The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Recovering Philology

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

James Turner

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Jerome McGann

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 3)

In the not-too-distant past, whenever January came around, the New York Times could be counted on to publish a deliciously scathing account of the intellectual zaniness that unfailingly broke out at—some even would say dominated—the annual conference of the Modern Language Association. Tongue firmly in cheek, the reporter typically would list that year’s most outlandish-sounding presentation titles, “The Sodomitical Tourist” or “Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Female Body,” then describe the incoherence and inhumanity of it all––the conference, the profession, the witless scholars arguing about nothing. To add to the fun, contemporary literature professors and their sycophantic graduate students were limned as a posturing and pathetic lot who had long ago lost any sense of the unity and purpose of the humanities.

Scholarly satire long predates the MLA and the New York Times, of course. It is a genre that has accompanied the development of the humanities for centuries, poking fun at the aspirations, conflicts, and pretensions of its leading and lesser lights. In his book On the Charlatanry of the Learned (1715), the German scholar Johann Burkhard Mencken mercilessly mocked his fellow humanists as vainglorious frauds, taking to task such sixteenth- and seventeenth-century humanists as Johann Heinrich Alsted and Giulio Bordoni for producing reference works that accumulated masses of information but “scratched only the surface” of knowledge. Mencken scoffed at the long, puffed-up titles and honorifics these “erudite compilers” flaunted—Clarrisimus, Magnificus, Consultissimus, Excellentissimus—simply to sell their books and impress fellow members of the scholarly guild. He dismissed the ridiculously bloated titles of their books, such as The Amphitheatre of the Only True Eternal Wisdom, Christian-Cabalistic, Divine-Magical, and Yet Physical-Chemical, or The Catholic Three Times Three in One, Arranged by Heinrich Khunrath. “What worthless paper!” Mencken harrumphed.

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Chad Wellmon is an associate professor of German at the University of Virginia and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His books include Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Research University and Becoming Human: Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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