ENCYCLOPAEDIC VERSUS ARGUMENTATIVE KNOWLEDGE: CULTURAL TENSIONS IN ACADEMIC WORK

As happens when I’m on holiday, I embarked last Christmas on a project I can hardly complete now: I’m re-editing my PhD dissertation (1996) as a user-friendly volume for my website, as, for reasons I fail to understand, the Catalan repository TDX has it split up into a variety of .pdf documents. Going through its more than 300,000 words (that’s about 2’5 current thesis… most likely the reason for its dismemberment), and its primary source list, including 75 novels and 125 films, I cannot help noticing the tension between my clashing encyclopaedic and argumentative methodologies. That is to say, between my native Spanish academic tradition and my adoptive Anglophone tradition.

When I chose to work on how monstrosity was articulated in the Anglophone texts of the 1980s and 1990s (novels and films), it was clear to me that my main task would consist of mapping a vast territory. There was no way I would be satisfied with just a handful of examples. The list of primary sources grew and grew, and I recall trips to libraries, bookshops, and video rental outlets which brought home a half-dozen new sources at a sitting. Things were also complicated, as I recall, by David Punter, one of my two supervisors, who demanded that I included a chapter on children –to a dissertation already 7 chapters long…

It was certainly very, very difficult to integrate so many sources into my discourse, without the thesis sounding as a collection of independent comments on each. I marvel at how hard I worked… really without needing to do so much. Yet, those were the times when a thesis 1,000 pages long was not really very exceptional (mine was about half). At any rate, I learned very, very much and I guess that was the point. I am still mining my dissertation for articles I’m writing today.

Dissertations, however, are currently much shorter and fulfil a different mission, apparently. A couple of years ago a student asked me for help to organize his PhD dissertation on zombies. To my surprise, he brought to my office, not a list but a gigantic spreadsheet (A1-size) on which he had traced a myriad intertextual connections among texts with zombies. I was impressed (my Spanish encyclopaedic tradition responding to this) and dismayed (the Anglophone side), and tried to explain to him that the argumentative demonstration of his thesis statement should dominate the impulse to make lists. Or should it?

There are indeed a number of problems with the encyclopaedic approach, particularly in our internet times. Typically, a Spanish book on, say, 1980s horror cinema, would present as many films as possible, with individual comment and little general argumentation linking them. The worst possible version of this is the volume aimed at a general readership, which usually consists plainly of file cards barely transformed into printable matter. This type of book is now a very obsolete artefact as, properly, its domain should be the internet. A website based on file cards on 1980s horror cinema makes sense, as it needs no argumentation; not a book, as it does.

Then, recently, I saw a woman academic embarrass herself beyond measure when she presented at a conference a so-called paper on vampire films. Her ‘paper’ consisted of mentioning a list of, well, vampire films. When someone in the audience, surely as aghast as I was, asked her (with a pinch of salt she totally missed) why Blacula was not included, she explained that hers was a random selection from a much longer list. Random? A key speaker in the same conference ‘delighted’ us with a lecture on monster films. Since this was in chronological order, a friend and I entertained ourselves with playing the game of whether we would guess the next item on the list. I must say that perhaps the boring list had a point, judging from the notes made by a student sitting in the next row–she consistently misspelled names I would have thought absolutely familiar to any film audience.

The Anglophone academic approach, in contrast, is based on the argumentative essay and relies very heavily on theorisation. What matters is not so much what you know about a field but which point you are making about it. This is, logically, a better strategy for the kind of fast production that the shorter BA, MA and PhD Anglophone programmes have aimed at. Although theory is also extended across many volumes and articles, mastering the basics is more feasible than, say, reading all the novels of the 18th century dealing with femininity. I am myself applying a very pragmatic version of this approach to my students’ own dissertations which, unlike mine, focus on a closed set of primary sources texts from the beginning, additions to be incorporated only if absolutely necessary.

Nevertheless, I’m missing something.

I have found myself very much annoyed during recent readings of volumes on post-humanism, the topic that currently absorbs me, by the, well, random selection of the primary sources. I am not saying the researchers have not done their homework, what I am saying is that the urge to theorise is so compelling that the primary sources are decontextualised, often isolated from intertexts they closely connect with.

Take the figure of the cyborg, which appears in fiction in 1972 with Martin Caidin’s novel, simply called Cyborg, the basis of the later very popular TV show The Six-Million Dollar Man. Now, take the cyborg as presented in Johnny Depp’s most recent film, Transcendence, or in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War saga and you can see there’s been a noticeable evolution marked by the discoveries in technoscience. However, when you read academic work on post-humanism the arguments revolve again and again around Donna Haraway’s 1991 “Cyborg Manifesto” (usually overlooking the primary sources she does mention).

This refusal to make lists, historicize tropes and see how they have evolved is, for me, bad scholarship–as bad as the vampire film woman’s argument-free method. How can ‘cyborg’ mean in 2015 the same this word used to mean back in 1991? You might say that mapping a representational territory in fiction is not as important today because anyone can do it using the internet. Wikipedia does offer lists, if you want them, which I have often used as the starting point for my own maps–but, notice this: someone has made the effort to make the lists and make sense of a vast territory… beyond theory.

I remember being overwhelmed by my monsters twenty years ago: I despaired every day, thinking I could never finish a coherent list. And I never did, I simply stopped at a date. It is quite possible that theory-based academic work is a silent acknowledgement of the impossibility of commanding a minimum knowledge of any fictional field. Name any, and soon you have 200 texts to read and see, whether this is post-colonial detective fiction or recent British theatre.

The Anglophone solution, it seems, is using samples for the whole, regardless of the significance of the sample, and pruning it from complications (if I discuss Batman, I focus on Nolan’s films rather than the comic series and graphic novels). It’s a solution but it makes for that kind of book that reduces the representation of, say, monstrous children, to five texts. How representative can this really be? On the other hand, the Spanish leaning towards an encyclopaedic name-dropping sounds hollow without a proper theoretical foundation and a solid argument.

Ah… the pleasures of academic bi-culturalism…

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