Clothes Make the Academic

In the very first Note and Comment of this year I linked to a heart-warming little story (the link is now dead, unfortunately) in the New York Observer about those wonderful hip folks at the Modern Language Association, which featured the profound, almost Gnostic aphorism, ‘Theorists are the snappiest dressers.’ What is it about lit crits these days, people often, often wonder; why are they so full of themselves, so grandiose, so deluded about their omniscience? It couldn’t be mere physics envy could it? Surely they’re too wised up and knowing to fall into that old trap!

Leonard Cassuto takes a look at the issue in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He had to talk to scientists about a very technical subject recently, and was surprised at how friendly, helpful and non-condescending they were. It is not like that among the humanists, he says mournfully, and includes himself in the indictment. He attributes much of the difference to the peer-review system.

Physicists told me that peer review in the sciences has an ethical code built into it. There can be personality conflicts, of course, but the scientists share the belief that the peer-review system can deliver trustworthy assessments of their work. That enables them to relax and treat each other with respect.

It is different in the humanities because of the subjectivity of the work. The ‘softer’ fields, Cassuto says, are conspicuous for their social hierarchies, their status anxiety, their celebrity culture, and their jargon and turf-protecting.

Attempts to popularize have often been met with the special hostility that attends defense of hierarchy — consider the philosopher Judith Butler’s assertion on the op-ed page of The New York Times that her ideas were so complex they couldn’t be expressed in a way that regular people might understand.

Rebecca Goldstein includes an amusing riff on this subject in her 1983 novel The Mind-Body Problem:

Observers of the academic scene may be aware that there are distinct personality types associated with distinct disciplines. The types can be ordered along the line of a single parameter: the degree of concern demonstrated over the presentation of self, or “outward focus.”…At the low end, with outward focus asymptotically approaching zero, we find the pure mathematicians, closely followed by the theoretical physicists…At the other end, with the degree of outward focus asymptotically approaching infinity, we find sociologists and professors of literature…The degree of outward focus is in inverse proportion to the degree of certainty attainable within the given methodology. The greater the certainty of one’s results, the less the concern with others’ opinion of oneself.

So there you are. Literary theorists are the snappiest dressers.

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