Novel Ideas

We Have Always Been Romantic


Though literary scholars may investigate and complicate authorship as an object of study—what it means to be an author in a particular place, time, and culture—they rarely venture under the scaffolding of their own authorship as a subject.  We recognize that the Romantic notion of authorship still exerts considerable influence on our production, dissemination, and reception of texts; “the mystification of original genius” and the “transcendental signifier” of authorial personality, Mark Rose contends, were the endgame of eighteenth century debates and litigation over copyright and intellectual property (128). However willingly scholars explore alternate models of authorship, we quarantine our own in an assumed model that, regardless of the rhetoric and sloganeering of professionalization that often clothe it, relies on a Romantic notion of the individuated ego delivering his unique thoughts to the world and therefore moving it forward in a deterministic model of history. As Percy Shelley famously declares, “[p]oets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

According to the conventional wisdom, academics must “publish or perish.” As a result, the pressure to publish and contribute “new” ideas to our field continues to grow—not just in the way of publishing more frequently, but also in the way of publishing as early as possible. First-year graduate students have never had to worry so much about whether they are torpedoing their job (or even tenure) prospects years down the road. At first glance, the free market logic of professionalization seems to promote quality and even innovative work. The “sink or swim” imperative drives individuals to produce the best work possible—better work, at least, than they would have produced if the stakes weren’t as high.

Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t play out in practice. Mark Bauerlein, et. al. observe that despite “astounding growth in the sheer output of research findings and conclusions” (par. 1) and the rosy conclusions that optimists may draw from it, “the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs” (par. 4). Moreover, Frank Donoghue reports in The Last Professors that only 2% of published research is cited in subsequent published research (50). If the Romantic author (a.k.a. the professionalized scholar) seeks to contribute unique knowledge and methods to a field, the professionalization of this model of authorship writ large begins to work against what it purportedly seeks to accomplish. In many ways, scholars—especially young scholars—are like the speaker of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, wondering who, if we cry out, will hear us among the scholarly hierarchies.

The problem isn’t lost on Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who provocatively challenges the Romantic model of scholarly authorship in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. “Digital publishing of necessity bears profound implications for our assumptions about the originality that authorship implies,” she argues, which leads her ask, “[h]ow can our texts possibly remain unique, discrete, original in an environment so thoroughly determined by the copy?” (76). Pointing to the postmodern death of the author and the pop-culture practice of sampling (78-9), Fitzpatrick proposes “that in the age of the network, the editorial or curatorial labor of bringing together texts and ideas might be worth as much as, perhaps even more than, the production of new texts” (79-80).

Fitzpatrick importantly leads us to reassess what constitutes scholarship and argumentation, and once again we see that we could use a healthy dose of “practice what you preach.” In the field of rhetoric and composition, we are taught and we teach our students that arguments are made in many ways, and we would do well to apply the same insight to our own work. To get to the point, I would emphasize that arrangement makes an argument just as much as exposition does. Jerome McGann adumbrates such a position when he “suggest[s] how editions may constitute a theoretical presentation. Their totalized factive committments gives them a privilege unavailable to the speculative or interpretive essay or monograph” (par. 14).

Ideally, the curatorial logos should make more sense than a 19th century curiosity cabinet or a 20th century conspiracy theory enthusiast's basement wall

In my own field, a researcher is faced with the daunting task of saying something “new” about Wordsworth, Byron, etc. Even long-neglected writers such as Charlotte Smith now enjoy a dauntingly large body of scholarship and commentary. If we can’t unearth a writer or text that has received scant critical attention, we find ourselves hard-pressed to legislate the discourse of our field. Some might offer the “interdisciplinary turn” as a third option, but Louis Menand compellingly argues that interdisciplinarity is no more than hyperdisciplinarity by which scholars “just shout at each other from the mountaintops” (120). Similar to the turn to historically neglected authors and texts, interdisciplinarity legitimizes one’s work by avoiding subjects that have been treated extensively, in this case through a convergence of multiple lines of specific inquiry.

Recently at Ohio State, Leah Price led a graduate student workshop and gave a public lecture on her latest project, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian BritainOne of the comments that she made during the workshop and that has stuck with me since is that she considers literary criticism to be a “second order discipline.” By that she means that literary critics look to some other field(s)–linguistics in the 1960s, continental philosophy in the 1970s and 80s, and history beginning in the 1980s and 90s–to legitimize their work. I don’t mean to launch a polemic against interdisciplinarity, but I do mean to question it as a qualitatively different kind of scholarship and authorship.

Widespread and institutionalized curatorial scholarship would move us away from Romantic authorship because it emphasizes systemic over individual thinking and methodologies. On the other hand, established archival projects still operate within the ethos of Romantic authorship. As Fitzpatrick observes, The Walt Whitman Archive, The William Blake Archive, The Swinburne Project, et. al. organize the scholarly database around the figure of the individual author. While Fitzpatrick concerns herself with the problem of research efficiency and archival coordination (101), I would point to the unexplored paradigms of systemic analysis beyond the oeuvre or corpus of the individual author.

The face of the author dominates the homepage of The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Ken Price

A few years ago, I submitted an article manuscript to a leading journal in my field. The journal quickly—too quickly, in fact, to have sent the manuscript to outside readers—mailed me a rejection letter that described my manuscript as more of an anthology than an article. It’s true; I expended a great amount of ink and energy bringing a lot of texts into conversation with each other—poems, political writing, memoir, images, news accounts, etc. While I don’t mean to say that the journal was wrong for passing on my manuscript,1 Fitzpatrick leads me to view the situation as running up against not just the “house” preferences or editorial vision of a particular journal, but also an entrenched model of scholarship and authorship. By “We Have Always Been Romantic” I mean to evoke the spirit of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern; curatorial methodology and authorship present a unique opportunity to grow beyond what we might too easily imagine that we’ve already outgrown.

—Trey Conatser


1. Interestingly, however, the rejection letter addressed me as “Ms.” I suppose that because my manuscript focused on a woman as she was represented in poetry written mostly by women, the editor assumed that I was a woman. I feel like there may have been other gender assumptions in play with respect to my methodology, but I don’t want to open that can of worms.

Works Cited

Bauerlein, Mark, et. al. “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 13 June 2010. Web. 01 April 2012.

Donoghue, Frank. The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Print.

McGann, Jerome. “Imagining What You Don’t Know: The Theoretical Goals of the Rossetti Archive.” The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Web. 03 April 2012.

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

Shelley, Percy. “A Defense of Poetry (1821).” Poetry Foundation. Web. 01 April 2012.