Scholarly Writing and Emotional Knowledge

By Wesling, Donald | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Scholarly Writing and Emotional Knowledge

Wesling, Donald, Papers on Language & Literature

All our writing is spun out of our guts, whatever kind of writer we are, but we arrange many codes of indirection to avoid letting our guts be seen in our academic articles and books. This makes those who write about imaginary persons become, themselves, fictions for the reader. In turn, the reader will resist this recognition mightily in order to maintain trust in the knowledge being produced. First guts, then trust, and only then guts in a finer tone--with only partial trust! Eventually, the professional reader of professional writers comes to understand: knowledge is what we're persuaded is the case in the world, and no scholar's entirely powerful or charming. That leaves openings for my disagreement with the scholar's claims and warrants and my show-me attitude toward the scholar's manner.


There is no way to prove Mikhail Ryklin's claim, in conversation, that every work of scholarship originates in a trauma that is pushed below the surface in the writing--but Ryklin himself has actually shown this in his essay "Bodies of Terror," where he reads M. M. Bakhtin's book on Rabelais as Bakhtin's disguised response to the Terror of the Russian 1930s. Writing as trauma is the wildest thesis, but trauma is more valuable than vague animus. It may not be trauma in the sense of physical/mental harm or family disruption; more likely here, it would be trauma as an intellectual assignment whose roots can be partly traced to personal experience, like the outsider/insider mind of a Camus or a Derrida raised in Algeria away from the metropole of Paris, or like the working class family life that gave D. H. Lawrence his anger and insight as well as his limitation. Exclusion and suppression prepare for overthrow. Trauma is attractive as a preliminary explanation, because the financial and career rewards for scholarly writing are not obviously equivalent to what gets paid out in dogged reading, carrying books out of libraries and back, outlining, drafting, putting family and life on hold for long stretches, taking corrective comments from friends and strangers, suffering rejection at publishers, making the index and choosing the cover, writing jacket copy, paying permission fees, correcting galleys, and paying for extra copies: there has to be an explanation beyond money for the lonely effort of spirit that drives the scholarly author to ransack libraries and burn up the years.

But the original trauma explanation is arbitrary, because it requires us to discern a change in the structure of the scholar-author's mind and character and then to find it in every new work. Let us more cautiously ask: how do scholarly articles and books deal with scenes of emotion, and how do they perform emotional knowledge, rousing floods of feeling through argument and evidence? Narrative is the answer most ready to hand: scholarly books also come from and appeal to the storytelling urge, and they are easier to write and read if we think of them as the unfolding of stories. What are the filters and baffles through which scholarly stories are told? In Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, the essential story of their literary criticism is Marx's stages of history, but energy in the one comes from dialectical reversals and surprise collisions of cultural levels, and in the other from the severe wit of a working-class outsider who speaks in the halls of privilege. In influential scholarship, often part of the story is the author's force of affect: M. M. Bakhtin's dialogic inclusiveness, W. K. Wimsatt's knotty style of compression with its patrician disdain, F. R. Leavis's lists of grievances against attackers and his repeated watchwords of emphatic assertion, Donald Davie's formal and theological rigor and his withdrawal from confessional candor, Harold Bloom's grumpy defense of Aesthetic and Canon against New Historicist critics whom he calls the School of Resentment, Stephen Greenblatt's personal turn in the statement that he wants to speak with the dead, Jonathan Culler's and Judith Butler's sober good sense in summarizing others' arguments, Elaine Scarry's decision to end Dreaming by the Book (1999) with pages describing mourning doves and cardinals in her garden. …

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