Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Genius

While thinking about the book I need to write, I recently noticed a telling affinity between my two strongest role models, Steve Fuller and Jonathan Mayhew. Their influence on me is very different, and I came to their work from very different angles, so it is reassuring to discover a similarity of Anschauung. My book, I realized, will resemble Steve's Thomas Kuhn and Jonathan's Apocryphal Lorca quite closely. It will be a study of the reception of an influential twentieth-century intellectual figure and, like my models, it will focus on the reception of the work: its context, not its content. (As Jonathan puts it, "This book is not about the Spanish playwright and poet Frederico García Lorca.") My models are exemplary in many ways, not least their choice of publisher: Chicago University Press, arguably the most prestigious academic press in the world. But that is not the affinity I want to emphasize here.

What Steve and Jonathan share is a constructivism about genius. They both reject the idea that genius explains influence and suggest, to the contrary, that the cult of genius is a largely insidious influence on culture. As Steve puts its, "genius is an occult mental property superstitiously projected backwards to explain the cause of deeds that have already had a remarkable effect on us" (TK, xi). Jonathan, meanwhile, is "skeptical of approaches that rely too heavily on the romantic ideas of 'genius'" (AL, 1), and which have turned Lorca, he argues, into "a semidivine figure of inspiration rather than a poet like any other" (AL, 181). Both then set out to "construct" their object in the light of their reception in a particular context. Kuhn is constructed in the context of History and Philosophy of Science (what is now Science and Technology Studies). Lorca is constructed in the context of twentieth-century American poetry. These constructions are also, of course, "deconstructions" of the "occult property" of their genius, which has had the largely negative (darkly magical) effect of marginalizing alternative readings.

And alternative writings. The cultivation of the "genius" of Kuhn and Lorca, represented by the iconic notions of "paradigm" and "duende" respectively, have, argue Steve and Jonathan, guided the development of their fields. It has dominated them, "to the detriment of newer voices," as Jonathan puts it (AL, 180). Most importantly, I think, the attribution of "genius" to a particular figure and the subsequent dominance of that figure in a particular tradition is a barrier to serious criticism. Steve expresses his deep personal disappointment at Kuhn's influence in this regard, but he is "not without hope." If we get out from under the romantic image of genius, we may be able to see "better paths that were originally not taken, but that (with some adjustment) may be taken up in the future". It is this "devoutly" constructivist hope that Jonathan seems to share with Steve, and I with both of them.

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

Your link to Fuller's Kuhn book is actually a second link to my faculty profile.

Thomas said...

Thanks. Fixed it.