A professor in my department is retiring in a couple of weeks, and he left a few hundred of his old books out for us students to take. Vulturing through this vast and dusty pile the other day, I was struck by a couple of things: 1) the large number of dated, obscure critical theory books, and 2) the fact that, at the end of his career, this guy had just decided to ditch them all.
It was kind of a sobering sight, and I’ve been weighing various responses to it. I’ve come up with three:
- Despair: this is where my work, if it ever gets published, will wind up in 30 years – on a table amidst other dusty relics, too old and obscure to sell or even interest grad students. This one’s an obvious trap. I shall avoid it.
- Ambition: this won’t be my fate! I’ll become a Big Name! My work will endure! There are two problems with this one: it’s arrogant (and who needs more arrogant academics), and it’s impossible (there’s no way to predict how your work will be received).
- Self-reliance: if this is the likely fate of my work as a critic, then I might as well produce stuff I really like and am proud of. Something I would want to read, at least. And the third bowl of porridge was just right!
This isn’t so much a revelation as a reminder, but I’ve found that writing my dissertation – which is largely a struggle to establish my voice – is making me appreciate aphorisms.