Essays and Encyclopedias–Ned Stuckey-French

I was reading S/Z: An Essay, Chapter LXXXVII – THE VOICE OF SCIENCE.[1] In the previous chapter, THE VOICE OF EMPIRICS, Barthes argued that the narrative, like Sarrasine, will die; now he adds that the cultural codes “will also be extinguished.” There is, however, one small difference. The narrative will come to an end, whereas the references will be used up. The Voice of Empirics is silenced when the end of the long chain of the “already-written, already-seen, already-read, already-done” is reached, when last domino has fallen. At such a point, we are finally at the tail end of the tale. 1001 Nights minus one and counting.

Roland Barthes

The Voice of Science, on the other hand, is paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic. Field theory applies, not linearity. The Cultural or Referential Codes live in neighborhoods, not on the street. They are grouped in farragoes, medleys, or conglomerations, a little here, a little there. Or, alternately, one might say they reside in books—a “set of seven or eight handbooks accessible to a diligent student in the classical bourgeois educational system,” says Barthes (though he then lists nine).

I was a diligent student—hardworking, curious, the straightest of arrows—and when I was a kid, my parents bought me, because I was their oldest child and so diligent, a child’s encyclopedia. It was called the Book of Knowledge. For a long time, it was for me the “anonymous Book,” the “anterior Book” to which Barthes refers, a kind of Platonic Realm wherein all answers resided. I would ask my parents why cats had whiskers or the sky was blue, and they’d tell me to look it up in the Book of Knowledge. Soon, however, I found that I had to go beyond the Book of Knowledge and so I moved down the shelf to my parents’ Encyclopedia Americana, sure it would have the missing answers and that soon I would learn everything.

To be honest, I’m still possessed of some of that same pride, or at any rate, I still like to look things up. I own a Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, William Rose Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, the American Family Encyclopedia, an O. E. D. (with magnifying glass), Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers from Plato to John Dewey, a Hammond’s Natural Atlas, several field guides, Jeremy Hawthorn’s Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory, M. H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, and so on and so on. Part of me still hopes my reference books will join forces and become Barthes’ “anonymous” or “anterior Book.”

Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert

It’s the same dream Diderot had in 1751 when he launched his encyclopedia. In the entry for “Encyclopédiein the Encyclopédie, he wrote, “It would have been difficult to propose a more extensive object than covering everything related to human curiosity, duty, needs, and pleasures.” Then, apparently having already caught some guff, he quickly added, “For this reason some persons accustomed to judge the possibilities of an enterprise by the limited resources they recognize in themselves have pronounced that we will never bring ours to completion.” Diderot gave the project twenty-five years of his life, continuing on even when his co-editor (and now former friend) d’Alembert dropped out in 1759. D’Alembert was discouraged because the government (in league with the Church) had banned their attempt to make all knowledge available to all people. By then, however, the Encyclopédie had become a big business, employing 140 contributors (including Jefferson, Franklin, and Voltaire) and scores of illustrators, engravers, typesetters and printers. The shear size of the project enabled Diderot to keep it going. It became a kind of open secret. He would eventually publish 28 volumes, containing 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations.

To those limited persons who dared judge the possibilities of his enterprise, Diderot said,

They shall have as sole reply this passage from Chancellor Bacon, which seems to address them specifically: “As for the impossibility, I take it for granted that those works are possible which may be accomplished by some person, though not by every one; which may be done by many, though not by one; which may be completed in the succession of ages, though not within the hourglass of one man’s life; and which may be reached by public effort, though not by private endeavor.”

