The Unpopular

This post revolves around two jokes that I’ve heard of late, each of which has been stuck in my head since I heard it. The first joke, as I noted in part 1 of this series, surfaced in a fantastic workshop on “popular seriality,” discussing television series, film sequels and remakes, and serialized novels, against which scholarship was nominated as the key form of “unpopular seriality.” Conveniently, I was at the workshop to discuss forms of serialized scholarship, but this joke raised what seemed to me a few pressing prior questions: Need scholarship be unpopular? What kind(s) of popularity might scholarship attain? What might popularity do for scholarship? And what might such a scholarship do for our notions of the popular?

That at least a couple of people in the workshop in Göttingen made the connection between unpopular seriality and scholarship — and that so many more found the association funny — indicates the degree to which we feel unpopular as scholars, producing work that we feel passionately about but that no one else seems to want. That sense of being unpopular carries for many of us haunting undertones of our nerdy adolescences, as if we were doomed to find ourselves yet again the smart outcasts in a culture that only values athletic prowess, or better still, money. And we are, at least in a broad sense, unpopular: the much-discussed crisis in scholarly publishing is at least in part a crisis of audience, as too few people buy the stuff for it to have a market sufficient to make its distribution a profitable enterprise.

It’s not without reason, then, that the initial discussion of what an unpopular seriality would constitute circled around questions of marketability: what keeps scholarship outside the realm of the popular, from this perspective, is precisely its uncommercial — even anti-commercial — orientation. In its unpopularity, it was suggested, scholarship finds protection from the pressures of the economic.

My initial response, however, was to resist this sense of scholarship as being somehow protected from the forces of the market: just because the work we produce as scholars may not have commercial value does not mean that it exists outside economics. What we do may not be conventionally lucrative, but it does operate within a realm of exchange that remains unquestionably material: it doesn’t pay off in money from direct sales, but it does produce salaries, paid lecture invitations, and the like. It’s a peculiar market, but it is a market, and as in most markets, the (attention-)rich get richer, and the (attention-)poor are faced with varying kinds of declining support.

Our unpopularity, then, isn’t a badge of economic purity, or a marker of freedom from caring what the world thinks of us. We have embraced it as if it were such a marker, however, as if popularity would somehow taint the work that we do. And much as many of us claim to seek the role of public intellectual, we too often sneer at the popularity of those who achieve this stature. Popularity, this suggests, requires a dumbing-down for the masses; work that is popularly consumed cannot conceivably be good.

This tie between the popular and mass consumption bears with it resonances of the Frankfurt School; popular culture in this sense — that culture which is popularly consumed — must of necessity contain within it an element of mass deception. And perhaps there is good reason for scholarship to avoid such associations with popularity; criticality requires rejecting what the majority wants to hear. Scholars must be willing and able to say the unpopular thing.

On the other hand, as post-Frankfurt media scholars have argued, the association of the popular with mass consumption overlooks the sense in which popular culture should be considered to be that which is popularly produced — that which arises from, rather than that which devolves upon, the “people.” In more recent media scholarship, the culture that is so produced is assumed to be less the texts themselves — the “people” are in no literal sense running around producing blockbuster movies or television series — than the meanings and pleasures that derive from popular engagement with those texts. Culture is less the texts themselves than what is made from the texts. And popular culture becomes popular not because it’s forced onto the masses, but because actual people have found some kind of connection with it.

That we hold our work back from this latter kind of popularity, from the potential of popular connection to it — and that to some extent, at least, we do so intentionally — strikes me both as selfish and misguided. It serves us, on whatever level, to believe the public, however construed, to be incapable of responding to our work.

This belief is the unspoken base layer required in order for the second joke with which this post is concerned to be funny. The second joke runs like this: at another conference I recently attended, a speaker discussed the broadening possibilities that should be made available for humanities PhDs to have productive and fulfilling careers other than those on the tenure track, in the course of which the phrase “public humanities” was used. After the talk, I overheard a couple of senior academics discussing the possibility, with some bemusement.

Senior Academic 1: I take the point, but I don’t think it works in all fields. There’s long been a “public history.” But can you imagine a “public literary criticism”?
Senior Academic 2: Chortle. The very idea.

