I thought I was working on a book on Aristotle’s biology, but it turns out I’m working on a book on Aristotle’s metaphysics. I am a little trepidatious about this turn. On the one hand, I find this exciting. I thought I was working on a project about Aristotle’s account of male and female and the implications of this account being much more fluid than we tend to treat it for his account of form and matter. Ok, so that already was metaphysics, but I thought I was working mostly on biological texts. I didn’t realize how much I was working directly on debates about form and matter in Aristotelian scholarship. I am learning so much. A constellation of concerns that I was already addressing in my first book on the concept of nature in Aristotle’s Politics and practical works has become much clearer to me. I am also finding that I have something important to say.
On the other hand, when I was in graduate school, a professor said to me that I should really look for jobs in social and political philosophy because Aristotelian scholars would not let me say what I wanted to say about Aristotle. Not just once did this professor say this to me, but regularly so that this notion has produced an anxiety that makes me obsessively concerned with establishing my position with copious footnotes that demonstrate my grasp of the field, and thus, situate my argument in terms of these arguments. I’m beginning to think that this obsessive concern is not only crippling but part of a field’s interest in reproducing itself to reflect its current state.
I learned Aristotle outside of the analytic tradition of the history of philosophy. It is only lately that I am becoming aware of the debates within that tradition, debates that I find helpful for situating my argument. I do not find these debates to close off the possibility of my argument, but to organize a field in which I can situate myself. I’ve previously discussed how figuring out some of the forty-year-old debates in the literature brought me some clarity on this project. I was trained to read texts well and this training prepared me to learn how to teach myself. But the imposter syndrome has me worrying that the sources I cite aren’t the right ones–I don’t personally know these people, I didn’t sit in their classes, I don’t know the background. Even though they seem to lay out disputes between figures who are or who have been influential in the field, I worry that I have somehow found the obscure random article that I will cite–not of course, without also following some of those references to their source–and that citing these articles–the one that no one else knows of–will expose me as the scholarly fraud that I am.
I think review practices contribute to this problem. Review practices that take issue with scholars failure to reference “their literature” are in some ways disputes over the archive. The notion that one archive is the archive that we all share and that one must master in order to say something worthwhile requires that we all see the lineage of the questions in the same way. Of course, I’ve found learning this literature useful and informative and exciting. I feel like I’m putting myself through several graduate courses in writing this book, and I love that. But I think this anxiety about referencing the “proper archive” follows from idiosyncratic review practices where we each want to see our own archive and literature reflected, and I’m convinced that Kate Norlock is right about making judgments about the general state of the literature in reviewing rather than on whether this or that text is referenced. Of course, this point involves judgment because sometimes that particular text the author omits is the directly relevant one.
I see my anxiety as one of how one can learn the literature from the literature, which I think is an anxiety about how much secret occult-like knowledge exists behind the archive. That anxiety itself is about how open the field can be to those who were not in some sense “raised in it.”
It has turned out that analytic Aristotelians are perfectly willing to engage my work on Aristotle’s biology. Funny enough, some have even said to me, “you can’t say that,” as my professor in graduate school warned. I’ve been interested in finding how engagements with literature that has established what can and cannot be said can go a considerable way to loosen the hold on what can be said. Nonetheless, I think having the right references is often a way of signaling being “inside,” rather than signaling a worthy contribution, which is what we should be concerned to support. But I wonder whether we can make judgments about a “worthy contribution” if that calculation is so rooted in having the same archive. When the “inside” looks like just the way things should be, it is hard to judge the outside as something worthy rather than just wrong. It returns us to the question of whether something is good because it is ours or it is good because it is right, and whether we can even judge whether it is right outside it being our own. Indeed, it is to respond to such a question that the Greeks first invoked the notion of “nature.” They weren’t right for doing so. Lord knows the trouble that archive brought us.