What’s the Point? The Relevance of the Irrelevant and Daring to Get it Wrong

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In an article for the Guardian published this time last year, a theology PhD student at the University of Exeter, Karen O’Donnell, wrote in response to sexist comments about women in academia that “writing yourself into your work gives an authenticity to your academic voice. It allows you to be honest about why you’re doing the work you’re doing and why you care. It helps your readers to understand why they should care. It makes your biases clear.”

This was a statement that resounded with me when I first read it, and has stuck with me since, as I completed my dissertation in the time between. But in tense times like those we live in, I observe that there is little room given to writing that proclaims its bias, that openly challenges the reader to interpret the author’s views critically. What would it mean if we—academics, essayists, even journalists—stated at the outset we might be getting it wrong, seeing the world as we always do through a filter of our own particular make? The writing that I produce is without a doubt an interpretation of events and specific data points formed of my own education, privileged socio-economic background, urban intellectual environment, and literary/linguistic interests.

Surely, there is some bias in that.

Perhaps it could go without saying that any piece of writing cannot cover everything, but there is a real danger in assuming that the reader assumes what has been left out. In the case of my dissertation, where I point to artistic and intellectual networks previously overlooked and aim to amplify overlooked voices, there is at the same time a silencing of others as a consequence. This can be partially attributed to the scope of my project, which takes the Czech avant-garde organization Devětsil — a group formed in the 1920s by Karel Teige and comprised of strictly white European males, with only one female member — as a point from which all external influence is explored. But there is also another filter applied at the archival level, where a not-invisible hand determines who and what is worthy of preserving for posterity. Save for a few notable figures — such as the Surrealist artist Toyen (née Marie Čermínová), the single female member of Devětsil, and the formidable editor Marie Mayerová — women, for instance, made seldom appearance in my work in the archives, and when they did crop up, it was typically in the role of wife, lover, or secretary, writing letters on behalf of more famous men, or writing to these men with words of endearment. If in my dissertation I did not at least point out their absence, they would not be there at all.

While the history of Modernism and the historical avant-garde might reflect, as Partha Mittner writes, an “experimental attitude that constantly sought to push intellectual frontiers, its ideology of emancipatory innovation, and its antagonistic relation to tradition and authority released new energies in artists raised in a more traditional role,” the avant-gardists I studied were emancipatory to a limit. It’s hard to imagine that the men for whom I have made it my project to advocate would ever have cared so much for me. Women were largely excluded from the avant-garde movements, or else relegated to less visible roles (the Bauhaus is famous for this, and Dadaist Hannah Höch was treated abominably by those in the Berlin group, including her lover, Raoul Hausmann). Certain nationalities and languages were favored, and a growing turn toward Primitivism, which also captivated members of Devětsil, led to many racist, othering statements that serve as a reminder that the very regions I aimed to distance from articulations of the “peripheral” sought to assert their own proximity to western “centers” by gesturing towards “peripheries” further afield. For all its “emancipatory innovation,” Mittner himself writes that “Modernism created its own tacit exclusions and inclusions,” and that “the center-periphery relation is not only one of geography but also power and authority that implicates race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

So what has a dissertation on a largely exclusionary, now long-ago art movement got to do with anything today? Choosing a narrow topic and writing about it at length is what a dissertation is, but that requires a rather self-centered engagement with the world and one’s own interests, and, in a time when we are constantly prodded to display our “relevance” (in likes, views, and hashtags), risks winning the award for one of the most absurdly irrelevant tasks out there. And yet, naturally, it is my not so secret hope that I am not actually irrelevant in what I research and what I write, that I am advocating not only for a couple dead dudes in my dissertation, but for at least a few more of us, too, through the critical frame in which I write of them, and the words I choose to write with.

At the same time I see that the academy has its ways of inuring too many of its chosen ones against a compulsion to apply their research and writing to contemporary issues that ought to demand all of our attention. Perhaps it’s that American campuses are so leafy and idyllic, allowing us to pretend that this utopic vision is but the world on a micro-scale. Or maybe it’s something more sinister, something a little closer to what O’Donnell describes in the Guardian: “Rigorous challenging of ideas and robust debate are essential to academia, but I believe that this battle prevents creativity and big thinking. When you know your idea will be attacked, you put forward the smallest, most defendable idea you can.”

Though I have made an effort throughout graduate school to find public outlets for my research (and I’m particularly grateful to the MQR Blog and its editor Rachel Farrell for providing this regular forum to do so) that allow me to make practical use of the theory by which I operate — that a center-periphery conception of our world depends on the maintenance of a hegemonic structure, and only by doing away with such a conception can we begin to move away from something that privileges what is west, what is white, what is male — I feel, too, that tendency to make my argument tiny, my field of vision small, so as not to step into enemy territory, to come under attack by “the experts,” or worse still, to offend, to cause harm, where I meant to do good.

I do see a way beyond this, however, and many passionate scholars and public intellectuals lead that way by tackling large, complex issues and histories with nuance, compassion, and impeccable style. For instance: Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dubravka Ugrešić. Also Jenny Diski and Svetlana Boym, both of whom have recently passed. Diski, in her final column for the London Review of Books, wrote illuminatingly on why not knowing, and admitting what we do not know, is so frightening and important:

People have always worried me with questions, questions have always worried me with having no answers. That’s what I mean. I don’t know enough, or know nothing. And then I get to the nub of it. What should I know about? When great minds have gone to dust, what could it possibly matter what I know or don’t know? What arrogance to imagine that my minute fossils of knowledge are of any importance. Then again who is going to win the third world war? How will my grandchildren manage in a world that is daily dispersing, without a grandmother who has already dispersed? Or most simply, I’m curious. What will I not know when I’m not a knowing machine? There are too many questions for an ordinary curious mind. How can nothing be nothing? Help me out here, philosophers, there isn’t much time.

Perhaps it’s a job best adapted to humanists, who work in ambiguity, to point out what we do not know alongside what we do, to set a precedent that the scientists and economists ought also to follow. So let me say that throughout the writing of my dissertation, I always sensed the sore limits of my own project. I still do, of course, now that it’s done. At least, I think, there is some power in acknowledging its limits and my own, stating outright that even something “finished” is also, and always, a work in progress.


The above is adapted from the Preface to the author’s dissertation — “In the Middle of It All: Prague, Brno, and the Avant-Garde Networks of Interwar Europe” — successfully defended at the University of Michigan in June 2016.


Image: Toyen. “Objekt-fantom.” Oil on canvas. 1937.

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