Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Davis, Lennard J. "In Academe, Once a Star, Always a Star." CHRONICLE June 26, 2009.
Academic fame is an even stranger goddess than her nonacademic counterpart. In the world of films or novels, your fame is fleeting — you're often only as good as your last production. Films that splashed across marquees in the summer are all but forgotten when the snows fall. And as regards books, secondhand bookstores and Web sites are swollen with works that were once the rage and now are obscure. Fame, which D.H. Lawrence famously referred to as the bitch goddess, is in those worlds really bitchy. But in academe you need to have written only one major book or article, and you'll be remembered until you die. Once your idea is accepted and becomes famous, it has amazing durability. In addition, once you've made your mark, it is very hard to erase it. You may write a lot of other books on different topics, but you'll be remembered only for your original mark. Fame is very economical and can spare only one tomb per name in the academic pantheon. We could, in fact, invent a new parlor game: Think of a famous person, and the assembled players have to shout out the concept associated with that person. Try Foucault — you'll no doubt respond "power." Said, Orientalism; Bourdieu, habitus; Baudrillard, simulacrum; Derrida, deconstruction; Watson and Crick, the double helix; C. Wright Mills, the power elite; Gramsci, hegemony; Elaine Scarry, pain; Donna Haraway, cyborgs; Judith Butler, performativity. Hours of fun to be had over nachos and salsa. Those scholars may write legions of books, but the subsequent work won't erase the initial flourish of their signature concept. If these people were actors, we'd say they were typecast. It is the nature of academic fame that it is faddish and cultish — faddish in the sense that, by definition, it is based on the newness of a scholar's ideas. Readers demand the shock of an innovative insight. But it is only a matter of time before a concept slides into familiarity. The new idea becomes institutionalized. Therefore the successful outcome of any famous concept will be its general acceptance, to the point that it becomes, paradoxically, commonplace. We then find it difficult to understand how the concept could have had the éclat that it did originally. . . . Read the rest here: http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i40/40b01201.htm.