Sunday, September 26, 2010

Where do you put your energy? Franz Kafka

The neverending and increasingly weird and famous story of Kafka's Nachlass gets the cover story in this week's NYT Magazine, and Elif Batuman tells a great story. One of the odder points, for me at least, was this:
Kafka studies now proliferate at a rate inversely proportional to that of Kafka’s own production: according to a recent estimate, a new book on his work has been published every 10 days for the past 14 years.
That's over 36 books per year, plus however many articles (and dissertations?), if it's true. And according to the article, Kafka published under 450 pages during his lifetime.

It's a luxury in the academic world that we can choose what we work on to a remarkable extent and we can get rewarded for a remarkable range of things. Kafka's one of my favorite authors, I guess, but I cannot quite understand how there's any call for this much published research on the relatively few works he published.

So many cool topics have not been touched or haven't been touched with current tools and methods, that it's mind-boggling. The number of languages and dialects that haven't been described, the number of basic historical situations we don't understand, and so on, all call out for research. Surely it's the same in literary studies. Or even practically: If you're figuring where you can make a real contribution, are the odds better with throwing another tome on that heap of Kafka studies or with staking out some new territory? Looking through some entries returned for 'Kafka' on GoogleBooks, much of what's there looks monotonous to me — I was expecting more exotic stuff.

But the bigger question is how many published books we actually need … shouldn't this stuff just be posted somewhere instead of printed on paper? I mean, come on, the Franz Kafka Blog doesn't even seem to be active. (Somebody will doubtless weigh in with more exciting electronic outlets on the topic ... .)


zmjezhd said...

It's partially a result of the publish or perish attitude of much of academia these days. I once stood in the library of a a medium-sized university staring awed at the shelves of books that had been written about Shakespeare's Hamlet wondering what it all meant.

Mr. Verb said...

That's surely a good part of it. But what DID it all mean?

Anonymous said...

It means there are a whole lot of tenured Shakespeare specialists out there in English departments!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. While we're at it, let's stop wasting our time studying Old High German, Middle High German, Latin, Ancient Greek, and biblical Hebrew. There are already shelves and shelves of books devoted to those languages. Surely there's nothing new left to be said about any of them -- and they're MUCH older than Kafka!

But seriously, is it really a zero-sum game, Mr. Verb?

Mr. Verb said...

I think the question is whether there's real progress being made on a topic and whether it's really advancing knowledge in broader ways. The people around here who do Biblical Hebrew and Old High German certainly make strong arguments that new tools are being used that are yielding real progress in linguistics.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you're right about Biblical Hebrew and Old High German at your school, Mr. Verb. But, just like a minor linguistics paper (even one that is immensely speculative, has a flawed methodology and/or is based on junk data) may yet somehow "[advance] knowledge in broader ways" (however negligibly), can't studies of Kafka, Shakespeare or the Bible contribute to new methodologies and approaches to literature, even without being groundbreaking?

There's plenty of wasted energy in linguistics, too --you just seem to have more tolerance for it.

Mr. Verb said...

No, I don't have much tolerance for wasted energy in general. But I see a lot of payoff from work, to stay with Biblical Hebrew, in the history of Semitic languages in understanding how we do or don't need templates and roots and things like that to understand how human language works in the mind. That work connects tightly with current experimental work in psychology, cognitive science, and so on.

What I don't hear from colleagues in literature is much advancement of knowledge in the flood of work about Kafka or, sadly, a lot of other traditional literary scholarship. If there is significant progress in the work on Kafka that has importance beyond Kafka Studies, I would certainly like to hear about it and I promise I'll change my mind based on it.