The Freedom of Scholarship Is Like Fire

Ewa Atanassow in Conversation with Geoffrey Galt Harpham

Geoffrey, the title of your new book announces two subjects in a relation. How would you define scholarship? What is freedom? And how do scholarly practices illuminate or complicate the meaning of freedom?

Hi, Ewa.  These are all big questions, but I’ll try to be concise.  Scholarship, as I define it, is an argument about human activity based on a critical examination of evidence.  Every part of this definition is important.  It’s an argument, which means that an interpretation is being proposed.  Scholarly discourse is not just statistical; it always leaves room for a counter-argument.  That interpretation is based on something–the “evidence,” some trace left by past activity–that can be examined by someone else in order to test the argument.  And the evidence is subjected to a critical examination, which means it is treated with a measure of skepticism; it is not simply accepted as the truth of anything except, perhaps, its own existence, and even then there is an opening for questioning how and why it came to be.

As for freedom, well, you know as much as anyone what a difficult concept that is, so concision here will give the appearance of arbitrariness in selecting one definition over all the others.  But basically, by freedom, I mean non-necessity.  Can we stick with that for the time being?

And, in a tiny nutshell, the argument of the book is that scholarship, by returning to textual or material traces left by the over-and-done-with past in a spirit of critical scrutiny, carries the implication that the past can always be reimagined, seen differently, reanimated, and in that sense changed.  This produces effects on us:  an altered past is an altered present.  At an impressionable age, I read Ernst Cassirer’s Essay on Man, where he wrote that “The great mission is to make room for the possible as opposed to the present actual state of affairs.”  He was talking about “symbolic thought,” but this is also true of scholarship, whose great mission is to create the sense of infinite possibility residing even in the zone of death that is the past.

The book has three heroes: why these three? And how does each of them go about the “great mission” of scholarship?

I suppose they do come across as heroes, although I think of them more as exemplars, people whose careers demonstrate the features of scholarship I’m trying to explore.  Before I had a clear idea of the shape the book would take–and I was often overwhelmed with the range and number of possibilities–I was drawn to Du Bois, who had to learn how to be a scholar in the most direct and laborious way, first at Fisk University, a black university in Nashville, Tennessee; then at Harvard, where he went to complete his undergraduate degree; and then at the University of Berlin, at that time the most prestigious institution of higher education in the world.  His first book was, he said in the preface, written “on the general principles laid down in German universities.”  At Harvard and especially at Berlin, Du Bois learned the importance of exhaustive research.  But he also learned something else, that facts had to be judged, interpreted, and in many cases narrated in order for their meaning and value to be represented.  Du Bois is extreme in both directions.  He had tremendous research capabilities, but he also permitted himself social and moral pronouncements, many of them thundering, that most scholars today would reject as non-scholarly.  To scholarly readers today, Du Bois seems an exceptional but somewhat impure scholar whose practice was exciting but a bit undeveloped.  But really the difference between Du Bois’s unembarrassed practices and ours is one of degree, not kind.  As a scholar, Du Bois is a kind of caricature or radicalized version of our scholarly practices, not an imperfectly refined instance of them.

Bernard Lategan, the subject of the second chapter, is not well known in the Western academy, except in Biblical hermeneutics.  But he has the most compelling scholarly career I know of.  He began life in an apartheid family, in an apartheid city, attended an apartheid university, and entered a field that was, in South Africa, largely dedicated to the discovery of Biblical justifications for the apartheid system.  You would think there would be no saving such a person.  But beginning in the 1970s, Lategan began to voice doubts about the system and about the possibility of finding any Biblical warrant for it.  These doubts became more explicit, to the point where he was punished personally and professionally and sent to teach in a “colored” university.  His wife ran for Parliament on an anti-apartheid ticket and came very close to winning, which further jeopardized his social and academic position.  He continued to publish in his field, though, and here’s the interesting part:  he continued to work on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the same text he had focused on when producing apartheid apologetics, but was now discovering anti-apartheid messages.  He was also attending Bible study groups led by African women, who read the Bible in a spirit of charity and love, which was of course very different from the officially sanctioned approach.  When Mandela was released from prison and the apartheid regime was thrown out, Lategan set himself to creating an institute for advanced study not unlike IWM, in his home town of Stellenbosch.  The institute he created is in fact sited on the first plot of land granted to a Dutch settler, the historical epicenter of Afrikaans culture.  The goal of the institute seems to be to use scholarship to redeem the land, to open up the South African academy to the world, and to set out in search of a disinterested truth through free and fearless inquiry.  Just amazing, isn’t it?  Anyhow, Lategan serves as an example here of the power of evidence in the production of scholarly truth, and also of a certain potentially disturbing freedom in the concept of evidence in that the same evidence can be deployed in the service of two such entirely different purposes.  Which is also amazing.

