11.0289 impermanence (sub specie aeternitatis)

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 24 Sep 1997 18:42:47 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 289.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 23 Sep 97 15:47:14 EDT
From: Norm Holland <NNH@nervm.nerdc.ufl.edu>
Subject: Impermanent permanence (sub specie aeternitatis)

Pat Galloway's comments on scholarship "sub specie aeternitatis"
pushed one of my buttons. Belatedly, I fear, I am coming to
recognize a geological shift in our attitudes toward permanence
in scholarship. Perhaps this will seem oldhat to others, but I
am just learning it as I look back over forty years in the
scholarly game.

When I entered the profession in the mid-50s, we held scholarly
ideals like those of Pat's monks and indeed Pat herself, who
seeks to write "sub specie aeternitas" and feels she has fallen
short if she doesn't. Back in the '50s, we thought we were
making permanent "contributions to knowledge," as our
dissertation instructions asked us to do. Increasingly, I think
we are no longer concerned with the long term but with the now,
the new, the immediate, recognizing that what we do will be here
today and gone tomorrow and feeling no discomfort about that.
What counts today is the size of the splash one can make, the
amount of publicity, the number of people who hear about what you
do. I'd say we are witnessing a shift from permanence to

A few instances from the hundreds one could marshall:

Under previous editors, the _New Yorker_'s aim was to publish
writing of such quality that it could be read anytime in the
indefinite future. In the last few years, driven by falling
circulation, the aim has become to cover at length the most
recent craze. To cover very well, to be sure, but who will
be reading today's _New Yorker_ writers the way we read John
McPhee or E. B. White?

This week's change in the _New York Times_ from the good gray
"newspaper of record" to a brightly colored imitation of
_U.S.A. Today_, again, chasing a lost market.

Our Dean has this year begun a list in his monthly newsletter
giving high prominence to those faculty mentioned in the
media, greater prominence than to those who publish this or

Peter Gay subtitles his great biography of Freud, "A Life for
our Time." Would a 19C biographer have done so?

When I read current criticism or theory (not, to be sure,
medieval or Renaissance scholarship), I rarely see any
references cited that are more than ten years old. It is as
though the scholars and critics who led the field in the
'50s, '60s, and '70s have simply vanished.

In my own lifetime as a critic, I have the witnessed the
following "waves" of scholarly orthodoxy: philology;
intellectual and literary history; the New Criticism; theory;
critical studies (politics). That's a lot, surely, for forty
years. Do they reflect real changes in ideas or simply a
need to do something new, more "visible"?

I'm particularly interested in publication on the Internet as
marking the change, because I edit a peer-reviewed e-journal,
PSYART, only one of many peer-reviewed journals online. When you
publish an article on the Net, you expose it to an audience,
potentially, of millions (not that millions would be interested
in your reading of Donne, but they have access). To the extent
that people learn of your ideas, you achieve a kind of
permanence, the kind that a memorable broadcast, like Orson
Welles' Halloween hoax, does: lots of people carry it in their
minds. To the extent that people download your essay and
treasure it in their files, you achieve another kind of
permanence. But in exchange, you give up traditional "library"
permanence. URLs disappear or move or become unavailable. An
Internet article is not irrevocable; it can be updated easily.
It can be moved, copied, deleted, changed, plagiarized, melded
with another essay--whatever--to a far greater degree than could
an article in the heavy bound volumes sitting on our shelves.
Yet the advantages of e-publication in cost and convenience and,
yes, wide audience, are overwhelming. One more example: our
university president wants radical cuts in the budget for print
journals and a corresponding increase in budget for electronic
media, and he's right.

Why such a change from repository permanence to the temporary
permanence of broadcasting? I would nominate the usual suspects:
the media, notably television; the constant consumerist push to
have something new and different; the commercial need for more
and more sales; the pressure on faculty to publishing anything
and everything; simply the technological change in the speed with
which we do things over the course of the century, radio vs.
letters, air vs. train, word processor vs. typewriter.

I don't mean to sound like a disgruntled, aging walrus. I will
confess to some discomfort with this shift in our idea of
permanence, but frankly I am more curious about its sources and
its future than regretful. I do not think it makes sense to
judge this shift good or ill, better or worse than the previous
state of mind. I think one simply has to recognize it as a
change in the _Zeitgeist_, a very profound change in one of our
fundamental psychological traits, our sense of time or continuity
or permanence. What is interesting to me, and a bit amusing, is
that it should have started in the frenzies of New York and
Washington and Hollywood (and Bollywood!) but percolated quite
rapidly, all things considered, to the formerly quiet groves of
--Best, Norm
| Norman N. Holland Department of English / P. O. Box 117310 |
| University of Florida Gainesville FL 32611-7310 |
| Tel: (352) 377-0096 Fax: (352) 378-9318 or (352) 392-0860 |
| (352) 392-7332 email: norman-holland@ufl.edu |
| World Wide Web: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/nnh |

Humanist Discussion Group
Information at <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>