Too much scholarship?

Like most people working in Ancient History, Classics or Classical Archaeology I subscribe to a free internet journal that publishes reviews of academic books to do with Greek and Roman culture, the BMCR (Bryn Mawr Classical Review). The journal sends regular emails with reviews and once a month a list of the new books received from publishers and available for review. The list is always a sobering reminder of just how much research is currently being carried out in the field and of the sheer impossibility of staying up to date with it all. This month there were 102 new titles on the list. (I counted them for the purpose of writing this blog – I don’t usually, don’t worry). If we take this number to be fairly typical, which it is, that means there are well over a thousand new books in the field each year. If you bear in mind that in addition to these monographs, conference proceedings and other collections of articles there are countless academic journals dedicated to Classical studies it is probably no exaggeration to say that there is more scholarship published in a single year than anyone could read and digest properly in a whole academic career.

Now of course, this situation is in many ways a good thing. It shows that interest in the ancient world is booming and much of this research is exciting and cutting edge and is leading to new and important insights into Greek and Roman culture and society. It also shows that large numbers of people are managing to have successful careers carrying out research into the ancient world. There also isn’t, of course, any need to read absolutely everything. The books on offer this month range from Roman wall painting to the reception of antiquity in 15th century Bohemia, from religion at the time of the Peloponnesian War to Roman girlhood. It’s enough to read those works that in some way or other directly connect to one’s own research interests. And reviews are, of course, a good way of staying abreast of recent trends and deciding which books might be worth at least a browse, which is the whole point of journals like the BMCR. Still, the sheer wealth of scholarship out there can seem overwhelming – particularly, when you realize that it has been growing exponentially for the last few decades – and I can’t help wondering if this explosion of scholarship on the ancient world for all its plus-points doesn’t also have a downside.

Borges' "Library of Babel" as visualised by Erik Desmazieres
Borges’ “Library of Babel” as visualised by Erik Desmazieres

As the forest of modern scholarship becomes increasingly overgrown is there not a chance of our becoming lost in it and losing sight of what we originally went there for? To extend the metaphor, there are certainly days now when writing about my research can feel like hacking away at thick undergrowth with a blunt machete. Days when every ancient source I want to cite, every monument I want to discuss, turns out to have been considered in some connection by somebody who’s trod that path before. Days when my life in academia feels like being lost in Jorge Louis Borges’ Library of Babel, an infinite series of rooms extending forever in ever direction and filled with books containing every possible combination of words and letters that ever have been or ever could be written.

Don’t get me wrong, reading past scholarship is rarely a chore. Some articles can be heavy going but for the most part I greatly enjoy reading about the ancient world. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this work. I daily discover wonderful new articles that display impressive depths of erudition and insight and which teach me something new. There is, however, a part of me that curses inwardly when I discover yet another article on Kimon’s repatriation of the bones of Theseus from Skyros that I really have to read so that I can refer to it in footnote 37 of the paper I’m working on or a discussion of the theme of drunkenness in Plutarch’s lives which I know will have bearing on my interpretation of a particular passage in his biography of Alexander. And now that the vast majority of academic journals and large numbers of books have been digitized and are fully searchable online there is absolutely no excuse for missing any potentially relevant references. But lest this seem like nothing more than laziness on my part there are I believe serious drawbacks to having to deal with so much secondary literature.

In the first place, all this scholarship clamours for our attention and takes up time that might otherwise be spent engaging directly with our primary sources, be they surviving literary works from the ancient world, inscriptions or archaeological remains. Of course, Classical scholars, still have to be deeply familiar with this primary evidence but the fact that we now have to read so much about what other people have thought about it can get in the way of approaching it with an open mind and arriving at new ways of seeing things. “Knowing” too much about a given subject can be constricting. Furthermore, time spent reading what someone else has written about Pausanias’ description of Argos or about the Philopappos Monument at Athens is time that could otherwise have been spent re-reading Pausanias or looking at the monument itself.

