Guest post: Contemplating the end(s) of scholarship (HUMANITIES TODAY)

POxy.v0023.n2368.a.01.hires“Well-manned flower of holy Athens”: Aristarchus claims that the song is dithyrambic because it includes the story of Cassandra and he entitles it “Cassandra”, and he says that Callimachus made a mistake in classing it among the Paeans, not understanding that the refrain is common to dithyrambs also; similarly Dionysius of Phaselis. (P.Oxy. 2368, col. i)

You`ve just read a fragment of an ancient Greek scholarly commentary on the poems of Bacchylides, conserved on the scraps of a 2nd century AD papyrus. For the hardcore classicist, this is a precious glimpse into the lost world of Hellenistic erudition. Scholarly editions and classifications, terminological polemics, transmission of knowledge through references and quotes, abbreviation and compilation of authoritative opinions: an intellectual fabric which could seem essentially familiar to a modern humanities scholar, despite the obscure topic and the absence of proper footnotes. After all, the mirage of the lost libraries of Antiquity and the reinvention of philologia in the Renaissance played a key role in the development of academia – and who wouldn`t indulge a bit in the idea of continuing, more or less directly, the heritage of ancient scholars? However, the hardcore classicist should also be the first to point out the hiatus between ancient Greco-Roman scholarship and our higher education & research establishment. From writing materials and institutional articulation to its very ends as an intellectual pursuit (as far as we know them), ancient scholarship represents not just a past paradigm, but a fundamentally different tradition, which lived its life and eventually died out together with the socio-political and symbolic systems in which it was rooted. No wonder that, even for the same well-intentioned classicist, some ancient polemics may seem irreducibly alien, naïve or convoluted, if we judge them with the standards of our humanities. While some traditionalists may resent this alterity as a bitter sentence, I actually think that this difference provides us with the rare luxury of an independent case-study through which we might better understand our own scholarly tradition and its often clamoured late 20th -century crisis.

Critical approaches of individual research domains have been everywhere for thirty years by now, and the idea of a loose comparison of today`s intellectual landscape with the ancient scholarly tradition has also been circulating for some time on a more-or-less anecdotic level. But how many of these critical studies explore a network of knowledge to its full extent, from theoretical models to gossips, from ideological standpoints to the very form of the published text and all those subtle details which make it look truly “professional”? How would a study on the transmission of knowledge in a modern branch of humanities look like, if we were to use the tools of classicists who analyse Greco-Roman scholarship? Will the transition from text to hypertext prove as crucial and/or destructive as the one from scroll to codex, almost 2000 years ago? And what about the undeniable publishing inflation recorded in these last decades? In case you thought our scholars are proficient, you might like to know that the Aristarchus cited at the very beginning of this post wrote, according to some sources, no less than 800 scholarly commentaries (hypomnemata). None of them survives today.

These, I think, are only a few reasonable questions in a viable research project. But since this post can only serve as a leaned-back starting point for a complex discussion, I would go beyond the methodologically correct and challenge for once my readers to imagine the end of contemporary scholarship. Neither as a science-fiction scenario, nor as a culturally relativist vanitas vanitatum, but as an introspection into our personal understanding of the true ends of research in humanities. Imagine your scholarly articles being read with the same eyes you read about the polemics between Callimachus, Aristarchus and Dionysius (for the sake of the argument, classicists please abstain). And then, perhaps, radically abridged for the needs of a society with no universities or research centres as we knew them. As far as I`m concerned, this just gave me an idea for a future post…

Translation of the Greek commentary: Ian Rutherford, Pindar`s Paeans. A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre, Oxford/New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2001, p. 97 (slightly modified).

Photo credits: P. Oxy. XXIII, 2368, Oxyrhynchus Online

by Theodor E. Ulieriu-Rostás, PhD candidate in Ancient History at EHESS Paris and the University of Bucharest.

This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector


10 thoughts on “Guest post: Contemplating the end(s) of scholarship (HUMANITIES TODAY)

  1. „Will the transition from text to hypertext prove as crucial and/or destructive as the one from scroll to codex, almost 2000 years ago?”

    I’m guessing I’m lacking some background on this affirmation, but I don’t understand how upgrading the medium of information transmission to hypertext, will prove destructive. I’d appreciate an insight from the author.

