June 01, 2006
Illusio and cultural capital
"[...] Such [authenticity-] effects do not (as they pretend) reproduce an antecedent reality, but instead produce the illusion of its existence, retroactively. How they succeed in doing so is revealed occasionally by operatives of a comparable feat of legerdemain, the 'erudition-effect'. Amusingly illustrated in Michael Kerrigan's vade-mecum, Bluff Your Way in Literature (1987), the 'erudition-effect' has some distinguished practitioners, including the twentieth-century's most respected poet-critic, T. S. Eliot. While lecturing in adult education courses, Eliot learned how to appear 'a prodigy of information'; and as a London reviewer working to tight deadlines he developed what he describes as 'a certain cunning in avoiding direct bluff', principally by 'only hinting at [his] pretended knowledge'. Some of this is displayed in his notes to The Waste Land(1922), which in 1957 he was to dismiss as 'bogus scholarship', thus inviting speculation as to whether the same can be said of his essay on 'The Metaphysical Poets' (1921), which was to become the most influential account of seventeenth-century English poetry for the next forty years. If Lyotard is to be believed, an equally impressive gallery of erudition-effects is on display in his now classic study, La Condition postmoderne (1979), a 'report on knowledge' commissioned by the government of Quebec. Three years after the English translation of this book in 1984, Lyotard was quoted as saying that it was 'all a bit of parody', because in preparing it he had 'made up stories' and 'referred to a quantity of books [he]'d never read'. In the absence of such confessions, however, skilfully deployed erudition-effects may create a reputation for learnedness that lasts well beyond the lifetime of their perpetrator. In Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (1643), for instance, information garnered on a wide range of topics related directly or tangentially to religion is franked with the pronoun 'I' and then recirculated as Browne's own thoughts in what consequently is taken to be an intellectual autobiography. And another successful self-fashioner as a polymath was Browne's contemporary, the diarist John Evelyn, whom Guy de la Bédoyère describes as 'adept at making it appear that he was better-read than he actually was', instancing Evelyn's raids on St Augustine's Confessions, Montaigne's Essais (1580–88) and compendiums like Erasmus' Adagia (1500) for out-of-the-way references and quotable quotes."