Academic Love

Academic Instincts, by Marjorie Garber. Princeton University Press, 187 pages, $19.95.

Why do the French hate the Belgians and vice versa? For the same reason that Yale students emblazon shirts with "Harvard Sucks": We define ourselves by the distance from near relations. Freud calls this the narcissism of minor differences. In Academic Instincts, a collection of three loosely related essays, Marjorie Garber explores this dynamic in the academy, notorious for its vicious turf wars. Adapting another Freudian term, Garber's central essay, "Discipline Envy," describes how academic fields bump up against their intellectual neighbors: English against cultural studies, history against anthropology, the arts against the sciences.

An English professor at Harvard who has published on topics as far-ranging as bisexuality, the relationship between dog and master, and our collective love of real estate, Garber may have some envy of her own. Though she is deeply embedded in the academy (she is the author of eight books on Shakespeare), she is also captivated by the persona of the public intellectual. And according to her essay "The Amateur Professional and the Professional Amateur," she is not alone. Yes, academics and journalists look down their noses at each other. But behind all the sniping, Garber tells us, academics covet journalists' wide audience and journalists long for academics' ability to pursue an issue in depth.

More breezy than scholarly in this book, Garber straddles the divide between the academy and the popular press with aplomb. Reading Academic Instincts is like sharing the newspaper with a current-events junkie who can't help but comment on everything that catches her eye. Indeed, much of Garber's material is culled from news-paper reports, peppered with a pinch of history, a smattering of etymology, and the occasional personal narrative. Her introduction to the essay "Discipline Envy" draws on Alice in Wonderland (the Mad Hatter's insistence that the guests at his tea shift from seat to seat) as well as architectural theory (those worn shortcuts between buildings, often found on college campuses, that are appropriately enough termed "desire lines"). Sometimes her anecdotes veer into digression, like her two-page riff on the popularization of the Freudian suffix "envy" (as in penis envy). Pulpit envy, pianist envy, pencil envy, even a sign advertising Pinot envy at a local wine store. It's cute, but what's the point?

In "Terms of Art," Garber re-examines the old accusation that academics obfuscate meaning with highly technical, jargon-laden writing. The term jargon, she argues, has become so common that it is jargon, a word that "has been overused and now substitutes for thought." The real issue, then, is not which phrases are jargon and which aren't, but how to distinguish between writing that is tired and belabored and writing that is fresh and precise. "The first time I saw the word (en)gendering or (re)membering," she writes, "the curious typography probably made me think twice about how gender, or memory, come into being." But "by the third or the thirtieth time I saw these words written in this form, the device had become stale: it no longer made me stop and think."

And, as Garber points out, the charge of jargon-mongering can be leveled not only at trendy humanities professors but also at the business community. What else are dot-com, infomercial, telecommute, networking, e-mail, e-tail, e-everything, if not jargon?

Despite taking on some of the largest battles in the culture wars, Garber claims not to be entering the trenches. Make love, not war, is her credo; she calls Academic Instincts her "love letter" to the humanities, "a letter, sometimes critical, sometimes affectionate, always--I hope--passionate, addressed to a lifelong partner and companion." Garber is not an academic apologist, but she does question much of what the academy's critics take as foregone conclusions: that the ivory tower has been toppled by excessive infighting, that specialized language renders academic writing unintelligible, and thus that modern scholarship has descended into irrelevance. In all these symptoms of decay, Garber finds signs of health. Discipline envy, she writes, is evidence of "an exhilarating intellectual curiosity," and jargon is necessary linguistic innovation, without which "we speak and read a dead language." If we can take Garber's word for it, her lifelong partner is neither staid and conventional nor glib and flashy, but intense, challenging, and always exciting.