Marjorie Garber is the queen of US cultural studies. She knows everything and nothing about cultureby Robert S Boynton / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
When I was an editor at Harper’s magazine in New York, I would regularly receive essays from academics hoping to communicate to a wider public. More often than not I was pleasantly surprised by their eloquence and accessibility. Most of these writers knew how to wear their learning lightly, and their essays were a testament to the proposition that clear thinking and good writing are as likely to be found within the university walls as beyond them.
Occasionally the results were not so happy. In particular, I remember a piece by an ambitious young scholar whose prose, he assured me, was “100 per cent jargon free.” And, sure enough, it was. The problem was that while he had diligently expunged words like “hegemony” and “problematise” their conceptual ghosts remained. Stripped of his theoretical armour, he was lost in an intellectual no-man’s land. He neither sounded impressive nor had much to say.
Like many academics in recent years, he was consumed by the desire to be a “public intellectual.” With the proliferation of outlets such as cable television and the internet, intellectuals have less difficulty reaching the public than they once did. A trickier task, however, is attracting an audience while maintaining one’s intellectual credibility.
One might read Marjorie Garber’s most recent book, Academic Instincts, as a meditation on this tension. “In their heart of hearts, scholars long for public and even popular recognition. The Holy Grail of the ‘crossover book,’ one that impresses one’s colleagues but also appeals to the intelligent reader and perhaps even makes the bestseller list, is a recurring dream of the profession,” she writes. Garber, who is director of Harvard’s Humanities Centre, knows what she is talking about. She divides her books between academic presses like Routledge and commercial houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster (which paid $150,000 for Vice Versa, her study of bisexuality). She is a prolific and graceful writer whose work appears in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the London Review of Books.
The author of three well-received scholarly studies of Shakespeare and a half dozen works of eclectic criticism, Garber is the queen of American cultural studies. Whether opining on cross-dressing, bisexuality, the erotic relationship between sex and real estate–or between dogs and their owners–Garber is witty, imaginative and wide-ranging, raising intellectual improvisation to an art form. She is the dinner guest every hostess covets, the…