I’m still not sure why the idea of public literary criticism is laughable. It has, after all, long existed, not just in the work of several of academia’s more visible and vocal figures (excuse the autoplay in that last link; excuse also the elision of many others who might have been linked to as well), but also in publications both long-standing and more recently developing (not to mention this or this or this or this or often this). If anything, public literary culture — including criticism — seems to be experiencing a period of extraordinary fertility. Is there money to be made in it? Probably no more than there is in public history, no. But is there work to be done? Unquestionably, yes.

If we reconsider the question of the popularity of scholarship from this perspective — in which there is perhaps not a market to be sold to but instead a public to be engaged with — we might begin to think more seriously (as Anne Helen Petersen has recently done) about what we might gain in the creation of such a popular engagement for our work.

I do not mean to suggest that everything we do should be done in public, or that everything we do needs to be universally accessible. There is a time and a place for experts to engage with one another, in formats and languages that are peculiarly their own. But there is also good reason for us to think seriously about doing more of our work in public, and even more importantly with the public, to understand that some portion of what we do not only can be but must be popular.

Next up in this series: how that popularity might be supported through the form of the serial.

22 thoughts on “The Unpopular

  1. Good questions! I don’t think scholarship needs to be unpopular but you’re right that many aspects of academic culture feed into making it so. This discussion came up recently at a session at THATCamp CHNM on digital journalism and digital humanities (the Google Doc(1) contains many of the big questions that were raised…no conclusive answers were reached). I like the idea of creating a ‘public’ version of your work – a short piece that’s comprehensible to a wide audience, links to your ‘scholarly’ version, and allows you to make the case for your work (i.e. not someone else’s book review, etc.). The tension between popular and unpopular is certainly nothing new in academia, but the internet allows us to more effectively communicate with non-academic audiences and should be used to foster public engagement with our research.


  2. I think it’s because I’ll be on the job market this fall, but I can’t get over the overheard snippet of conversation you heard between the senior scholars.

    I think we’re at a bit of a crossroads in academia, at least for those of us who are on the market right now. And this change (from ivory tower to public scholarship; from TT to alt-ac, etc) isn’t always supported by senior scholars.

  3. That overheard snippet about “public literary criticism” is really pretty funny, or just obtuse, given–as you point out–the number of literary reviews that operate right at the interface between academia and the wider public: look how many of their reviewers and essayists are scholars. (Thanks, by the way, for the shout-out to Open Letters!) It’s true that the kind of specialized scholarship published in academic literature journals is not in its usual form very appealing to non-specialist readers (though there are certainly exceptions, both of works and of readers), but I would think it’s much easier to imagine bringing literary expertise into the public sphere than some other kinds of academic work simply because so many people outside the academy read books!

    That said, it’s still quite obvious that literary commentary aimed outside the academy is not going to get anyone tenure or promotion. I blame the chortlers!

  4. I think Rohan Maitzen is right: “public literary criticism,” though it does exist, isn’t what they teach us to do in grad school and isn’t what they reward us for doing on the tenure track (I hear). I wish that we English folks *were* encouraged to write explicitly to the question “But Is It Any Good?” in Jane Tompkins’ words, or even more simply, “What Should We Read and Why?” Personally I came to the conclusion that my own favorite brand of literary criticism, literary history, is basically not much different from fan nonfiction. I like X, therefore I’m going to find out all I can about X. Conditions of production, allusions to other works, gossippy tidbits about the author and/or the characters, and so on. “The people” do that kind of public literary (and TV and film) criticism all the time.

  5. Kathleen: My fears about the popular, and the Internet, drawn as they have been from YouTube, circulate around the chilling hegemonic freeze this puts on visible public discourse. Which is to say that algorithms that push the popular forward allow us to see only the benign, the accepted, the acceptable. And while this may be what most people (even scholars) want to see and want to say, our public discourse suffers without the visibility of the contradictions, critique, and radical unpalatability of outliers.

    1. Hi, Alex. I absolutely take your point, and it’s exactly that problematic form of popularity that’s got me thinking about what more productive modes of the popular might be, and what scholarship might both learn from and provide for them. Scholars must be able to give voice to the profoundly unpopular, of course, and must be able to critique the popular — but the more they can do so in the context of an engagement with a broader public or publics, the better, I think. Finding ways, as you have done repeatedly, to bring together popular engagement with unflinching critique is the challenge that we face when we work in open formats.


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