Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Metamorphosis


One morning, as Pierre Schlag was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous footnote, footnote 233 to be exact.

Schlag, a law professor at Colorado, has long been one of the most interesting members of the American legal academy. His entire career has been one long epatez le bourgeois directed at the traditional forms of legal scholarship. His 2004 essay (now up on SSRN), "My Dinner at Langdell's," is an amusing rumination on how law professors become reduced to footnotes: authorities cited by other law professors to stand for certain arguments, positions, and propositions. Indeed, Schlag suggests, if we are successful, that is what we are fated to become, and indeed, all that we become:

But I am an immortal now. I am 233. At night, when the lights go out in the library, it is very cold. A dry cold, like on a clear night with a full moon. The tomes of law reviews all rest silently on the shelves. We are still, but we are perfect.

Schlag aims his barbs, as he so often has, at the aesthetics of American legal scholarship, but what he says could be true of almost any field of scholarly endeavor. And it is by no means clear that most scholars would find the metamorphosis unwelcome. To succeed in the business of scholarship is to be made a footnote, a shorthand, a symbol of a particular idea or set of ideas that can be cited repeatedly, and through this repetition, become alienated from who we thought we were.

Another way of putting it is that every scholar hopes to become a successful meme, which catches on, and which is repeated and repeatedly discussed throughout the generations. That is so even if the meme becomes increasingly ambiguous, increasingly foreshortened, increasingly separate from what we believed our thought and our personality to be about. We all want to be memes, because being a successful meme means surviving, it means being perpetual.

The problem of being a meme, however, is twofold. First, as one is perpetually repeatedly, one will be perpetually misunderstood-- one will be foreshortened, summarized, synthesized, bowlderized, taken out of context, and used for a whole host of purposes and causes that will send shivers down one's spine. Second, as one's ideas are repeated and cited, they lose connection with who one feels one is-- the flesh and blood person who originated those ideas, and who was motivated to state them at a particular time in a particular context and with a particular motivation and purpose. The meme stands for us, but it is not us; it is a false mask that is associated with us, and the likeness is not always flattering. People mistake us for something we said twenty years ago-- that is, if anybody cares what we said twenty years ago.

But that, of course, is the rub. For the alternative to being cited, and miscited, and taken out of context, and reduced to a shorthand, or a phrase, is not to be cited or discussed at all. As Oscar Wilde once said (and thus, in the process is mis-re-presented by my very citation of his words), the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Perhaps our concern about preserving our authenticity is misplaced. Perhaps a significant part of us, if not most of us, is what we mean to others, what other people think we signify, what they think we stand for, what they remember of us and about us. If that is so, then perhaps we should embrace ultimately becoming a meme, or a symbol, or a footnote, or a memory.

You might think that Schlag, who began his career as a postmodernist, would embrace this thoroughly postmodern view of the self as a bundle of representations in the eyes of others. But it seems clear from his essay that he resists, and the reason is not difficult to tell. Even if we put aside the belief in a spurious authenticity which is separate from what others think of us, even if we reflect that a part of what we are, and what we will be when we die, is what others think of/say about/remember about/ us, some representations will please us better than others. And, more to Schlag's point-- for his is also an attack on legal thought-- some ways of remembering will actually promote creative thought, while others will tend to arrest it and limit it.


So when we consider what the scholar said 20 years ago that surfaces in a current footnote, should we apply originalism to determine his intent, his meaning, how he was understood, etc, at the time? Or do we apply our knowledge of subsequent events? Do we have to read all that the scholar wrote to understand this, at least up to that point in time 20 years ago?

Nozick has a nice discussion of "traces" of the self in Philosophical Explanations:

"Dead, you are no longer around . . . and if there is nowhere else you’ll be (heaven, hell, with the white light) then all that will be left of you is your effects, leavings, traces. People do seem to think it important to continue to be around somehow. . . . A sig-nificant life is, in some sense, permanent. . . . [I]t leaves traces. —Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, 582

As for the fear of mis-citation: This is one more reason why open-access is so important. Any citation to an article should basically be a hyperlink....ideally to a wikified webpage of the cited article that can be annotated by the author in response to such citations.

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