ravages of time the works that constitute its intellectual patrimony; to preserve them not only from oblivion but also from the changes, mutilations, and additions that necessarily result from popular consumption or the negligence of copyists." (1)

On the side of the second definition, which views a discipline as a phenomenon of institutional authority, the Middle English scholar Seth Lerer offers a double perspective when he writes of its European origins:

   Most narrowly, 'philology' connotes the study of historical
   linguistics as it developed in the nineteenth century and came to
   be associated, especially in German universities, with the
   practices of lexicography, textual criticism, and
   literary-aesthetic evaluation. This practice centered on two
   mutually-related inquiries: the establishment of historical
   phonology and the codification of sound changes as the 'laws' of
   diachronic linguistics; and the excavation of the etymologies of
   individual words, often in the process leading to the recovery of
   defining social or cultural norms.

Of the emergence of philology in America, Lerer then writes:

   Both aspects of the philological tradition were central to the work
   of William Dwight Whitney (1827-94), professor of comparative
   philology and Sanskrit at Yale University from 1853 until his
   death. Whitney often used the study of a given word's etymology to
   understand the institutions of Indo-European culture. [...] His
   philology not only synthesizes its academic heritage but pointedly
   looks forward to a range of critical phenomena we have now come to
   associate with the Saussurian revolution in language study and, as
   its consequences, with the structuralist and poststructuralist
   conceptions of the fundamentally linguistic nature of social
   organization and expression. … 
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