I recently had an exchange of mails with my mentor and friend Zyg Barański, who supervised my PhD. Zyg had been kind enough to notice our project and he wrote that he had ‘perused it with awe, respect, and perplexity’. Indeed, he expressed the wish that ‘something of our shared intellectual journey may be found in one of its minor byways…’
I wrote back:
Thanks for the nice words about me and Marie’s project. Of course, I know it’s also narcissistic wank — or at least a form of couple therapy cringingly being performed in public. As it happens, you’re in it already…at least in as much as I feel I need to theorize what we’re doing in response to what I think of as the “philologist’s objection”…
The philologist’s objection
Zyg was a generous supervisor in very many ways, among which was the fact that he didn’t expect me to work as he did, even though he certainly believes his approach to be the best, even in a sense the only correct one. He describes himself as a philologist and a historicist, meaning in this case a scholar who pays intensive attention to the detail of texts and believes that meaning is only graspable by reference to linguistic and historical context. I share with Zyg this desire to account for the conditions of meaning in context and an impatience with Theory when it’s presented as a totalizing system that can account for everything, so that any phenomenon that comes under its purview only becomes an illustration of itself. But I’m (genuinely) ashamed to say there has always something of the wilful in my own work, in that I’ve never been one to let evidence get in the way of intuition. This certainly makes some of my stuff dreadful in retrospect—over-reaching and posturing when not actively wrongheaded. And I remember Zyg once reported a dictum of his own mentor, the great linguist Giulio Lepsky (a man who had read everything, according to Zyg), which had it that there is philology and all the rest is just chat. Philology adds knowledge, while mere chat (re)produces opinion; philology forms facts that can be tested or contested, while mere chat perpetuates prejudice under the guise of politics.
‘This is just chat’ is, then, the philologist’s objection. Zyg didn’t say it of our project, but I’m voicing it for him, and for all those academic colleagues who share Zyg’s perplexity at our work, perhaps without feeling any of the awe or respect he charitably claims. I will have to answer (to) these colleagues at some point, if I want to keep my job. And with that in mind, your task this time is to answer the philologist’s objection on my behalf.
Clarify what this project shows or knows that couldn’t be accessed in any other way.
You have just one obstruction: you are not allowed to use conventional explanatory prose in your response; but you still have to persuade Zyg!