Hosted by Betty the Prayer Book Kitty

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Amateur Eye

So, in the wake of having published a new scholarly piece, this time in the Journal of Law and Religion, I have to ask myself: Just what am I playing at?

I mean, I'm an "unaffiliated scholar"--that is, someone who writes articles, occasionally guest lectures or appears at the odd conference, but has no institutional backing, minimal access to scholarly libraries, and basically follows the will-o'-the wisp of my own nose. In short, as C.P. Snow might say, an academic manqué.

By this point, I've come to terms with the fact that I won't have the academic career I foresaw for myself when I was younger. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, mind you; legal academia seems to be in a pretty bad state these days, and I'm not sure I'd even want in now. And yet, I find myself, whenever I get really interested in a subject, writing about it. And not journalism, or fiction, or even blog posts necessarily; I dive in depth and write monstrously long, carefully researched (if a tad discursive), heavily footnoted pieces. And, so far, they've all found homes.

I'm not sure what this says about me--is it stubbornness, or wish-fulfillment, or just something about how I learn and organize my thoughts? Regardless, it's what I do.

But now the big question: What is the use of an unaffiliated scholar, or, less charitably phrased, an amateur. And does not make me an example of what Andrew Keen attacked in his The Cult of the Amateur?

Well, maybe.

But, as to that, two thoughts.

First, as a great admirer of many Victorians, I can't help but note that today's unaffiliated scholar is not entirely unlike the Victorian Amateur, who pursued an avocation--whether science, sport, theft, or lexicography--often making great contributions. And, of course, often falling flat on his or her face. But an amateur interest can see threads the professional misses, sometimes because the professional sees through the prism of received wisdom--even when it is flat out wrong. (A great example of this is James Gairdner's risible biography of Richard III, so thoroughly and deliciously roasted by Josephine Tey in 1951, only to have his conclusions reaffirmed by some modern writers.) Of course, amateurs can be just plain, full-out wrong.

Second, the modern unaffiliated scholar isn't as amateur as all that; many have degrees in the fields in which they publish, and are published in peer-reviewed journals. So there are often institution-based credentials and quality checks on the output of the unaffiliated. (Indeed, my own latest effort was peer-reviewed,as was my book.)

There is always, of course, the risk of going beyond one's competence; in law, this is often shown in crossing the blurry line between appropriate efforts to understand the evolution of legal thought and decisions and the kind of special pleading from isolated data points disparagingly known as law office history.

Perhaps we are not so much academics manqué as we are later day variants of Matthew Arnold's Scholar-Gypsy:
Come, let me read the oft-read tale again:
The story of that Oxford scholar poor,
Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,
Who, tired of knocking at Preferment's door, 35
One summer morn forsook
His friends, and went to learn the Gipsy lore,
And roam'd the world with that wild brotherhood,
And came, as most men deem'd, to little good,
But came to Oxford and his friends no more. 40

But once, years after, in the country lanes,
Two scholars, whom at college erst he knew,
Met him, and of his way of life inquired.
Whereat he answer'd that the Gipsy crew,
His mates, had arts to rule as they desired 45
The workings of men's brains;
And they can bind them to what thoughts they will:
'And I,' he said, 'the secret of their art,
When fully learn'd, will to the world impart:
But it needs Heaven-sent moments for this skill!'
Or, y'know, not.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

what a great post! is a short list of your publications to be found on this blogsite?

-from a visitor who wound up on this page as the result of a random internet search

Anglocat said...

Welcome, and glad you liked the post. You can find most of my publications, at least the ones that aren't archived behind paywalls, and a link to the publishers of my book here: http://works.bepress.com/john_wirenius/. Thanks for stopping by!