In this lively and provocative book, cultural critic Marjorie Garber, who has written on topics as different as Shakespeare, dogs, cross-dressing, and real estate, explores the pleasures and pitfalls of the academic life. Academic Instincts discusses three of the perennial issues that have surfaced in recent debates about the humanities: the relation between "amateurs" and "professionals," the relation between one academic discipline and another, and the relation between "jargon" and "plain language." Rather than merely taking sides, the book explores the ways in which such debates are essential to intellectual life. Garber argues that the very things deplored or defended in discussions of the humanities cannot be either eliminated or endorsed because the discussion itself is what gives humanistic thought its vitality.Written in spirited and vivid prose, and full of telling detail drawn both from the history of scholarship and from the daily press, Academic Instincts is a book by a well-known Shakespeare scholar and prize-winning teacher who offers analysis rather than polemic to explain why today's teachers and scholars are at once breaking new ground and treading familiar paths. It opens the door to an important nationwide and worldwide conversation about the reorganization of knowledge and the categories in and through which we teach the humanities. And it does so in a spirit both generous and optimistic about the present and the future of these disciplines.
If leftist critics bash universities as sports crazy and profit mad, right-wingers often depict them as more interested in trendy multiculturalism than classic truths. How refreshing, then, to have Garber's perspective, according to which neither the left nor the right is asking the pertinent questions. Garber (Sex and Real Estate; Dog Love; etc.), a Harvard English professor, thinks like a cultural anthropologist as she looks beyond the surface products of academe and studies what academicians really do. The most effective of them, she finds, are "professional amateurs"; she offers the case of Harold Bloom, originally the author of footnote-encrusted, hard-to-read texts on Romantic poets and now an accessible authority on virtually everything literary. The various disciplines, too, are at their best when they push beyond their narrow boundaries, because "their desire is for genius, and genius... does not follow given rules or tread familiar paths." Disciplines keep a close eye on each other, writes Garber, both out of envy as well as the desire to commingle, as the great philosophers do with important figures of the past in Raphael's painting of The School of Athens. Recognizing this transcendent urge on the part of both the individual scholar and the various disciplines makes Garber much more sympathetic to jargon than other contemporary writers on academe, describing harsh-seeming technical terms as "language in action." Liberally sprinkling her prose with names ranging from Kierkegaard to Oprah Winfrey, Garber suggests that smugness and stasis are the real enemies in academe, not football and political correctness. The professor's life is not a position but a practice, and Garber practices, with gusto, everything that she preaches. Even better, she does so with commendable brevity as well as grace, and anyone interested in academic life or intellectual life in general will appreciate her fresh perspective. (Jan.)
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Princeton University Press
August 17, 2003
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Excerpt from Academic Instincts by Marjorie Garber
THE AMATEUR PROFESSIONAL
THE PROFESSIONAL AMATEUR
Criticism, is, I take it, the formal discourse of an amateur. --R. P. BLACKMUR
THE ELECTION of Jesse ("The Body") Ventura, a former professional wrestler and radio talk-show host, as governor of Minnesota was described by the New York Times as an example of "the lure of inspired amateurism."1 But of course American politicians have often tried to present themselves as amateurs, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. Politics is a dirty business, and a professional politician an object of suspicion. Better to have a background in something, almost anything, else.
Like sports, for example. Former Senator Bill Bradley was a professional basketball player. Jack Kemp, a former housing secretary and candidate for vice president, was an NFL quarterback. Representative Steve Largent, the top draw for Republican fund-raisers in 1998, was a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. J. C. (Julius Caesar) Watts II was a college football star. "Let's hear it for the athlete as president!" said tennis player John McEnroe at a fund-raising rally in Madison Square Garden for candidate Bradley.2 Or consider, at least in the state of California, politicians from the world of entertainment. Not only Ronald Reagan but Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, George Murphy--and even, briefly, Warren Beatty. Or business. Think of the campaigns of Steve Forbes and Ross Perot, and even the trial balloon sent up by Donald Trump--all candidates who presented themselves as can-do men untainted by politics, bringing the power of their success in the marketplace to bear on national problems.
Disinterestedness seems to be an implied corollary of inexperience--or at least, inexperience in the particular profession to which the candidate aspired. Inexperience is just the experience the electorate often values most in its politicians. Amateur status, at least on the surface, seems to be a guarantor of virtue. Leave the rough stuff behind the scenes to the political operatives and the media consultants.
Still, it might be said, and quite properly, that politics is an unfair example. We don't so much value amateur surgeons, for example, or amateur lawyers. We live in a world of professionals and professionalization, from big league sports to massage therapy. Even something apparently impossible to professionalize, like "motivational speaking," is a high-paying job, performed by migrating professionals from other fields: Colin Powell, a retired army general and former chief of staff; Naomi Judd, a country-and-western singer; Terry Bradshaw, the former quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers; Mary Lou Retton, a gold-medal Olympic gymnast.
What I want to try to establish at the outset, though, is that, like the terms of any binary opposition, amateur and professional (1) are never fully equal, and (2) are always in each other's pockets. They produce each other and they define each other by mutual affinities and exclusions. One is always preferred to the other ("it's better to be an amateur"; "it's better to be a professional"), but the preference is not consistent over time. Indeed, what is most fascinating is the way in which these terms circulate to make the fortunes of the one rise higher than the fortunes of the other, while determinedly resisting the sense that one is always the necessary condition for the other.
Not only are they mutually interconnected. Part of their power comes from the disavowal of the close affinity between them.
Playing for Love
The apparent opposition of the terms "professional" and "amateur" is perhaps most familiar to us from the culture of sports, where until fairly recently "amateur" had a certain cachet and a certain association with the upper classes. The amateur was idealized as playing for "love"--love of the game, love of country, love of school. The professional, by contrast, played for advancement and for money.
In sport after sport, from football to boxing, the amateur/ professional distinction was once built in as part of the class structure of the sport. Amateurs were gentlemen; professionals were upstarts, class jumpers, and roughnecks. Aristocrats and gentry engaged in sporting events with the assistance of servants. Hunters had "gillies" or "beaters" to flush the game they shot, as well as gamekeepers to prevent poaching. Golfers were accompanied by "caddies," paid attendants who carried their clubs.
Here are a few examples of how this divide has been negotiated:
� Rugby associations at the end of the nineteenth century took steps to root out the "veiled professional," by which was meant the working-class player. "The Rugby name, as its name implies, sprang from our public schools," remarked one amateur rugby player and cricketer.