Thursday, March 09, 2006

Publish or Perish

I just got an email notification from Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews of a book by Jennifer Wright Knust called Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2006). The review includes this brief description of the book:
Abandoned to Lust, a revision of Knust's Columbia University dissertation, examines the ideological and theological commitments undergirding the early Christian use of sexual slander. According to Knust, the Christian appropriation of longstanding assumptions about sexuality played an essential role in the formation of Christian identity: sexual invective functioned not only to distinguish the followers of Jesus from both pagans and Jews, but it also proved effective for demonizing "others" in intra-Christian debates. The first chapter, an outline of gender and the function of sexual rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world, acts as a foundation for analyzing Christian invective against non-Christians (chapters two and three) and the use of vituperative discourse within the Christian tradition (chapters four and five).
The title of the introduction to the book is "Who's on Top? Sex Talk, Power, and Resistance."

This sort of thing was already becoming popular when I was in graduate school in classics way back in 1978. That's coming up on thirty years ago, and it's a little surprising that the archeology of sex is still such a profitable vein to mine. I suppose what's a little new in this is the focus on Christianity, but even that is becoming so mainstream now that one wonders what the continuing thrill consists in. In particular, one of the central theses of the book, according to the reviewer, is downright old-fashioned:
Knust argues that the rhetoric of sex and gender represents an effective strategy of resistance. Specifically, when Christians promoted themselves as the sole practitioners of sexual morality, they indicted non-Christians for their vice, effectively challenging the legitimacy of both the Roman empire and the emperor. In essence, they adopted the rhetorical invective of the Greco-Roman world and turned it against the empire.
Instead of raising what I would have thought to have been a centrally important question--what are the hermeneutic principles that compel us to accept Knust's reading of the events rather than some other--the reviewer simply purrs
Knust's study is a superb addition to recent works that have explored the relationship between sex and gender, culture, and power in early Christian discourse.
Although I'm sure the book really is every bit as superb an addition to that body of work as the reviewer claims it is, I am prompted to agree with Michael Dummett, who had this to say about the pressure put upon young scholars to publish as much as they can as soon as they can:
Academics who delivered their promised manuscripts twenty years late used to cause us amusement; but it was a respectful amusement, because we knew the delay to be due, not to idleness, but to perfectionism. Perfectionism can be obsessive, like that which prevented Wittgenstein from publishing another book in his lifetime, and probably would have done so however long he had lived; but, as the phrase goes, it is a fault on the right side. Every learned book, every learned article, adds to the weight of things for others to read, and thereby reduces the chance of their reading other books or articles. Its publication is therefore not automatically justified by its having some merit: the merit must be great enough to outweigh the disservice done by its being published at all. Naturally, no individual writer can be expected to be able accurately to weigh the one against the other; but he should be conscious of the existence of such a pair of scales. We used to be trained to believe that no one should put anything into print until he no longer sees how to make it any better. That, I still believe, is the criterion we should apply; it is the only means that exists of keeping the quality of published work as high as possible, and its quantity manageably low. The ideologues who in their arrogance force their misconceived ideals upon us attempt to make us apply virtually the opposite criterion: publish the moment you can get editor or publisher to accept it. We are compelled outwardly to comply with their demands; let us inwardly continue to maintain our own values.

(From Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, p. x.)
There isn't really anything all that unusual in publishing one's dissertation as a book or as a series of journal articles, at least not these days. But Dummett is right that the best ideas require time to come to fruition, and this time is not often given to young scholars who must publish whatever they can get into print if their hopes to earn tenure are themselves to come to fruition. It is an unfortunate state of affairs, not only for the young scholars who must rush into print whatever banal ideas they have floating around in their dissertations, but also for the students who must be taught by young scholars who have yet to learn the most fundamental strategies and methods of teaching and who will put off learning those things while they collect their meagre thoughts for publication.

8 comments:

Andrew R said...

A sentiment belatedly and differently put by the editor of a festschrift devoted to Michael Dummett some years ago. I tracked him down to a Melbourne pub wishing to request a review copy. `Why would you want to push that shit uphill?' he said.

