Monday, July 13, 2009

The Scholar-Critic Conversation

Girish has a thoughtful and thought-provoking post on the gap between film scholarship and film criticism. I'll agree with most of what he says, though I'm not sure how to bridge the gap and think it's a broader problem about the relation of humanities scholarship to a general public. (What Would Tim Burke Say?)

For now, let me both agree and quibble with this:
One of the invaluable aspects of scholarly work is this "huge collective effort" that builds upon the work of others--both of centuries past and contemporary. The edifices that scholars construct have the likelihood of being tall and capacious by virtue of the largeness of this effort. There is a lesson here that film critics can learn from scholars: the practice of reading widely to become familiar with traditions of thought in film, art, philosophy, and other disciplines that can guide them and their readers towards a deeper understanding of cinema.
I myself like the "standing on the shoulder of giants" understanding of what academic knowledge does. And I think it explains why activity that will seem pedantic or useless to the lay person actually seems tremendously valuable to the scholar: we measure success incrementally. At the same time, this big-edifice model of knowledge actually has the reverse effect than the one that Girish describes. Rather than meaning that scholars read widely, it pushes them to read narrowly, at least after an initial, journeyman stage of education.

If I were to be optimistic, I'd propose a model that's different than pure specialization or pure dilettantism. For lack of a better name, I'd call it randomization. Each scholar specializes but looks to new ideas, methodologies, and inspiration in a limited fashion with the hope that collectively we mitigate the downside of stale intellectual mindsets. The journalist, blogger, or public intellectual could have a role in this.

1 comment:

jim emerson said...

I'm very glad you made these points -- particularly about the need for precision and the incremental nature of academic knowledge. I feel what I tried to say at girish's went hopelessly off course because of my own imprecision. I never mentioned jargon, but it is essential to communication -- I've read newspaper critics who don't know the difference between a pan and a dolly shot.