Saturday, July 07, 2007

The great conversation, or, the Republic of Letters

Yesterday I met some of my students for September, and there's nothing like seeing them face to face to make me think seriously about what we will be doing in the upcoming academic year.

My attitude towards university teaching has changed since February 2006 when a wily publisher sent me a book by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say: the moves that matter in academic writing. Purportedly a writing guide for undergraduates, it has done as much for me as any student. The book was inspired by writing courses taught by the authors that had all the usual goals of such courses -- an institutional response to the despair felt by highly literate academics when faced by piles of poorly written and thought-out papers. Graff and Birkenstein saw a little farther into this phenomenon than most -- they didn't blame their students' high school teachers. They understood that most students had no idea why they should be able to write a well-documented paper which argues a thesis.

Graff and Birkenstein know why. They understand that no great truth emerges without debate. Any academic paper or controversy of any value is part of a larger ongoing debate on a subject that the debaters really care about and see as affecting them, or connecting in some way with their own experience. Each person's contribution is a response to what other people have already said. Writing an academic paper (and the same applies to the best non-academic writing) is part of something I call "the great conversation" or, to use an 18th century phrase,"the Republic of Letters." The Republic of Letters was an imaginary country where those who cared about ideas, though constrained in real life by divine kings, aristocratic hierarchies and orthodox religious dogmas, could meet as equals, as empowered citizens seeking the truth.

Graff and Birkenstein provided me with a brilliant description of a great conversation; it's actually a quotation from the philosopher Kenneth Burke, who equated intellectual interchange with a passionate conversation at a party:

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about...You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. ... The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
This description of debate ongoing, unending rings a bell in my head. In 1976, as I was beginning serious research in what became a dissertation and a book on Fifth-Century Chronicles (see the link in my sidebar), I went to the University of Toronto library to look at what had been recommended as the best place to start: an article written by O. Holder-Egger -- in 1876. I was talking with the dead, as we serious partyers (er, debaters) so often do. Our great conversation extends far beyond the span of one person's life, has more than one strand, or one goal. Our Republic of Letters is vast beyond our comprehension.

The Kenneth Burke quotation comes from a work called The Philosophy of Literary Form, which I haven't read but will talk about anyway. My own work reconstructing bygone eras, my own experience with everyday life, makes me think that his description of the party is a good description of how honest people seek after truth. It might be nice to have an authoritative book or library where all the "real facts," beyond debate, could be found. But actually all candidates for such status have been written and collected as part of ongoing debates, and if anyone uses them now, it's because someone else has a different point of view that the first person thinks must be combatted. Truth is bigger than any of us. The debate is a better guide to it than any so-called authority. And each of us has only a piece of that great conversation, and will have to depart before it's over.

Enjoy the party while you can!

Image: "On tour in the Republic of Letters" by Jonathan Keegan, which illustrated an article of that name by Larry Wolff in the NYT travel section in 1999. For more see this description.

I've had quite a bit more fun in the old Republic than these characters!


Anonymous Tim Moran said...

This "republic of letters" conversation marches in absolute parallel with an experience I had this summer on, of all things, a media trip to Germany.

We flew coach (a concession to "economy" by the auto company sponsoring the trip, not necessarily for cash savings but as a demonstration that they were aware of tough times in the U.S. environment and couldn't send a bunch of journalists off business-class to enjoy the fruits of Dusseldorf without risking their reputation as a caring domestic employer)and the fortunate thing for me is that coach is where visiting professors of Ancient French also tend to fly when on their way home from sabbaticals.

My seat mate had been doing research on primary source letters between intellectuals of the 16th/17th century -- wads of these letters having apparently been amassed in a private collection donated to (I *think*) an immense climate-controlled library at the University of Kansas or some equally improbable mid-American retail-funded spielplatz. What he had discovered were unexpected networks of intelligent people "talking" to one another in strictly-formed correspondence. Each letter would have three main parts -- a formula greeting in which the health and wellbeing of everybody and their family were asked after, a meaty midsection, and a formula closing including requests that information or enclosures be passed on to certain individuals.

It was the unexpected networks tied into the information in the letters that delighted my airline companion -- the revelation of who knew whom, of who knew where communities of thinkers and experimenters might be, and of how the information contained in the letter might agree with or confound somebody else's opinion from a scholarly or enlightened community. Essentially, these few hundred people knew each others' ideas intimately enough that an ongoing episodic conversation was happening, about ideas, internationally despite wars and all the other horsemen of the apocalypse. So there would be references in one letter to "please forward this information to so-and-so," with an annotation saying so-and-so might be dead as he hadn't been heard from for quite some time, but then in a later letter someone would mention that rumors of so-and-so's death were due to illness, travel, a diplomatic mission that took him out of circulation, etc.

At any rate, here was this ongoing Euro conversation about ideas -- a sort of slow Internet of its time -- running as add-ons to ordinary letters that were churning their horse-drawn, ship-driven or turnshoe-net way from place to place. And by correlating who was sending and who (putatively) was receiving such letters, a different kind of web of relationships than the "big man" theory of intellectual history can be shown to have covered the various dominant cities and trade routes. Sometimes quite insignificant people (compared to those we have come to lionize)tucked quite surprising turning points into the information debate, as well, he said.

Of course, around came the airline meals cart long before our conversation should have been over, all reasonable discussion died at the hands of flight attendants sternly urging the passengers to remain buckled and not to move about the cabin, and we were confined to eating flightless birds in a flying machine high over the North Atlantic.

Still, it was a highly interesting glimpse of an unsuspected (by me) and sophisticated structure of past knowledge. Gone the image of brilliant individuals toiling in lonely intellectual seclusion to startle the world with their incontravertible Eureka idea. Enter the idea of brilliant individuals networking mightily.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

Thanks for the meaty comment.

I think that there are many such undetected net phenomena in intellectual history. I read about 10 years ago a book by Bernard Baylin (?) in which he cited transatlantic communication just before the American Revolution. A female historian from Britain named Walpole, quite well read in her time, decided she wanted to go to Boston and see what was really going on. This was made all the more practical because she had an established correspondence with most of the prominent Mass. troublemakers! And don't forget those Committees of Correspondence, or Franklin's scientific correspondence, or Paine or Wollstonecraft, etc., etc.!

At the same time, there are clearly periods when reactionary power holders completely coopt or shut down what had been free, innovative, constructive discussion.

The fact that serious political thinking seldom gets on American TV except in "comedy" form shows that we or rather you are in one of the latter periods; but of course with the Internet it's difficult to shut everything down, and that may indicate you are coming out of it.

Two final points: no technology will solve the problem of stifled discussion by itself. And the huge explosion of political blogs indicates that many millions are starved for substantial discussion in their immediate surroundings.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

A well-known full professor of medieval history said to me that at his current stage of life (50s and successful) he now dares to book tickets and travel accommodations that are one step above rock bottom.

The academic life! So respectable!

8:22 AM  

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