Blogs > Cliopatria > The Polyglot Manifesto I

May 19, 2006 6:08 pm

The Polyglot Manifesto I

Mr. Ahmed is a PhD candidate in History of South Asia at University of Chicago. He blogs at Cliopatria and Chapati Mystery.

During the last few weeks, I have had occasion to think seriously about my discipline, my scholarship and my future. At Chicago, we had a conference recently on the Fate of the Disciplines [scroll down to Recent Events] at which many luminaries wrung their hands and burrowed their brows - worried that money and the right wing will soon destroy the Humanities. Sadly, the brilliantly organized conference had no space for those that might actually be responsible for the fate of the discipline - new and recent graduates - but never mind that. One highlight was the talk given by Sheldon Pollock who was, as always, brilliant and intriguing. He spoke of the fate of philology in the humanities. Of service departments and lack of rigorous training in languages. Of what happens when the historian is not a polyglot. And of what happens when the scholar does not inhabit the present. Pollock told us to do philology that is aware of the moment - of the political. The history I study, a friend said to me afterwards, is so far removed from the present that no way I could ever make it relevant. But, my answer was, you are not so far removed from the present. It was Pollock's last point that stuck with me. What does it mean to be a humanist today? What does it mean, to me, to be a historian?

It is not an idle question. To be honest, the usual concerns have never occupied my thoughts. Will I get a job? Will I publish enough? Will I get tenure? Perhaps, it is because that I have had a job as long as I have been in graduate school that the profession-as-trade dynamic has never taken root within me. Who am I, as a scholar? What is my role within my community? What are my responsibilities to the public? Those questions, when I had a moment to think about them, were much more intriguing to me. In a sense, as a historian, I am interested in translation - moving from one language to another, from academy to the public. I am interested in speaking, as Jaroslav Pelikan's astounding essay put it, past-ese and present-ese.

I admit that the only time I had heard of Pelikan was when he was co-awarded the Kluge Prize along with Paul Ricoeur. I promised myself that I will read Pelikan and even purchased his Whose Bible Is it?, but, never got around to it. Caleb, in a recent thread at Cliopatria noting Pelikan's passing away, recommended an essay from 1993, The Historian as Polyglot - an address given to the American Philospohical Society on their 250th anniversary. The entire essay is an example of the clarity of thought and ideas so lacking in people like me who want to call ourselves historians.

Akin to Pollock's call to philology, Pelikan talks about the necessary task of the historian:

The historian of ideas needs to be able - and, in some recognizable measure, still is able - to understand one or more of the dialects of past-ese, and by an act of historical imagination to serve as an interpreter of them,"interpreter" being, insterestingly, the very word we use both for the translator and for the historian".
That is as well a function of being a historical polyglot and of learning the language I have been calling here past-ese: to put our own present-ese into perspective, not by claiming to be able to jump out of our own skin, which is physically impossible, but by demonstrating the difference between the body and the mind precisely in this, that we are able in consiberable measure to jump out of our own mind-set, and thus (to invoke as well an even newer dialect of present-ese, the language of computer-ese) that we are able to"toggle" between past-ese and present-ese

Pelikan is concerned with the role of historian and historiography but the idea of 'interpreter' can be stretched both inside the university to communications between various disciplines as well as outside the university to our actions as political and social members of society. Do note the deliciousness of his usage of computer jargon in his conclusion for my purpose here, today.

There is nothing new in the notion about scholars as public intellectuals - Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Bernard Lewis, Cornel West etc. - are readily available examples. Yet, the fact that all of the people I cited are highly polarizing figures illustrates, to me, the reticence of the average scholar to engage with the public. It is not hard to see why. The economy of mass-communication demanded sound-bites, telegenic personalities, rhetoric - all the things that a diligent scholar would avoid like the plague [especially the telegenic part]. Those that sought the glow of television cameras, had facility with words and felt fine prognosticating in op-eds got their share of snark [does anyone remember Larry Summers checklisting Cornel West's scholarship?]. Added to all that, was the severe work of it. A scholar had to seek contacts, build networks, do the things that keeps one on the journalist's rolodesk - all for no glory. No extra points come tenure time [if, ie., you were foolish enough to even say your name out loud before you got tenure].

However, mass-communication [does anyone even use that term anymore?] certainly has changed since then [you can define 'then' however you like]. We live, as O'Reilly tags it, in a Web 2.0 world. Two recent developments have profoundly changed the world of knowledge.

1. Mass digitization - through Google Library, Gutenberg Project, Digital Library projects, etc.

2. Mass publication - through wikis, blogs, tags, etc.

In this brave new world, then, what does it mean to be a humanist? What does it mean, to me, to be a historian? It should be plain that what I have in mind is the notion of a socially-engaged scholar. But, how? And to what scholarly benefit?

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Gregory Crane - a Classicist and the founder of the Perseus Project, one of the most significant digital project in all of humanities. His talk was about the digitization projects at Google, Yahoo etc. as well as Perseus Project [do see his article, What Do You Do With a Million Books?]. More significantly for me, he talked about the future of humanities - of our audiences and how will we 'talk' to them. In his talk, was the other version of a polyglot, the"Connector" - people who can stand between humanities and computer scientists - who can guide the digital channels. But, why, what is at stake? Why should someone studying 12th c. Sanskrit or medieval Indo-persian culture care about computer science geeks? Because mass-digitization is just inchoate without us as translators. It is also not something that will pause and reflect whether the sanskrit and persian sources are being done at all, or rightly.

The humanist has no choice, none, but to speak this language and to help create this knowledge system. The cost of non-action is annihilation - and I am not being over-dramatic. The concern is grave, indeed, for those of us who already are in super-sub-sects of disciplinary creeds. How will we compete? How will we attract funding? Those 12th c. Sanskrit texts must be scanned, must be annotated, must be re-imagined in their digital avatars. That medieval indo-persian culture needs digital archives and networks of scholars and readers. The computer scientist does not know the head of a critical digital edition from the tale of a critical digital edition. It is our job to engage with them. To be the interpreter. It is also, keenly, our scholarship. A blog may not get you tenure points. But a Digital Archive on Indo-Persian Culture will.

Let me conclude by saying just this: I am not speaking as someone aglow with the nirvana of technology nor am I offering a digitize or perish screed. I am simply talking about myself and the way I understand my discipline of choice. To engage with the public does not mean to just get on Charlie Rose. It also means to create a digital archive that is accessible to the general public. It means to construct networks of knowledge between various disciplines and share structural information. It means to practice philology. It means to be a polyglot. It means to not only speak past-ese and present-ese but also, future-ese.

[ x-posted at ]

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