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 insis