Secondly, the sheer volume of past scholarship, means that it is becoming increasingly difficult within the confines of an academic article or book chapter to really do justice to what has already been written on a particular subject. I constantly find myself struggling to find a good balance in how much attention I give to previous publications – ranging from a mere mention to detailed and critical discussion. Of course, too much attention to the work of others can lead to one’s own work becoming rather unwieldy, full of meanderings down side paths instead of driving forward with a clear and concise argument. On the other hand there’s something particularly unsatisfying about including superficial references to past scholarship, which do little to actually add to one’s own argument. I can’t help feeling just a slight twinge of annoyance when I see some obligatory reference to a key monograph in the footnote of someone else which, regardless of whether they have actually read the work or not, could have been made purely having read the blurb on the back of the book. But, here I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m as guilty of including such references as the next person. The expectations of scholarship are such that it’s surely impossible not to.

A particular pet hate of mine – and something that I do at least try my best to avoid doing myself – is when I find scholars ascribing far more certainty to the arguments of their predecessors than is actually warranted in order to bolster up their own arguments. Often I see sentences like “As X has demonstrated….” or footnotes of the “See X” type to support pretty sweeping claims. If you happen to be familiar with said article by X, or actually bother to consult it, then you often find that X’s actual arguments were presented rather cautiously or were perhaps made merely as suggestions and, as such, don’t quite do what the person citing them has implied that they do.

Here I’m reminded in particular of an excellent short article by Benjamin Millis in the journal Hesperia in which he considers the actual evidence for the so-called “miserable huts” which had supposedly been discovered at Corinth and which were taken to be have been places where impoverished Corinthians lived following the city’s destruction by the Romans in 146 BC.* Through quite shrewd detective work Millis demonstrates (and here I do mean demonstrates) that even though these “miserable huts” had been referred to repeatedly in modern scholarship there is actually no concrete evidence for their existence whatsoever. They had been mentioned once decades ago in an unpublished lecture by a Corinthian scholar, had crept into some publication or other, which then became cited by multiple scholars who also in turn all cited each other. What seemed to be a solid edifice of proof thus, on closer inspection, vanished like a puff of smoke. This is an extreme example but one that well illustrates how if we aren’t careful “facts” about the ancient world can easily creep into modern scholarship, take root through constant repetition and require considerable energy and time to be weeded out. Perhaps I’m just a naturally suspicious person but this means that I tend to spend a lot of time chasing up references in other people’s footnotes so that each article I read leads to a handful of others that I feel I have to read ad infinitum – or at least that’s how it sometimes feels.

Having got all of this off my chest I must now come clean and concede that for all these frustrations I’m all too aware that I could not have actually have carried out my current research if I’d been working fifty years ago. It is true what they say about standing on the shoulders of giants and my own research, of course, my work builds upon what has been done before. I couldn’t have carried out my research in to the public monuments of Roman Greece if I’d lived at a time when historians assumed, as they largely did in the early twentieth century, that our best way of understanding the ancient world was through literary sources and that archaeology was merely a way of filling in background detail and providing illustrations for text books. I wouldn’t have been researching Roman Greece at all if my recent predecessors hadn’t realized and demonstrated how exciting and vibrant Greek culture continued to be even after the country had been conquered by a foreign empire. I do however wonder where the scholarship of the ancient world is headed and whether it can continue to grow exponentially into the foreseeable future. Can we really go on producing over a thousand new books on the ancient world for hundreds of years to come? And if we do, can that really continue to advance our understanding of the ancient world indefinitely? Or will we reach a limit at which all we’re doing is rehashing old ideas and thrashing out debates about points of increasingly miniscule detail with colleagues past and present? Perhaps above all I wonder if at some point late in this century, some young scholar will be cursing as her plans to meet some self-imposed writing deadline are thwarted by the discovery of some hitherto overlooked article by a certain C.P. Dickenson that she now has to trawl through. I certainly do hope so.   * Millis, B.W. 2006. ““Miserable Huts” in Post-146 B.C. Corinth.” Hesperia 75 (3):397-404.


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