Bittersweet Symphony

Try to make ends meet/You’re a slave to money/Then you die, etc etc.

Here are some excerpts from the first readers’ reports for Kafka and Wittgenstein.

Sometimes people ask me why I even wanted to be a scholar in the first place, given how much happier I seem now. I hope the following examples provide a little bit of an answer.

From Report #1 (a shorter report of about 530 words; enthusiastically recommends for publication, gives some  interesting suggestions about fleshing out definitions of modernism; wants me to get rid of the truth-tables–*SOB*! NEVAHR! OK, maybe):

Let me begin by stressing that this study of Kafka and Wittgenstein absolutely SHOULD be published. Of course, the topic is obviously important and of broad interest; but also, the thoroughness with which the author structures the relationship – introducing Wittgenstein’s key categories and then relating them to Kafka’s masterpieces through detailed analysis – is of core significance for Kafka studies.

The importance of this book will be huge for Kafka studies, and will bring Wittgenstein into the center of this critical world. I hope my mini-suggestions are helpful. I cannot recommend this scholarly enterprise highly enough! And, as virtually all academic libraries maintain sections on Kafka-studies, the book wins in every way.

From Report #2, a 3000-word masterpiece that is many times better-written than the manuscript it reviews (I have added boldface for emphasis in places):

Kafka and Wittgenstein offers a highly original, rigorous, and fascinating reading of six important works by Kafka through the lens of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. It provides clear and detailed explanations of key concepts in Wittgenstein’s early and late philosophy of language and demonstrates how these concepts can be used to dissolve the apparent paradoxes in Kafka’s works (and, in one instance at least, how a work by Kafka illustrates and elaborates more fully a concept introduced by Wittgenstein). I find it particularly refreshing and insightful that Schuman offers up her project as an effort to rethink less what Kafka’s stories and novels mean given that so many readers have concluded, rightly and inevitably, that they defy fixed meaning, and given Kafka’s own play with “dead ends” of signification – than how they work on a linguistic and narrative level.

The analysis in Kafka and Wittgenstein:

(1)  is historically sound (the introduction situates Kafka and Wittgenstein in the tradition of modernist Viennese language skepticism);

(2)  is theoretically sophisticated (one could not ask for a clearer and more subtle explication of Wittgenstein’s arguments about language);

(3)  demonstrates mastery of a truly vast body of criticism (Schuman does a fantastic job choosing interlocutors, and her examples really span a century of active Kafka research; my only possible worry is that it is maybe somewhat English/American centered? I personally am not bothered by this bias, but the book might receive more legitimation in the European academic book market if she cited more German sources);

(4)  remains close and attentive to Kafka’s text, thereby steering clear of unhelpful generalizations, without being myopic or dreary (rather than try to interpret one story or novel exhaustively, a worthy aim but not Schuman’s, and one that, if pursued, would make the manuscript swell to 1000 pages, Schuman is able to make significant contributions to our understanding of Kafka by focusing on specific textual moments and problems that are in fact central and representative of broader phenomena).

Finally, on the level of style, organization, language, formatting, and general presentation, this manuscript is nearly flawless. There is not a single unclear or vague sentence in the whole work. This degree of directness and clarity (not to mention the complete absence of jargon and obfuscating stylistic tics), especially considering the sophistication and complexity of the ideas being presented, is a welcome addition to literary criticism. I found only a few typos and a couple of awkward formulations. The manuscript is truly exemplary in this regard.

Given the quality of this manuscript, the rigor of the argumentation, the lucidity of the writing, and the interdisciplinary approach, I think the book would be of interest to a wide range of scholars. First of all, it is a significant contribution to Kafka criticsm, itself a sizeable field, with considerable audiences in North America, Europe, and Israel. Given the broader argument about modernism, the book should also appeal to many scholars of literary modernism, which, when one considers the rather large field of English and American modernism, comparative European modernism, and the newer burgeoning field of global modernism, includes many people. Finally, the book should appeal to students of Wittgenstein, who, if I understand, is one of the few philosophers who remains actively attended to by both the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy. Given that Schuman’s study is a successful attempt to bridge these traditions/methodologies, it will be appealing, useful, and enlightening to philosophers in both camps.

It will come as no surprise at this late point in my evaluation that I strongly and enthusiastically recommend this book for publication […]. In addition to the many valuable insights that I have enumerated above, this manuscript is a model of academic rigor and lucidity. I hope that Schuman is successful in ushering in the study of “analytic modernism” as she aspires to do – there are surely other philosophers and literary authors who could be paired in fruitful and fascinating ways, according to her model – and I have every reason to believe that her groundbreaking study has the potential to accomplish this. But even if we leave this aside, her book is a scholarly model in another sense: it is a forceful and convincing demonstration that complex and subtle ideas do not require complicated and opaque writing, and that truly thoughtful and insightful literary analysis is best communicated through clear and direct prose—punctuated, as Schuman’s MS is, by moments of playfulness and humor!

So, there you have it. I’m not saying in any way that I agree with these reports, or that this means that I am “entitled” to any job of any sort. I never thought, and especially do not think now, that I am or was “the best” at anything (except maybe coming up with new swear words or inciting Twitter wars).
I just, in the words of one of my readers who has been through a similar arc, really believe that there should be a place in the field for someone exactly as good as me. Not me specifically, but someone exactly as good.  If you read these reports, from leading scholars in Kafka studies, and still think that academia is a just meritocracy where there are “always jobs for good people,” or if you want to blame my “bad attitude” (even though I was completely different and a total coward when I was trying to get into the club), that’s fine. I have these now–I have total vindication that my scholarship could have meant something. Nobody, not hundreds of Interwebz trolls, not snide meritocrats and lifeboaters, not the abysmal market–nobody can take that from me now.