    Even so, we shouldn’t forget that hypertext brings other collateral benefits than just the ease of access.
    It facilitates a work’s dissemination and it improves the means of collaboration between similar authors, and not lastly, guarantees infinite life (safe for the end of civilization, maybe).

  2. I am not sure if this was Theo’s intention, but the way I understand it (and I have to say I also agree) is the idea that changing the medium of the information changes 2 aspects: our relationship with the text (and our understanding of what a text is), and subsequently the inter-personal relationships facilitated/mediated by/through the text and the material object (book etc.). Changing the materiality of the medium, a transition to hypertext will not lead to a loss of information in quantitative terms, but to a loss regarding the value/quality we assign to the process of acquiring it: what can be experienced through reading a book, turning pages one by one, having to look through an entire content to see if this matches your interest, can be replaced by a quick search of key words through the internet. It is true that saving time or finding connections and extra information helped by the computer can be of valuable help, but this replaces the personal relationship we have with the text if we physically hold it in our hands and store it in our book-case. A text is also a smell (of the book covers), is bounded by covers (which mark its material limits in the world) etc. Also, one thing is to hold in your hands the embodied work of an author, and another to see a name on a screen, one like many others, a label on a piece of information. The text becomes information, and not so much a story. I am not sure if I am managing to make my point understood, but in short this is it.

    1. I will agree with you if you change “text” to “work” as in, the work is more than the text.
      The work is the sum, and maybe more than the sum of the text itself (and of course not limited just to text), the medium, the context of its creation and the context of its reception.

      By this definition, changing the medium, not only changes the work, but transforms it completely to a new one.

      I, on the other hand, considered the problem though a pragmatic point of view, where the text was just the text, and by moving it to a more modern medium we just prolong its life and bring some of the other benefits I mentioned.

  3. PS: In addition, what a friend studying medieval texts, their transmission and reception, for those type of texts the experience of “reading” them was much more complicating, as there were several codes embedded, multiple ways of reading and interpreting which lead to various truths. Thus, reading (or listening to) them meant creating meaning, literally, and not a simple passing of information. Or better said it was information as wisdom and not as facts.

    1. Good example, Alexandra, for it probably wouldn’t be too much to say that reading by an large survived that. I reckon it will also survive its losing the smell dimension, surely.

  4. Thank you all for your interesting comments, I`m really glad to have opened this discussion. I see that the idea of a destructive side of a transition from one medium of textual “storage” to another has caught your attention – perhaps more than I would have stressed it myself, but the question seems altogether viable to me. Ideally, such a transition should not lead to losses in quantitative terms, as Alexandra observed, but in reality, this might well turn to be a side-effect, as long as the entire process is governed by cultural demand and selection.

    1. The transition from scroll to codex could prove destructive in the sense that texts deemed not interesting enough to be copied in the new medium were more likely to be lost at an earlier date, as soon as they were excluded from the new transmission chain. This might look like an overstatement, but the fact that not even one single scroll survived in medieval libraries seems to warrant at least one part of the argument. Dan, the idea pops up in classical textbooks such as Reynolds and Wilson`s “Scribes and Scholars” (p. 35, who speaks of the “first major bottle-neck” in the transmission of ancient literature) or Roberts and Skeats` “The Birth of the Codex” (p. 75), but with the references I have at hand, I couldn`t say if it was ever discussed in extenso. Actually, I`m looking for such a discussion, if you ever come across one.

    2. As for the transition to hypertext, please don`t get me wrong: I`m not at all a hypertext skeptic, only a worried hypertext user. 🙂 Since scanning and digitisation still comes down to the human selection of texts, the potential danger is out there. Things are going pretty well for the moment and yes, digitisation appears to be sometimes the last hope for endangered libraries – see the recent Timbuktu case. But still, networks and servers are perishable (without equating this to the end of civilization), and the whole file format & compatibility issue (which is already causing problems in libraries which went digital in the early 1980s, as I hear) transforms the entire process into a much more complex chain of mini-transitions. Will we still read .pdf files in 2050? I fear that a massive change in file formats might turn out to be a much more efficient bottle-neck than the purported scroll-codex one.

    And this is just the quantitative side, as Alexandra has well said.

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