Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Redundancy and Relevance

Fudging on what to write about tonight. I have a post in my head about Horses and Peoples in relation to the erudite arguments of Robert Bartlett in his The Making of Europe, but after a long day of finagling with text at my job at MRU, I do not know that my perorations would be sufficiently directional. So I am going to take a shot at a little non-directional juxtaposition and reversal ... tugging at two ideas until they are side by side and then seeing if they will run away from each other.

I edit the course catalog at MRU. Since I started this ... I am on my seventh course catalog ... I have looked at a lot of course catalogs, and I unashamedly believe that ours is the best. It is a tight work, heavy in content, and as light in redundancy as I can possibly make it. What I have learned more than anything else in this job is how to detect even the tiniest and most hidden case of redundancy.

Academia is filled, not entirely unjustifiably, with redundancy. Let me posit two sources of that propsensity to "say it again, Sam, and again." On the one hand, the enthusiasm for one's subject, the monomaniacal focus that is the necessary concomittant of committed study, means that most redundancy seems more like emphasis than repetition. On the other hand, it is a form of occupational psychosis, to use the terminology of my favorite literary critic Kenneth Burke, in the sense that repetition is the most ready-to-hand technique by which one might draw attention to one's subject in an open marketplace where the meek risk ending up as afterthoughts ... tenured perhaps but living an "as-if" glory in the company of those whose glory is warm and real and remunerative. So repetition arrives for enthusiasm and remains for marketing.

Every time I edit a course description ... and edit them we do ... I come face to face with this occupational enthusiasm. Now, I argue that a course catalog must speak in a flat, measured, and authoritative voice, and to emphasize anything, to repeat anything that can as readily be said once, is to favor one thing over another, not to mention squander our charge for density of content. So redundancy ... so fertile in argument and enthusiasm, so essential to speech and drama and persuasion ... is our enemy.

Today, I confronted a particularly woolly description. I say "woolly" because it arrived as a tightly woven argument, and my job is to extract a list of topics. I have no idea what this prof will think when he sees the results of my jackhammering, but I offer that it was a delicate and humane jackhammer, the sort of thing a sculptor who works in concrete and steel would wield when confronted with a giant roll of coiled steel cable. Does that make sense? Maybe the editor should edit himself!

That said, I loved the course. An editor is like a dentist ... it doesn't matter whose teeth you are drilling, the job is to make them choppers, not to prefer one set over another. So like this course or not, I did my duty and this is one line from it: "How antithetical responses provoked by crisis demonstrate literature's capacity to produce and sustain apparently untenable contradictions; how this paradoxically may make literature a conciliatory force." Wow ... wish I'd said that myself; it is precisely the kind of contradiction and reversal that fascinates me in everything.

But the original was unashamedly more formidable, more armored, more predatory. It was one of those tightly bound up literary arguments that have made literary studies the object of ribaldry among the other disciplines not just because they are impenetrable but more so because they are gamefully repulsive ... that is, designed to repel the uninitiated with a cackle rather than embrace the novice with blandishments, let alone involve other academics in the particular arguments that criticism can generate and propel.

For the literary academic, the repellent or predatory argument has often become more attractive when it functions as collapsed interplay of public sadism and masochism. Yes, there is a sort of masochism here ... which is to say the masochism of the sadist who would hurt himself for the sheer joy of both ouching aloud and at the same time being the one who caused the ouch. Ouch! For in this little gem of an argument which I flattened into the phrase above, the author simultaneously shows his ability to hurt himself and to draw those who recognize this auto da fe to him, even as the bulk of the actual readers slide on by, neither repulsed nor attracted but distinguishing themselves by their disinterest.

Any redundancy here functions to intensify this public display. In academic literary critical circles, redundancy has assumed an arrogance of isolation. (At some point, I will argue that literary criticism needs to abandon this conceit not only for survival but for its own art.)

Okay ... relevance. Repetition, with which we started, is a cry for relevance, whether as enthusiasm or as something that should be consumed/marketed. Redundancy as enthusiasm repeats its theme so as, by juxtaposing itself to itself, to make itself bigger and thereby to attract and not to repel, and thereby to imply that it is relevant to the reader/listerner/observer/consumer. Redundancy as marketing, as occupational psychosis, is more like a peacock wherein the splendor is assumed to be the proof of the relevance. Relevance, in this sense, is a little abstract ... not relevance to something else, but a general, intransitive relevance which assumes a referrent without naming or specifying or delimiting it. But the problem with boundlessness in describing a phenomenon is that the lack of boundaries allows one to substitute anything ... I like to call this a "zero divider" because any result is possible when you divide by zero. So the intransitive notion of relevance can thereby come to mean that something is relevant only if in the narrowest sense it is relevant to "me" and who I define myself as. This is what relevance has come to mean in education (deferring a discussion of the degree to which this phenomenon matches a broader social issue) ... a topic is "relevant" if it can be demonstrated to touch the observer's self-identification.

By repeating and repeating, and by saying again and again that this is you, this is you, the topic becomes relevant, instransitively, for any observer who is thus simultaneously singled out and reduced to identity.

And so the oddity of our course description is that any redundancy in its tightly bound argument worked to isolate itself enthusiastically to that tiny set of students who could posit their intellectual identity in it. But at the same point, it had eschewed any larger marketing that might integrate it or insinuate it into a broader intellectual market. It turned both redundancy and relevance on their heads, but as with most of the present highly isolated literary critical impulses, it takes no advantage of that.

In editing that line, I sought, professionally and not ideologically, to open it to a less restricted audience and this flatness has the inadvertent effect of stripping off its isolation and suggesting that literary contemplation of paradox and antithesis is an essential tool that literary work can provide to other disciplines. I think that Bartlett, with whom I began this peroration, succeeded in that in one part of his book, and perhaps I can try to explain that tomorrow.

Hmmmm ... not sure that I have made my case, but I will leave it at this, and try to come back to the juxtaposition of redundancy and relevance on some other occasion from a different angle. (I want to add as a note to myself that the course description above in its unedited state started with a straw man argument; I saw this as a move to credential the course both as ironic and dialectical. Not the subject of this post, but this double credentialing is not uncommon in our discipline, both to good and ill effect.)

Photo by Arod.

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