Apollodorus said...

Isn't it a bit harsh to lament the publication of low-quality work when discussing a book you've never read?

"I suppose what's a little new in this is the focus on Christianity, but even that is becoming so mainstream now that one wonders what the continuing thrill consists in."

Perhaps it isn't really so much a 'thrill' as an honest intellectual curiosity? If the book says nothing new at all about its subject, then of course criticism is in order. If it does have something new to say on an old subject, then criticism is misplaced. In either case, one can evaluate the book's contribution only by reading it.

The 'history of sexuality' is, of course, a well-studied subject by now, but as you know if you've read the least bit about it, it's an area of discussion filled with disagreement. It seems pretty likely that someone could find something interesting to say which hasn't been said before. Similarly, the major change in attitudes to sex inaugurated by the rise of Christianity is one of those things that 'everybody knows' in the humanities, which is to say that most people think they know that Christianity brought with it an attitude to sex which was very different from pagan attitudes and, more importantly, repressed and born from all manner of psychological and sociological disorders (Peter Brown, whose book on Augustine you like so much, is often cited as a major contributor to that view). It sounds as though the book in question might be offering up something of a challenge to that stereotype by pointing towards some ways in which early Christian rhetoric about sex was itself a form of resistance against the oppressive domination of Greco-Roman pagan culture. The theoretical apparatus may be a bit 'behind' the newest trends in other areas of study, but the same thing can be said of most of the field of 'early Christian studies,' from what I can tell after sitting through some lectures by the folks associated with the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. That's not a complaint about the discipline, but it seems to be a fair observation. Unless you're claiming that the author's ideas are really just a repackaging of some earlier work, I'm not really sure what your complaint is.

Your complaint about the reviewer seems sensible, though, since one would expect her to say something substantial about exactly how the book contributes to
discussions about early Christianity, the history of sexuality, etc. Without that information, though, there doesn't seem to be much justification for lamenting the low quality of a work you haven't read.

Or am I missing something?

Scott Carson said...

Andrew--

I think that one may have been a little too subtle for me--is it a dig at Dummett or was he just kidding?

Dummett, it's true, has produced probably the biggest piles of anybody in the playground (if only in sheer quantity), but I gneuinely enjoy reading his stuff.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Apollodorus ... sounds like an interesting book!

Scott Carson said...

O Gift of Apollo--

Oh, I don't know. I could have been a lot harsher, actually.

But I'm pretty sure I didn't exactly lament the low quality of a book that I've never read. I think what I said was that the thesis of the book, as it was described in the review, was rather old-fashioned and banal, which one can ascertain without reading the book just as one can ascertain that Brokeback Mountain is about gay cowboys and then wonder whether such a plot is really worth the trouble without going to see the movie. In addition to which my main point was really about the publish or perish phenomenon generally more than it was about any one particular instantiation of the desire to avoid perishing.

The book itself, I said in the post, may very well be a superb addition to that body of work of which it is a component part. The review contains a chapter-by-chapter summary of the work, however, and it did not seem very promising. Just to be sure, though, once I saw your own lament about the low-quality of my post, made after you had read what I had written, apparently, I dashed over to Alden and looked the thing over for a while.

I am still inclined to think that the book may very well be a superb addition to that body of work of which it is a component part. Folks who know me, however, will realize how faint that praise is.

But I will also add this. I think it may very well be the case that some folks have a genuine intellectual curiosity about certain topics, and I certainly can't exclude such a possibility in the present instance. Granting that, I don't think it would follow that criticism is misplaced just in case the thing has something new to say. It is possible to say something that is both new and banal, and it is quite possible to be critical of new work. I'm not really sure what the alternative would be, but I doubt that it would be a very salutary world in which your claim, "If it does have something new to say on an old subject, then criticism is misplaced", were regarded as true.

