So What?

“So What?” This potent paralytic neurotoxin, two short words, has the power to silence. The expectation of excellence has silenced many voices.

Basic scientific research has an untidy answer to this question: “We don’t know yet, but if we fool around with this experiment, or these compounds, long enough, something interesting is bound to turn up.” Nothing is funnier, or more damning, than stories of anthropologists seeing elaborate dances or performative displays by “primitive” people. To be fair, anthropologists no longer look for “primitive” people or “primitive” religion; that characterizes armchair sociologists of 100 years ago. It is still the case, however, that groups of people will put on acts for visitors, anthropologists, tourists, or pilgrims.

Just think about New Orleans. Would NOLA be a constant party, and would there be tours of “swamp people” if tourists weren’t interested? Unlikely.

In any situation, it is possible to find exactly what one seeks in order to say, “That’s what!”, rather than “It’s confusing: some people behave in one way and others in a contradictory manner.”

The same is true of the world of words, thoughts, and ideas, eventually destined to be put down in writing. Though the subject is intriguing, there may be no clear answer. More than likely there are multiple, conflicting, or both/and answers versus either/or answers. Similarly, the end product is neither always in mind, nor what is finally realized, when artists, composers, architects, and gardeners engage in their creative processes.

Once in Yellowstone National Park, I stared into the clear bubbling turquoise pool of hot water bubbling up from far beneath the earth’s surface. The water in this pool is free of visible impurities, springing straight, it seems, from the very center of the earth to view, unmuddied, unmuddled.

As writers, we sometimes lose ourselves, and our ideas flow freely, expressing an inner truth of which we were ourselves unaware. But our minds are no clear turquoise pools. The detritus–of our personal and social lives–that attaches itself to our ideas help make them noteworthy, entertaining, and interesting. Had the novels of Jane Austen and of Philip Roth, for instance, not carried all the markers of each writers’ social experience, place, and station, their novels may have remained largely unread. Every word we write is a peek, sometimes “through the looking glass,” at other times, “through a glass darkly,” to our unique perspective. How well we bring that to light is a different matter.

My quarrel here is with academia. “So what?” has been unanswered, and will always be. But in writing for an academic audience, “So what?”, is the question to which we are trained to respond. The chorus of hoary sages shakes its communal head at such trivialities as “Because this is interesting, new, beautiful, reflective of the society from which it springs.” Placing our subject in the larger social context, or “scholarly conversation,” is indeed helpful to reader and writer alike.

But the question “So What?” has a deadening effect. Instead, I will seek, in all I write and think, to respond to “Tell me more.” And to explain why a concept, not yet played out, not yet complete, not with a carefully selvaged hem, is interesting, and work from there. There are always loose ends to tuck in. Ideas and theories, once seemingly complete, unravel into the hypothetical when new thoughts or ideas are introduced. How does one build an academic life without becoming “another brick in the wall, and living Pink Floyd’s immortal accusation? Long ago, the anonymous authors of “London Bridge” knew that even “bricks and mortar” would not keep it from falling down. The final word will never be spoken.

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