Oct 12, 2010

The Pippen standard

In the middle of an odd article "in defense of naive reading" that seems at least partially designed as an attack on cultural studies, University of Chicago Prof. Robert B. Pippen writes:

"Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of 'research.'"

This strikes me as strange, and the more I think about it, the stranger is strikes me.

First of all, why should there be an a priori reason to think something's a suitable object of research? Part of researching, part of studying seems to me to be to answer the question of whether the study and the research is worthwhile. How could you know that before hand? Research definitionally starts with a provisional idea that something seems interesting or important, but nothing more than that.

Second of all, assuming Pippen's standard is a good standard, how would we or could we know that something was produced for the purposes of being studied?

And even if that was the reason and we could determine that it was, why would we think that's a good reason to study it? A lot of crappy anthologies and introductory texts and textbooks would seem to prove the standard wrong. And more than that, plain silly.

Why would Pippen claim this as a standard? I seriously don't know what he's talking about.

Third, the implication seems to be that this is a lack in literature, poems and novels, paintings, etc.; That is, that this is something different about literature. But that seems false: atoms, for example, and chemical compounds, and the pots of Pompei were not produced as objects for future academic research. Neither were languages. Neither was history, nor religions, nor diseases, nor any social or political practices.

Almost all of what we study, almost all of everything worth studying was produced for some other reason.

Maybe there're no a priori reasons to consider those subjects as subjects worth studying either, but really, is that the kind of reason we want?

In the article, he contrasts "vernacular" literature with classical Greek and Latin literature, and says vernacular literature was "produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them." But, then, is he arguing Homer, Virgil, et al, weren't produced for pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them? That they were produced for the purposes of being studied? It doesn't make any sense.

As far as I can tell, the only thing that fits Pippen's standard is secondary materials. Legal codes, for example, aren't produced as objects of research, but legal commentaries could maybe be thought of that way. By Pippen's standard, wars couldn't be assumed to be suitable objects of research, but research about those wars would be suitable for research.

The comment seems to just be silly. His eventual conclusion about reading isn't all wrong, I don't think, but this standard he throws out in the middle is bizarre. Pippen's standard doesn't seem to actually have anything to do with why anyone studies anything.