He took this passage from Bacon’s unfinished De augmentis scientiarum (Partition of Sciences).  We essayists are now, I think, mostly Montaigneans and reading the passage, we’re liable to dismiss it as typical of Bacon, who was, after all, a systematizer, originator of the scientific method, utopian novelist, and writer of closed, careful, didactic, aphoristic and short impersonal essays.  But we might do well to remember that Montaigne, though certainly more hesitant, humble and forthcoming than Bacon, was not without ambition. In his own way, he too was after it all. In the three editions of his Essais (1580, 1588, 1595), Montaigne rarely subtracted. Instead, he added—sometimes just a word or a sentence, sometimes a whole essay. He may have been less afraid of contradicting himself than Bacon was, but the fact remains that his book kept growing, and his search for what he knew stopped only with his death.  Essai means a trial or an attempt, and we usually characterize the attempt as provisional, but the root leads also to assay, an analysis or trial meant to tell us once and for all whether we’ve been fooled or the gold is real.

The essay, split at its root between Bacon’s empiricism and Montaigne’s subjectivity, is still split, or at least its practitioners continue to maintain different relations to knowledge. They include generalists and specialists writing as generalists, all of them trying to figure out what they do and don’t know. Scott Sanders has nicely called the essay “an amateur’s raid on the world of specialists,” but it’s also the genre of choice for specialists who want to shake off their jargon and talk to the general public. Among twentieth-century American experts alone who were also essayists the list includes at least Aldo Leopold (M.S., Forestry, Yale, 1909), Rachel Carson (M.S., Zoology, Johns Hopkins, 1932), Loren Eiseley (Ph.D., Anthropology, Pennsylvania, 1937), Lewis Thomas (M.D., Harvard, 1937), and Stephen Jay Gould (Ph.D., Paleontology, Columbia, 1967).

I’m no expert but as I said, I do know how to look things up. The reference books on my shelves still get some use, but I’m no fool. I know the Digital Age means publishers will no longer be printing dictionaries and encyclopedias. Why would they when a digital version is so much easier to search? We say Google makes us stupid, but our iPads and smart phones have resurrected Diderot’s dream. All of us have all of the answers right at our fingertips. Google Books makes every book available to everybody, or at least it will, says Google, if we can loosen the copyright laws and usher in Lewis Hyde’s gift economy. Then, everyone will have borrowing privileges at Borges’ Library of Babel, which contains every possible book.

But will we?

Google is trying to scan every book, but every book is not – as both Borges and Barthes knew – the same thing as every possible book.

First, I outgrew my Book of Knowledge, then I outgrew my parents’ Encyclopedia Americana, and then, I went off to college and outgrew my parents. No one knows as much as a college freshman, or at least the college freshman that I was. I thought I knew everything, or at least, with the help of my college education and some new smarty-pants reference books, I soon would. Suddenly my parents seemed hopelessly middlebrow. My father the college professor might be an intellectual, but he was just a G. I. Bill intellectual, and my mother…well, she only had an associate’s degree. She was just a Book-of-the-Month Club intellectual, which was no intellectual at all. Oh, I was full of myself.

I came home from college for the summer, but this time I didn’t have a job lined up. June was edging toward July and my lollygagging was driving my dad crazy so he hired me himself. Every year for maybe a decade he had written the World Book Yearbook entry on Agriculture and now he was getting tired of doing it. Plus, he had a lazy ingrate in the house who needed a job. He handed me a file full of clippings and said, “Here’s last year’s entry, some articles, and the current data from the USDA. Update the entry. I need a draft in two weeks.”

I did need the money. And how hard could it be? A G. I. Bill intellectual had done it on autopilot. Boredom would probably be the big challenge.

But, I would come to find out, both encyclopedia articles and the middlebrow people who write and read them were more complicated than I had thought.

“‘Middlebrow,’” according to cultural historian Nicola Humble, “has always been a dirty word.” From the beginning it has been equated with smugness and avidity, an unseemly grasping after status, the contamination of real culture. The O. E. D. says the word’s first appearance in print occurred in the December 23, 1925 issue of Punch, where it was used to describe “people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.” I’d not come across that reference yet, but already I knew that my parents were trying too hard and that as hard as they tried, they weren’t quite up to snuff. After all, I’d gone away to college and was reading real highbrow stuff – Milton and Donne, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, Shakespeare for Christ’s sake. Now, home for the summer, everything seemed thrown into high relief. My mom’s Michener novels and Utrillo prints had become downright embarrassing.