And Linda Nochlin was–she just died recently–a very highly regarded art historian who would have a stellar reputation even if she hadn’t done what chiefly interests me here, which is to create a field by herself, at a stroke, with a single essay, called “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”   The answer, delivered in her pungent, commanding, witty style, was that the world made sure that there would be none.  Pablita Picasso, had she existed, would not have had the same opportunities as her brother Pablo.  She would never have been apprenticed, never taught, never permitted in the rooms or salons where art or ideas were discussed.  Women never entered the scene of art except as models, often nude.  Nochlin’s essay crystallized, in the field of art history, the energies of “second-wave” feminism and launched a whole new area of inquiry and standard of evaluation.  In short, her work demonstrates the power of scholarship to create, to bring something into being through an examination of the past.

Coming back to the issue of freedom: Each of your exemplars – let us not call the them heroes – has deployed, as the book’s conclusion puts it “the instruments of scholarship in the service of emancipatory agenda.” (142). Is your claim that scholarship ought to be so instrumentalized? Or do you mean to be somehow critical of it? Is scholarship, at its most exemplary, politics by other means?

This is an important but delicate question so I’ll try to be precise.  I think that scholarship always has an “emancipatory agenda,” but the emancipation is not directly connected to any given political or social struggle.  Scholarship emancipates us from what we think we know by proposing a new account that changes the story, thereby altering–perhaps in very tiny or inconsequential ways–our self-understanding.  Any emancipatory political struggle has the same goal, of detaching us from the present arrangement as a precondition for change, so it is no surprise that scholarship can be instrumentalized, as you put it, in the service of that goal.  But any scholarly argument that seems to begin with that political or social goal risks disqualifying itself as a discourse of truth.  All scholarship runs that risk.  One can always detect, or persuade oneself that one has detected, a hidden political or moral agenda even in the most apparently rigorous, or innocuous, scholarly works.  The methods and vocabulary or scholarship are all designed to neutralize or preempt such claims, but since scholarship relies on the interpretation of evidence and takes the form of argument, such claims can never be neutralized altogether.

I sense a tension – and a worry – here, so let me invite you to explore it.  If I understood correctly, you suggest that scholarship is an activity that seeks to liberate us from received notions.  But should not scholarship’s first concern be with truth, and with freedom only insofar as it is the freedom to seek truth?

You’ve posed the question of questions.  Everything about scholarship—the respect for evidence, the attention to previous work, the ban or at least severe restrictions on personal pronouns, the elaborate apparatus of citational and other protocols–is designed to minimize the chance that the truth will be deformed somehow in the process of delivering it.  But here’s the constant worry:  the evidence that scholarship deals with is itself an interpretation, a construction, often a great many of them; and then, in the course of representing the evidence, the scholar has to gather, organize, filter, judge, generalize, and otherwise massage it so it becomes clear to the reader what the evidence is evidence of.  This requires what one of Du Bois’s models in Berlin, the great German scholar Wilhelm Dilthey, called “personal skill and virtuosity” in “the art of interpretation.”  Throughout the history of scholarship we find repeated concessions to the subjective and invented character of scholarly knowledge.  The historian E. H. Carr, not a radical post-modernist, says directly that “history is what the historian makes.”

So you’re very right to describe the “tension” and “worry” about the relation between scholarship and the truth.  Scholarship always seeks a truth independent of individual preferences or perspectives, but every scholar is an individual.  And the best scholarship is produced not by people of average tastes or abilities but by the most gifted, which often means the most perceptive, the most incisive, the most disciplined, the most sharply individuated.  Scholarship has its methodical, incremental, rule-governed aspect, which Thomas Kuhn described as “normal science,” but it also extends a welcome to genius, and genius often insists on setting its own rules.  Hence the tension and worry.

This, incidentally, is why the underlying story–which is often built into the work itself–of scholarship is some version of. “When I began this project, I was convinced of X, but now, after years of chastening labor, I am forced to admit that Y.”  This under-story, as we might call it, asserts, sometimes persuasively, that the once-proud scholar has been humbled by the truth, and has submitted to its dictates.  Of course, there’s a certain pride in this account as well.

I see how the tension between truth and interpretation is the crux of the matter. Your book, though, seems to focus on a particular aspect of this tension: that between truth and freedom. Truth, or the idea of truth, poses a limiting condition on the freedom of interpretation. But, if freedom is defined as the absence of necessity, a desire may arise to push that limit even to the point of disavowing truth (and the idea of truth) as socially constructed, merely relative, unjust. Is this the danger your conclusion – titled “Too Much Freedom?” – points to? And am I correct to read in it not only a concern about the future of scholarship, but also a diagnosis: that not simply a victim, scholarship has been complicit in bringing about our current condition of post-truth, and the attendant erosion of constitutional freedoms?

