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The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Two Desks and Multiple Definitions

In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production. “To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. […]

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John Baldessari, The Meaning of Various News Photos to Ed Henderson, 1973     Photo courtesy Video Data Bank

In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production.

“To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angels or virtue – who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with the exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.”

And so begins the opening lines of Canadian poet, Greek classicist, and scholar Anne Carson in her short text “The Life of Towns.” I hesitate in how I should describe this text to you: should these opening lines be described as a short essayistic poem or a poetic essay? As readers, and particularly readers of Carson’s writing, the division between the scholarly essay and the poetic form is not always identifiable. Nonfiction writing by authors such as John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Nan Shepherd, and Robert McFarlane similarly attest to the porosity of scholarship and poetry, where moments of intense metaphor, narrative, imagistic writing, might lead us to rethink systems. And, by equal turns, close analytical writing adjacent to moments of poetic license might allow us “to see the lines that are there,” in Carson’s words.

In a rare early interview, Carson admitted to having two desks in her house: one for writing poetry, one for writing scholarship. The division was clearly personally significant, even if it isn’t always so clear (or crucial, even) to the reader. But like the clarity of two desks, the division between art and scholarship tends to be sharp. To put it bluntly: in place of poetic text, there is the art object. And so, as a term, scholarship remains fairly distinct as the analytical or systematic “reading” of the art object. Here is the object; there is the text about the object.

While it’s safe to say that the definition of the art object cannot be clarified here (nor should it), I want to identify what we might mean by this other, seemingly more stable term “scholarship.” The word unsurprisingly comes from the Greek σχολαστικός, which can be translated as “that which belongs to the school.” I find the Greek root term especially interesting because the difference between the school, the schoolmen, and the school pupils in this scenario is not entirely clear. In any case, it identifies a core principle of learning, though who is learning, who is learned, and what is learned is nebulous. Learning, then, is taking place.

The dissemination of Greek learning was via the format of “scholarly instruction.” This was a three-step process. The first part, called lectio, comprised a reading of a text; the second, meditatio, was a reflection upon said text; and finally the third, quaestiones, was the group’s responses to the text. This structure is essentially unchanged in its current form of the public lecture, the artist’s talk, or a filmmaker’s question-and-answer format that often follows a screening of the work where the filmmaker is present in the audience. The German word for “scholarship” is Wissenschaft and is a bit more specific than the Greek in that it can be translated literally as “knowledge.” More specific still, the German Forscher is a “research scholar.” But in its current English use, “scholarship” can be defined as the systematic pursuit of knowledge and learning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s landmark 1837 speech “The American Scholar” is a key text in identifying the characteristics of modern scholarship — crucial, in fact, for extending the analytical role to one of invention. “There is,” Emerson declares, “creative reading as well as creative writing.” His personal definition of scholarship broadens the purely systematic aspects of the scholar’s dependencies on primary texts and objects, into one of active participation, original production, and influence. Indeed, “The American Scholar” might allow us to arrive at definitions for the contemporary scholar: an individual who maps and engages with the migration of information and art; who is attentive to the contexts in which art occurs, and the unique temporal pressures that affects such the production of culture. As for my own definition, I would also fold in the enterprises of the editor, curator, and publisher. These are figures that each provides intermediary roles between information and knowledge, artist and audience.

The shifting definition of what scholarship is and what it might entail presents a unique set of interests in relation to the contemporary scholar’s approach to artists’ moving image – the position in which I now find myself (“film scholar” encapsulates a myriad of mediums: video, celluloid, installation, monitor and projection, to name only the most basic of distinctions). The key, then, is to admit that the contemporary scholar is one who endeavors to show facts amidst appearances by taking a position, while also holding on to the paradox that any position must be constantly revised in order to be accurate and responsive to the work, text, film or subject at hand. This is a peculiar period for contemporary scholarship; we live in an era that is both one of instant historicization and constant revision. Scholarship must reflect this. The formal distinctions between the desk of art and the desk of scholarship are useful in setting out starting positions, but one must admit that sometimes, maybe now more than ever, it’s useful to push the desks together.

Read “The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Part 2: The Filmic Essay”