I hadn’t even read the New York Intellectuals yet, but already they were warning me against my parents and their pathetic attempts to acquire cultural capital. The Revised Standard Version on Sunday morning and Omnibus on Sunday afternoons would no longer cut it. For twenty years, without me knowing it, Dwight Macdonald and his cohort had waged and won the Battle of the Brows. Clement Greenberg blamed middlebrow for “corrupting the honest” and “stultifying the wise.” Robert Warshow labeled it the “mass culture of the educated classes” and warned that it was bringing about a “disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life.” Macdonald called it “a tepid ooze” that was “spreading everywhere.” He dismissed the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 54-volume Great Books of the Western World as nothing more than “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.” I didn’t need to have read the New York Critics on middlebrow, my college roommate’s mother had done it for me and passed on their wisdom through him to me: “Life magazine is for people who can’t read, and Time magazine is for people who can’t think.” My mother read Time cover-to-cover every week.

But here’s the rub, essayists: isn’t the essay—that translator of specialized knowledge, that kissing cousin of the journalistic article, that product of memory and research rather than imagination and art, that service genre used to explain the more literary genres such as fiction and poetry, that fourth genre that, as E. B. White reminded us, “stands a short distance down the line”—isn’t it finally…I mean if we face facts…well, isn’t it middlebrow?

But contradictions abound and here is another rub. When I went away to college in 1968, at the same time I was getting a heavy dose of high culture, my classmates and I were marching in the streets and occupying buildings, fighting not just to end the war but also to democratize culture. We were arguing for women’s studies and African-American studies programs, for a canon that included women and minority writers as well as dead Englishmen.  Soon, we’d begin to read theorists of the French generation of 1968: Barthes, for instance, who in Mythologies took seriously such products of mass culture as professional wrestling, soap ads, plastic, strip joints, and Garbo’s face.

It would be a while but in time these French critics would even take middlebrow seriously. Would take my parents seriously! For Pierre Bourdieu, the point was not that middlebrow taste is good or bad as taste, but rather that it is indicative of one’s position within class society. Middlebrow culture is caught in the middle. Its contradictions are of a particular kind. For Bourdieu, the middlebrow is a figure that is at once pathetic and noble, an earnest autodidact who never quite finds the “good” taste she is after. They are, he says, “divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to.” The G. I. Bill intellectuals and their families were part of an expanding middle class, one that included my mom and dad as well as Ward and June Cleaver. They had acquired some new capital but did not have a lot of cultural capital. To fill that gap, they subscribed to what they though were the right magazines, joined book clubs, and learned to play bridge. For Bourdieu, their rush to display their culture seems more tragic (or comic) than threatening. I still wasn’t sure.

And then there’s the question of the essay as middlebrow. According to Bourdieu, “the producers…of middle-brow culture” who make up “the new cultural intermediaries (the most typical of whom are the producers of cultural programmes on TV and radio or the critics of ‘quality’ newspapers and magazines and all the writer-journalists and journalist-writers) have invented a whole series of genres, half-way between legitimate culture and mass production (‘letters,’ ‘ essays,’ ‘eye-witness accounts’).”

Carl Van Doren with Bust of Benjamin Franklin by Luis Quintanilla

Bourdieu’s analysis would, in time, help explain Omnibus, Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Eric Severeid, the rise of PBS, New Yorker profiles, and even Terry Gross, but back then I still had a World Book entry to write. And little did I know that didn’t have to go to high falutin’ French theorists to get a good take on encyclopedias. In fact, one of the best middlebrow critics, Carl Van Doren, had already written about “the idea of the Encyclopedia.” Reviewing a new French encyclopedia in 1962, Van Doren wrote,

The idea of the French work is also radical. It appears to be statable in five propositions, each of which may sound strange to the reader of an ordinary encyclopedia. The five propositions are these:
1. The primary aim of an encyclopedia should be to teach. It should only secondarily be to inform.

2. An encyclopedia should be primarily a work of art. It should only secondarily be a work of reference.

3. The point of view of an encyclopedia should be primarily human. It should be only secondarily historical and/or scientific and/or literary.

