Anomalous? Ultimate? Why Do We Care about Scholarly Projects?

For the past decade, I have taught a semester-long prep course for undergraduates with PhD aspirations. At one of our meetings we discuss a subject I title “What’s Hot? What’s Not?” Its aim is to help prospective scholars understand a little better how to choose long-term research projects that are more likely to strike a chord in their fields. (The takeaway? The bigger and more time-intensive the project, the less likely one is to know whether its topic will be in vogue when it’s finally published. Therefore, having a “hot” project is more a function of learning to be a certain kind of scholar than of writing on a particular subject.)

During this meeting, I describe the kinds of projects I see as a reader of manuscripts for university presses, journals, and fellowship boards. I break these projects into four categories, although, of course, there are many more than four. But that number suffices for that class and this post.

  • Category 1: Scholar chases a slender or obscure topic deep down a rabbit hole. This project is unlikely to interest anybody other than that scholar, certainly not to a remotely equal degree.
  • Category 2: Scholar pulls a well-known intellectual paradigm off the shelf and applies it to some supposedly under-examined subject. Because of the familiarity of the method, the project seems pre-digested before it is even published. This may help its reception, though if the method is too well worn the project is unlikely to seem fresh even when the body of material is new.

Learn how to recognize, and avoid, the impulse toward these types of projects, I tell the students. Then we discuss two other categories that are more promising.

  • Category 3: Scholar devises a project that seems fun, funky, innovative—appealing from its sheer élan.
  • Category 4: Scholar sets to work on a project whose importance seems practically self-evident—“major” from its very inception.

Projects that fall into that last category can be a little deceptive. One would think that their importance arises from the gravity of their subjects, but really, their aura is as much a function of the form and style that teases out their significance. Among the guests to our BYU Humanities Center, Christopher Newfield on the state of public higher education, Ursula K. Heise on biodiversity databases as a new form of epic, and Jacqueline Goldsby on abstraction in African American art and literature all brought such projects with them. Indeed, we invited these scholars because they had developed such projects. And yet, one reads plenty of essays and books on topics similar to theirs that lack that same spark.

More common, perhaps, are projects from Category 3—the fun, the funky, the innovative: Eric Hayot’s On Literary Worlds, for example, which shows how literary texts constitute imaginary totalities that defy the historical periods through which we explain them, or Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents, which brought the concept of “deep time” into literary studies. These scholars have also been guests of our Humanities Center, and what strikes me about these books, and these scholars’ work generally, is the fertility of their critical imagination.

So, I tell the students in the grad school prep course, learn to be like this. Or this. But not like that. Or that.

This semester, however, and in the back of my mind, I was thinking about another course I’ve been teaching in which we read something that provides a vocabulary for framing “good” scholarly projects on different grounds. This was a course on literature and the theory of spiritual experience, and the study to which I refer divides spiritual experiences into two varieties, the anomalous and the ultimate. The former include “hallucination, synesthesia, lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, alien abduction, anomalous healing, past-life, near-death, [and] psi-related” experiences as well as “drug-induced altered states . . . group frenzy, snake-handling, fire-walking,” and other dude, no way! incidents.[1] Ultimacy experiences, meanwhile, are those “that a person feels are of vital importance for his or her life. They bring orientation and coping power, inspire great acts of courage and devotion, underlie key life decisions, and heavily influence social affiliation.”[2] Anomalous experiences tend to be “short-term neurological events,” mind-blowers. “But experiences possessing the subjective quality of ultimate importance” tend to be of longer duration. Hence, while, “short-term states are tied to discrete brain episodes . . . extended experiences usually require a rich social context to sustain them.”[3]

In the terms I articulate above, Category 3 projects are of the “anomalous” variety—something of them may stay with us and change our thinking about a subject in significant ways, but their attraction primarily consists in their power to surprise. (“Did Pierre Bayard just tell me that Sophocles plagiarized Freud’s concept of the Oedipal complex? Or am I . . . hallucinating? Or implicated in some group frenzy of literary critics?”[4]) Category 4 projects, by comparison, conjure an air of ultimacy: we never say of them that they are merely “interesting.”[5] This makes them more important—and, occasionally, insufferable. For, unless an air of ingenuity leavens them, unless they bear an aesthetic as well as an ethical appeal, they can become sanctimonious, bloviating. However, when they hit notes of ingenuity as well as importance, the results can be extraordinary. (That combination characterizes the best work in environmental studies, for example. Heise doesn’t wax bathetic about species loss, she writes about biodiversity databases as an extension of literary form; Dipesh Chakrabarty doesn’t lecture us about the dangers of the anthropocene, he puts postcolonial theory on the endangered list.[6] These are “interesting” projects with an “ultimate” edge.)

One of the most stirring things to me about classifying scholarly projects in this way is that it reveals their impetus in something like spiritual thinking—a larger, more multivalent category than the “critical thinking” the humanities habitually claim for themselves. I have nothing against critical thinking: claims that the humanities teach students how to think are defensible, certainly. But the assertion that critical thinking is what the humanities primarily undertake seems, I don’t know, so 1990s. What the humanities should be able to claim for themselves—heck, what they already show in abundance—is an investment in things that matter, even when those things are only the momentary delight of the unexpected. (“Did Catherine Labio just tell me that comic books, bearing a structural similarity to the façades of urban residential dwellings, reveal an architectural unconscious?”[7]) This seems especially to be the case during an era when the humanities are increasingly held to account, publicly and by university administrators, to justify their existence.

Secular humanists have generally seemed to run from associations of the spiritual for a couple generations now. But the globe is a funny shape, and one can make a compelling argument these days that the very flight from spirituality has become, by virtue of its persistence, a headlong sprint toward it.

[1] Wesley J. Wildman, Religious and Spiritual Experiences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 82.

[2] Ibid., 84.

[3] Ibid., 85.

[4] Bayard, “Anticipatory Plagiarism,” New Literary History 44 (2013): 231-250.

[5] On the insidiousness of the category of the academically “interesting,” see Simon During, Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory, and Post-Secular Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2010), 39-54.

[6] Chakrabarty, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History 43 (2012): 1-18.

[7] Labio, “The Architecture of Comics,” Critical Inquiry 41 (2015): 312-343.

Post by Matthew Wickman, Director of the Humanities Center 

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