“The Downsizing of Knowledge: Knowledge Work and Literary History”

Citation: “The Downsizing of Knowledge: Knowledge Work and Literary History.” Abridged and edited by Randolf Starn. In Alan Liu, Miryam Sas, Albert Ascoli, and Sharon Marcus. Knowledge Work, Literary History, and the Future of Literary Studies. Ed. Randolf Starn. Doreen B. Townsend Center Occasional Papers, No. 15. Berkeley, Calif.: Townsend Center, 1998. 1-22.

[Includes response essays by Miryam Sas, Albert Ascoli, and Sharon Marcus to the original paper delivered at the Townsend Center on March 12, 1998.]

  • Full text of pamphlet (.pdf)

Excerpt from end of essay (page 19)

What is the restorative experience, tonic, or ethos of the contemporary knowledge worker caught in the pipeline? The “death of literature” . . . cannot be understood except against the background of the death of knowledge in the information age—i.e., the dying of “our” knowledge into a paradigm of knowledge work that grants us virtual “freedom” only by freeing us from all those things once thought to give freedom its point. Like refugees of consciousness embarked on the diaspora of the new century, we are given the opportunity to be free of identity, home, peoples, security, everything.” (pp. 16-17)What is the life-informing or governing attitude that literariness must now seek to inform well if it is to help repair the tone of contemporary life? What is the ethos of the “unknown” that requires the intervention of education to lead it beyond the ethos of the “unknowing”?

After all, even the mass aesthetics visible in such TV sitcoms of the 90s as Friends (where an ensemble-cast playing the part of Gen-X’ers at once enacts and repairs the concept of “team”) entertains an abiding inquiry into what “being well” in the age of the well-informed really means. Why not the literary, too, informed as it is by such wealth of alternative identities and communities drawn from that distinctively academic, non-end-of-history approach to literature currently being rethought by cultural criticism: “literary history”? Why not the literary, too, since in the academy it is already in the pipeline alongside—but profoundly stratified from—the paradoxical contemporary experience, tonic, or ethos of disenchanted knowledge whose name we have only to utter to realize how difficult is the task of reparation: “cool.”

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