4. The ideal reader of an encyclopedia should be primarily the curious average man. He should only secondarily be the specialist and/or the high school student.

5. An encyclopedia should be primarily a document that hopes to change the world for the better. It should only secondarily be a document that accurately reflects the knowledge, opinions and prejudices of its time.

That sounds pretty good, but as I said, I knew nothing about Van Doren’s piece. As I began to work on my World Book entry, I did however begin to experience something Van Doren had observed: “Most encyclopedias, particularly the American ones, have little or no idea of themselves. They just grow; they are not created.” That is, the whole mystique of an encyclopedia, indeed of writing itself, began to fall apart for me. It was, as Barthes would say, de-mythologized. The World Book, which I knew stood on our shelves both literally and culturally between The Book of Knowledge and the Encyclopedia Americana, might be middlebrow, but it was also tricky and asking something new of me. Where once I had used it for my school reports, now I was writing it, or more properly, ghostwriting it. And that was both weird and a little unnerving.  My dad had been contracted to do the job. They’d bought his byline, not mine. But if I didn’t get the byline, I did get some money. I don’t remember how much now. It wasn’t a lot, but it felt like a lot. It was the first time I’d got paid for a piece of writing, which was a big deal to me. Still is. My dad had trusted me to write the piece and then when I did, he took my draft seriously. He gave me criticism and asked for some changes – it was going out over his name after all. We revised, we collaborated, and when it came out, he sent me a copy. I’ve still got it.

Which is not to say everything was hunky dory. I told my friend Brent Beebe about this job my father had given me, and he in turn told me how his stepsister, Lou-Ann Smith, had set herself the chore the previous summer of reading the entire World Book. This revelation did little to lift the World Book in my eyes—quite the opposite in fact. Lou-Ann Smith seemed nice enough, if a little dorky (she was overweight and played the pipe organ at the Episcopal church), but I didn’t really know her. She was just Brent’s stepsister. She, her mom, and her younger brother and sister had joined Brent, his father, and Brent’s two younger brothers in a kind of odd and uncomfortable precursor to The Brady Bunch. The Beebe men had been on their own since Brent’s mom ran off with a graduate student when Brent was in about fifth grade. Brent’s father, a Joyce scholar, a real intellectual, drank too much. The basement was a man cave with a bar, a TV mounted above the bar, a pool table, and the boys’ bedrooms. Lou-Ann’s brother Clay fit in okay. He seemed thrilled in fact to have all of a sudden acquired some brothers, but even then I could tell that the girls found their new house to be less congenial. Lurlene, Lou-Ann’s mother, had been married to an Army man. She was a strong woman who corrected my grammar once and often stood up to Brent’s dad. Once, I saw her try a few puffs of cigar. It was something I couldn’t imagine any mom doing, certainly not my own.  In any case, it pissed Brent’s dad off. “Who do you think you are? Amy Lowell?”

To which she shot back, “Relax. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” All of which went over my head.

Brent and I laughed at Lou-Ann behind her back and made fun of her (apparently successful) attempt to read her way through the World Book. To our thinking, reading an encyclopedia from A to Z did not save you from being a dork; it confirmed that you were one. But we were adolescent boys who stupidly thought we knew everything, or at least we thought we knew everything about Lou-Ann who was stupid enough to think she could read an encyclopedia and then know everything. If indeed that’s what she thought. Maybe she was bored. Maybe she was trying to escape the weird house of boys in which she found herself. Maybe she missed her father.

Of stupidity and the cultural codes, Barthes has this to say: “In fact, the cultural code occupies the same position as stupidity: how can stupidity be pinned down without declaring oneself intelligent? How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language.”