I’ll begin with the last point.  Scholarship has been totally complicit—in fact, it has taken a leadership position—in undermining the status of truth, whose consequences we see all around us.  At one time—roughly from the 1960s to about 1990—many scholars began to see knowledge itself as a discursive regime that reflected power in a way not completely unlike other kinds of regimes.  The unmasking of the “freedom”—that is, the non-necessary and contingent character—of knowledge was thought to be a precursor to the unmasking, and consequently the undermining, of worldly regimes that some scholars disapproved of.  But if you say that everything is just a play of signifiers, or a function of narrative, or a disguised form of ideology, it cannot be a surprise if nobody wants to talk to you any more.  Now, many—maybe most, maybe all—who made such arguments actually thought they were telling a deep and difficult truth about truth.  They thought, in other words, that an exception would be made for them and their pronouncements, and were confused and upset when nobody outside the academy took them seriously—or, worse, took them too seriously and began to lie with impunity, with the consequences you refer to.

We can see quite clearly here how freedom can be a problem for scholarship, how there can be, as I say, “too much” of it.  The freedom of scholarship is like fire, to be handled with care and respect, but also with a certain circumspection.  In the book, I pose a thought experiment, asking readers to consider whether, if Du Bois had discovered through further archival research that black people were really lazy, ignorant, superstitious, and unsuited to democracy, he would have published the results?  Of course he would not; nor would Lategan have done so if further pious reflection revealed to him that the Bible actually supported apartheid, or Nochlin if her reading in biology and cultural anthropology proved that women were effectively limited to mediocrity in the arts.  All scholars have limits to the truths they are prepared to accept.  The constant challenge for the scholar is to make it appear that the new truth he or she is proposing is the final truth, even though scholarship as such accepts no final truths.

There is much to digest here, and to elaborate on. Let me take up one aspect: scholarship thrives on questioning received truths; yet its greatest aspiration, its final cause as Aristotle might put it, is to establish ultimate truth, invulnerable to future scholarship. Is this a paradox? And could you say a bit more how this paradox is “to be handled with care”?

This can be called a paradox, although it might also qualify as what Marxists might call either a contradiction or an antinomy, depending on whether you found it disabling or enabling.  Perhaps paradoxically, I endorse both views.  What I’m describing, and what you have focused on with a certain relentlessness, is the self-complicating character or nature of scholarship, which presumes, insists on, and produces various forms of freedom, which it must then find a way to constrain, limit, or deny.  The interpretive and other freedoms that seem so benign and productive in one sense can turn on scholarship itself, undermining certainty and creating doubt about the validity of our results.  Don’t we all feel this, that disturbing sense that the hard-won finality of our work immediately becomes an opportunity for the next scholar, exercising his or her own freedoms, to attack?  For this reason, my title does not announce a manifesto; it refers to a problem. Freedom is a very good problem to have, better than not having it; but it is a problem.

Having praised past examples, and shed light on inherent dangers, let us conclude by saying something about the future. How do you, Geoffrey, as both an esteemed scholar and administrator with decades-long experience of fostering scholarly endeavors, how do you see the prospects of scholarship in the contemporary world? And what should institutes like the IWM do to sustain both scholarship and freedom?

I’ll try not to sound, or to be, too pretentious or prophetic, even though you are leading me in this direction.  First, scholarship represents a precious assertion of freedom in a world that does not always welcome such assertions.  Scholarship presumes that one can liberate oneself from what is currently known, believed, valued, or desired and undertake a fresh inquiry with the results not determined in advance.  Scholarship also presumes a principle of vitality:  what is thought to be dead and settled can be reanimated.  And third, scholarship is a practice of innovation and creation.  You could say that modernity created the conditions under which scholarship emerged; you could also say the reverse.

Perhaps my perspective on the world is too American, but it seems to me that if independence, vitality, and innovation were animals, they would be considered endangered species, threatened by predators in the political, social, technological, and ideological domains, all fighting for dominance in a natural world that is posing its own threat to all of them.  In our world, scholarship’s survival is by no means assured, in part because scholarship always takes a certain distance from immediate needs or interests.  I and many others would argue that this distance serves deeper, long-term needs that would be very poorly served by an exclusive emphasis on the urgencies of the present.  People can understand this argument, and scholars must find a voice and a platform, or platforms, to make it.

Universities have been sanctuaries for scholarship for over a century. But they, too, face challenges that have been aggravated in the Covid era. In this stressed context, independent research institutes have a practical and even a symbolic importance.  They stand for the idea of an independent intellectual community, and for the kind of intellectual activity on which a free society is founded.  Of course, there is a certain unreality to this independence, and all those who benefit from such institutes have to leave the sanctuary after a brief time and return to the wild to fend for themselves.  But norms are unworldly on purpose; they serve as standards against which practices can be judged, reminders of commitments we have made, and implicit rebukes to practices that violate those commitments. Research institutes like IWM represent the conscience of scholarship.

Thank you, Geoffrey, for this conversation.

Ewa Atanassow is Junior Professor of Political Thought, Bard College Berlin. From February to July 2019 she was a Józef Tischner Visiting Fellow at IWM.