And I don't think it at all unusual to claim that one can make judgments of the sort that I made without even reading the book. It depends upon what you know about the book going in. If you know literally nothing about it, then of course criticism is baseless and hence useless. But it may be--and in the present case I argue that it is--possible to judge a book on the basis of an outmoded and banal thesis as described in a review.

You may be right that somebody, someday, is going to find something interesting to say about the history of sexuality that hasn't been said before. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to that day, but I suppose it may come whether or not I'm looking forward to it. But the critique of Christianity is old hat, and it's quite boring. It's an easy target, like preaching to the choir, and it's time for people to move on. That's what I'd like to see: an academic version of Move-On.org--it's time for a regime change in culture studies.

You might like to actually read Brown's book on Augustine, by the way. I think you may very well be surprised at what you find.

Andrew R said...

I think he was having a dig at himself, with his obscurely published collection of papers most of which were just notches on academic CVs -- the kind of thing under discussion -- rather than the worthiness of the subject. All those piles meant that I've read rather a lot of Dummett myself, and your quotation reminded me pleasantly of his style.

Apollodorus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Apollodorus said...

I guess if you already know everything about sex and Christianity, then you don't need to read new books to know that they're not worthwhile?

Unless I'm mistaken, the reviewer didn't claim that the book's thesis was old news, but rather that the theoretical stance on sexuality that it applies to the material has become a fairly standard view. That's quite different than claiming that the book's thesis is 'old fashioned and banal.' I don't find that sentiment expressed in the review, and I doubt that it would be a true characterization of the work. At any rate, if our reviewer really says that the actual thesis of the book is banal and old-fashioned and yet still insists that it's a valuable contribution to its field, then she's clearly been cutting and pasting sections from two different book reviews.

You're right that you didn't 'exactly' lament the low quality of the work, but if you intended to express a neutral or even positive response to the book, then I can't make much sense at all of your transition from discussing the book to grumbling about the nasty effects of the publish or perish mentality. Did you really expect people to avoid the conclusion that the book in question was to be taken as a case in point?

Further, the history of sexuality might not be very interesting to someone who is persuaded that he knows the cosmic truth about it all anyway, but virtually nobody who isn't convinced of such things would agree with your blanket dismissal of the field. In any event, unless you really want to spend the time arguing carefully against the entire project, then disparaging a book which makes a potentially valuable contribution to its field precisely because you think the whole field is flawed and worthless is a bit misguided. After all, your attention seems to have been focused on the book as an instance of the negative effects of the publish-or-perish directive, but if the book actually makes a valuable contribution to its field, then your complaint is unfounded -- unless you want to maintain that the mistaken assumptions of an entire field of study can be attributed to the publish-or-perish mentality that you disparage. Complaints about the publish-or-perish directive should be aimed at books that don't make any significant contribution.

In short, the fish that you want to fry are much bigger than the little book you've discussed. Evaluating it requires evaluating it in the context of its discipline -- evaluating its discipline requires evaluating a lot more than just that book.

Finally, I think you might be mistaken if you take the book as a critique of Christianity. Of course, it employs a theoretical stance on sexuality which does not mesh very well with traditional Christian views, but nothing about the review suggested to me that the book's thesis was that Christian rhetoric about sex was a bad thing -- in fact, it seemed to be suggesting that it was something of a good thing inasmuch as it constituted a form of resistance against oppression. That might not be the way that you'd like to see early Christian talk about sex defended, but I don't think it constitutes a critique -- unless the mere audacity of applying a secular theoretical lens to early Christian writers somehow constitutes a 'critique.' Anyway, even if it does involve some element of criticism, that has no immediate bearing on whether or not the book should have been published or held back for revision. There are plenty of books critiquing Christianity that do not suffer from the prematurity of the publish-or-perish craze; they may be wrong, but that doesn't mean they should never have been published -- at least so long as we're assuming a free intellectual world in which the publication of books is not dependent on the stamp of authority.

By the way, the Brown book I was referring to was The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, not the Augustine book. The former is a standard character in footnotes in articles dealing with the history of sexuality, but not a book I plan on reading anytime soon. The Augustine book, however, is on my very long list.