Major General Homer D. Smith

Brent and I were right to think that not everything is in the encyclopedia, but we had no idea about what actually lay outside in the real world. Years later, I found out that at the same time Barthes was writing S/Z and I was writing my World Book entry, Lou-Ann’s dad, Major General Homer D. Smith, was serving as Chief of Staff of the 1st Logistics Command in Vietnam, the largest in the United States Army at that time. His operation, with an assigned strength of over 100,000 troops, provided logistical support to all the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines engaged in combat in the Da Nang area. On February 20, 1969, about 200 kilometers north of Da Nang, in Quang Tri province, Denny Cripe who played football with me and Brent, was killed by “an explosive device,” one of 58,220 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese who died in the war. Six years after that, General Smith was still in Vietnam serving now as the Defense Attaché at the U. S Embassy. As such, he was the senior military officer in the country and oversaw the evacuation of 1,373 U.S. citizens and 4,595 “Third Country Nationals and Vietnamese citizens” from Saigon. General Smith was in one of the last helicopters to lift off the roof of the U. S. Embassy. The evacuees he helped escape included hundreds of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American orphans in what was called Operation Babylift. Unfortunately, on April 4, 1975, during this operation 138 people were killed in the crash of a C-5A Galaxy transport plane, including 78 children and 35 Defense Attaché personnel.

To Barthes, the idea that there is something called life that we might know (or that, according to two know-it-all boys, Lou-Ann Smith might not know) is a mistaken one. For Barthes, even the word “Life” must be capitalized and put inside quotation marks. It is a creation of the “anterior book” that is at once a book of science, wisdom, and all “the didactic material mobilized in the text.” All of these references, says Barthes, these cultural codes, by “a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology” turn “culture into nature” and appear to establish reality, [or] ‘Life.’” Such setting in stone is what I was trying to do when I wrote the definitive article about U. S. agriculture for the World Book Encyclopedia. It wasn’t an essay.

[1] And here, as a footnote, without its footnotes, is that chapter:


The cultural codes, from which the Sarrasinean text has drawn so many references, will also be extinguished (or at least will emigrate to other texts; there is no lack of hosts): one might say that it is the major voice of minor science that is departing in this fashion. In fact, these citations are extracted from a body of knowledge, from an anonymous Book whose best model is doubtless the School Manual. For, on the one hand, this anterior Book is both a book of science (of empirical observation) and a book of wisdom, and on the other hand, the didactic material mobilized in the text (often, as we have noted, as a basis for reasoning or to lend its written authority to emotions) generally corresponds to the set of seven or eight handbooks accessible to a diligent student in the classical bourgeois educational system: a History of Literature (Byron, The Thousand and One Nights, Ann Radcliffe, Homer), a History of Art (Michelangelo, Raphael, the Greek miracle), a History of Europe (the age of Louis XV), an Outline of Practical Medicine (disease, convalescence, old age, etc.), a Treatise on Psychology (erotic, ethnic, etc.), an Ethics (Christian or Stoic: themes from Latin translations), a Logic (for syllogisms), a Rhetoric, and an anthology of maxims and proverbs about life, death, suffering. love, women, ages of man, etc. Although entirely derived from these books, these codes, by a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology, which turns culture into nature, appear to establish reality, “Life.” “Life” then, in the classic text, becomes a nauseating mixture of common opinions, a smothering layer of received ideas: in fact, it is in these cultural codes that what is outmoded in Balzac, the essence of what, in Balzac, cannot be (re) written, is concentrated. What is out-moded, of course, is not a defect in performance, a personal inability of the author to afford opportunities in his work for what will be modern, but rather a fatal condition of Replete Literature, mortally stalked by the army of stereotypes it contains. Thus, a critique of the references (the cultural codes) has never been tenable except through trickery, on the very limits of Replete Literature, where it is possible (but at the cost of what acrobatics and with what uncertainty) to criticize the stereotype (to vomit it up) without recourse to a stereotype: that of irony. Perhaps this is what Flaubert did (we shall say it once again), particularly in Bouvard et Pécuchet, where the two copyists of scholastic codes are themselves “represented” in an uncertain status, the author using no metalanguage (or a suspended metalanguage) in their regard. In fact, the cultural code occupies the same position as stupidity: how can stupidity be pinned down without declaring oneself intelligent? How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language.


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