- The Holocaust and Rodney King, Memory and Silence: Cliffs Notes in the Age of Historical Reproduction
In a literature course, any student paper with the assemblage of detail and insight reflected by Cliffs Notes would—on the undergraduate level at least—earn an “A.” Objections to Cliffs Notes, therefore, follow not from the content of the student’s paper or its proficiently [End Page 445] banal prose but from the student’s not having come to Cliffs Notes level of profound mediocrity on her own. If we regularly punish those students demonstrably influenced by Cliffs Notes, therefore, we also praise many others for producing their own second-rate versions of them. In order to pass our courses, or by extension to earn our degrees, our students must know something about, for example, The House of Mirth or The Sound and the Fury that is not nearly as extensive or precise or, for that matter, as attuned to the conventional critical wisdom about those works as their Cliffs Notes recapitulations. Clearly we care far less about the extent of a student’s knowledge than about its mode of production.
It may be chilling to consider—although I cannot pursue the consideration here—how many of our educational practices aim not at transmitting specific knowledge but at mandating specific forms of labor. More to my point is the fact that the labor Cliffs Notes effaces requires positing an event, a first-hand experience, in which the student reads the original and logs hours negotiating Faulkner’s prose or learning sentence by sentence the punctilio of Wharton’s society. This event, that situates the student as both worker and witness, must be followed, moreover, by a historiographic activity: the creation of a (necessarily interpretive) record, the acceptability of which depends on theories of interpretation, that is, of historiography. The literary assignment, or for that matter the critical article, can thus be viewed as a history of a specific act of reading, placing it in a specific (articulated or silent) theoretical context.
Only by virtue of that theoretical context can we accept the student or scholar as witness or assess the value of his labor. The theoretical context makes history legible and thus allows proof that one has “been at the site,” “done” the work. When talking about history, of course, “proof” is a charged word. Without some form of proof, history has no authority; but limited only to that for which there can be incontrovertible proof, history cannot exist at all. As in Cliffs Notes, the factual recapitulation must be augmented by assertion and/or by narrative, that is, by modes that surpass and therefore undermine facticity.
If we find a history unsupplemented by literary apparatus therefore hard to imagine, equally unimaginable, I am suggesting, is a literary criticism absent of historiographic method, that is, lacking a way to prove a site where the act of witnessing and the labor of remembering [End Page 446] merged. That is the site to which students are pointed and for which Cliffs Notes substitutes, providing truncated labor and second-hand witnessing. Perhaps the problem arises not because Cliffs Notes provide inaccurate second-hand reports but because they delimit the possibility of further research; paring away details of style, plot, and description that might be germane to another interpretation, again substituting historiography for the labor of witnessing and thus proving an inadequate substitute. The accurate report is still the inaccurate substitute for the act and work of the witness.
At least that is the case in literary studies, which demand more accuracy than does history. The case against Cliffs Notes in literary studies, in other words, is that it works the same...