Friday, June 17, 2005

Chapter One - mixed reactions

My copy of Hall finally arrived, so I can catch up with everyone else. I've made it through the first chapter, and I find myself with some mixed feelings. Hall says some things about academic careers that I've been thinking myself, which on the one hand is nice confirmation that I'm not alone in my attitude to this career; most important, I think, is his point that academia tends to define success too narrowly, and we all need to define success for ourselves. On the other hand, as I'd already discovered (largely through blogging) that other people also felt this way, part of me comes away from Hall thinking, Yes, but what's new about this? I'm probably underestimating the significance of actually saying, in print, that the hierarchy of academic success is artificial and we have to determine what success means for ourselves. But while I'm glad to see someone say this in print, it doesn't feel very radical to me. (Or I should say, not necessarily radical enough to merit being published?)

I suppose part of the reason why I'm less impressed than I hoped to be is that in reading this chapter, I found myself filtering out much of the literary theory and "translating" his arguments into, well, common sense. As I read, I wondered whether all the references to Giddons et al. are really necessary? While certainly much of what Hall writes applies to all kinds of academic disciplines, couching this first chapter in terms of such theorists demonstrates that Hall really writes for literary scholars. (I know someone made this point in the comments already; my apologies for not going back and digging out the reference.) By saying this, I don't mean to suggest that no one else can read the book with profit, but there are certain fundamental assumptions that he makes about the academic endeavor in this chapter that, I'd argue, don't apply to people who aren't literary scholars. And because so many of his criticisms of academia as it currently exists (at least in the first chapter) derive from what he seems to see as the disjunction between the kinds of scholarly thinking we apply to [literary] texts in our teaching/research and to our academic selves as texts, it does seem to matter what he thinks that scholarly thinking looks like. In the introduction (xviii) he writes, "Yet certainly the impulse to question, reinterrogate, unsettle, and dissipate familiarities should drive our work as intellectuals." Yes, I would agree with that; but would academics from all disciplines talk about the goals of their work in quite this way? In the first chapter(18), he notes, "Even as we teach binary-undermining theories and revisionary practices--of poststructuralism, postcoloniality, semiotics--we too often engage in professional behavior that evinces startling forms of 'us/them' thinking." Yes - but not everyone teaches these theories and practices. This appears even in his "starting points" (the 5 points in bold on pp. 11-17): #5 reads, "In reflecting upon the constructed nature of our professional self-identities, we can remind ourselves always to work more honestly and forthrightly to integrate our theories and our practices." Are we all operating on the same theories here? I hate to be a disciplinary grouch by quibbling over such things, but his assumptions seem central to his understanding of the academic self. Fundamentally, he seems to be arguing that the problem with academia is that it's populated by people who've spent their lives training to analyze texts and break down what seems "natural", but who are unwilling to apply those skills to themselves. My reaction is, this is not what all academics are trained or trying to do. Again, this is not to suggest that therefore no one who doesn't study literature should read this book; but I would have preferred to see Hall acknowledge his implicit audience rather than speak as if he's writing to all academics. (Though it may be the case that it's the press that has erased clear pointers to the literary scholar/MLA attendee as audience.)

Perhaps because I see what I do slightly differently from the way that Hall describes it, the other thing that I found slightly disconcerting about this chapter was that it seemed to allow for no separation between work and self, in a way that was a little strange given his criticism of workaholism. One's academic self seemed to be one's self. This probably sounds anti-intellectual of me, but there are times when I want to treat work as just work - not my life, not some expression of my self-awareness - just a job. Obviously, by going into academia I've chosen a job that's intellectually demanding and is very closely tied to my sense of self. But Hall seems to be holding academics to a much higher standard of self-analysis than other professionals. Maybe that's a fair demand, given what academics do. But sometimes I get a little tired of self-analysis.

In any case, I don't mean to suggest that Hall's book isn't worth reading. And I'm looking forward to going through the rest of the book. Onward!