9 thoughts on “Bittersweet Symphony

  1. Longtime reader, first-time commenter, decided against getting the PhD partly because of you, very pleased and proud to see what you’ve accomplished!

    There’s probably a single long word for that in German, isn’t there?


  2. Ah, Rebecca, how gratifying, how moving! Man, that review is to be cherished. Thank you for sharing. I still cannot, cannot believe how broken this system is that scholars like you and Kelly J. Baker, with book manuscripts/contracts shortly out of school, did not get TT jobs. It really draws some perspective on how sub-zero my own chances were.

    But I also don’t know what to do with the creative ache and desire for intellectual conversation on my areas of interest. What do you do for yourself/contemplate about doing in this regard? I’d like to have genuine conversations, exchanges, not ego driven, name dropping “you should read X’s work” interjected at every other second. Happened just yesterday, in addition to having my soul mangled by having had to speak to someone “the other side.” Anyhow, kid, I’m doing that very academic thing: turning it into “me” instead of having it be about “you.” Your review actually brought tears of satisfaction to me. Many congratulations!

    And @UncleMatt: you made the right decision. Keep the joy of learning and love for a discipline by staying OUT of this industry. It’s a soul snatching, soul corrupting machine (ala Dr. Seuss Sneetches–except there is no machine for a quick counter-fix0.


    • That’s actually a v interesting question. I personally don’t miss it at all. I have such an intense distaste for academia after how everything turned out for me that I just want no part in it, and would rather just talk about “Nashville” and “Scandal.”


  3. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t seek conversation with academics. I had to yesterday in regard to my manuscript preparation. But I’ve otherwise learned to stay away, the way a pet does with an electrified invisible fence. I just don’t go there. My answer, at least temporarily, is to have fun reading blogs, magazines, and toy around with perhaps contributing to them in the future (when the creative ache hits). I don’t own a TV but I spend insane amounts of time watching all manner of things on the computer and not feeling guilty about it. That is very rewarding. Again, many congratulations and thank you for your activism and stance. It has meant the world to me.


  4. Congratulations! Feedback that lets me know that my scholarship and writing really *meant* something to someone is best gratification–better than anything one can “win” in academia like a fancy fellowship, postdoc, or job.

    I’m currently on the job market, already knocked out of the running for my 2nd choice job (after they requested more materials from me, raising my hopes only to let them shatter from a greater height). Normally, I think I do a decent job of not taking the constant rejection to be a referendum on what I have to offer as a scholar, but it’s hard, so very hard. These reports demonstrate that even if there might not be a TT-place for someone, that’s NO knock on the quality of his/her work. Congratulations again, and thanks for posting.


  5. I can *so* relate to that statement, “my scholarship could have meant something.” I was essentially bullied (by faculty) out of my PhD program right before my two-month source material study at a European collection. I compiled a huge amount of research during my study that is unique to my topic and that I think people in my field would get a lot out of it if I could ever find the time to finish writing it all up. My dream is to get that ish published, thereby getting some of that sweet vindication. Anyway, love your blog, and best wishes with acquisitions! Your research deserves to be published!


  6. Do you feel that, among the reasons you’ve been (so far) shut out of TT academic jobs–in addition to the random lottery nature of the whole enterprise–is your choice of subject matter? In other words, that had you written the umpteenth thesis on, say, Kafka and Deleuze and repeated some sort of comforting liberationist line (through transgression, of course!) that you’d be sitting (more) comfortably right now? Literary studies just seems so herd-like in its functioning and people are reluctant to hire anyone who might put into questions the paradigms that they are emotionally and economically invested in. Wittgenstein scares literary scholars. Though they try to appropriate his later anti-foundationalism (to make him some sort of poststructuralist avant la lettre), there is a residue of conservatism having to do with the collective and “forms of life” that is indigestible and, ultimately, threatening for them. For Wittgenstein cannot be made into a supporter of radicality and the liberatory power of transgression. Do you think that this has played a (preponderant?) role?

    When I was on the job market in the mid-90s, this was already a real problem. Having written a dissertation on “speculative literary theory” and the philosophical mistreatment of Mallarmé by Blanchot, Derrida, et al., I nevertheless got MLA interviews for all kinds of places (those having been the days, comparatively) where it became clear to me that what mattered most to the search committee was that I had invoked the magic names in my cover letter and published one thing that they clearly hadn’t read. They didn’t seem to notice until the interviews that I was saying critical things about those magic names. Then it was “game over.” Of course there may have been other reasons, but this also happened to others that I know.

    Basically, this situation seems even worse now with an intervening 20 years or so of liberationist theorists hiring mostly their own kind. Anyone who isn’t toeing the line on such matters is going to find it very hard to get a job, no matter how interesting and important their work. Which is one of many reasons why humanistic studies in academia will never be what it could be.

    Anyway, you should be very proud of those reader reports and I look forward to reading your book (even if it’s not my field). And I remain hopeful that someone who so clearly deserves an academic job (yes, deserves: don’t sell yourself short) will eventually get one. I’d hire you in a heartbeat, if I could. We need more straight shooters and fewer glad-handers and suck-ups.


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