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Geoffrey Galt Harpham Trading Pain for Knowledge, or, How the West Was Won The only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation. —Simone Weil, “Human Personality” A GENERATION AGO, THE SU BJECT WAS KNOW LEDGE AND POWER; TODAY, the subject is knowledge and pain. Ultimately, they may turn out to be the same subject, because nothing secures, augments, or confirms power like the free assumption of pain. But for the purposes of this essay, and in keeping with its argument, I will focus on pain, although it would be more pleasant to talk about power. In doing so, I will confine myself to rigorous inferences based on disinterested observation, bracketing my personal prejudices, biases, or desires. My conclusions will follow directly from the evidence. In undertaking this essay, I agree to sit very still for many hours of reading, meditation, and composition, during which time I will forego all immediate pleasures, including excessive food and drink. In the service of truth, the volume on the television will be turned down to the very point of inaudibility, until the last two minutes of the game. Already, I feel the pain. It is an old and familiar pain, one I am so intimate with that I have come to desire it, partly because it recalls to me the days of my youth, when I was instructed by a series of social research Vol 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 485 mostly elderly men on the customary practices of the guild to which I desired admittance. I was told, at an age when the world shone bright before me and a seemingly infinite future of possibility beckoned me onward, that a scholar would, over the course of a working life, spend hundreds of thousands of hours all by himself (definitely himself: I never had a female teacher after ninth grade), staring at small print, thinking, puzzling, struggling, forgetting and relearning, assembling an ever vaster quantity of information. One would, I was told, engage in constant struggle with words, both those written by others and the ones one was trying to write oneself. I was informed that unlike those other “creative” writers whose words Iwould be studying, Iwould have to “support” everything I said by citing a previous text. If I felt abso­ lutely compelled to voice an opinion, it would be best if I disguised it by merely implying assent to the opinion of someone else with whom I happened to agree. In some cases, I might present the opinions of others as facts. These people felt this way, I might note, and their opin­ ions are a matter of record. Even better, I might rehearse the argu­ ments that had persuaded others, note that they had been persuaded, and imply that I, too, found these arguments persuasive. Such proce­ dures were permitted. Out of “fairness,” I should consider and treat with maximal respect every possibility that I might be wrong. Such deliberate self-exposure “strengthened” the argument. And when all counterarguments had been vanquished—not by brute force but by the unforced force of the better argument, the accumulation of evidence—I must not gloat, but must express only a cold satisfaction that the truth has prevailed. On rare occasion I might, through a figure of speech or a fleeting comment, suggest something like a personality, but such moments must be confined, and nonessential to the argu­ ment. Passive verbs were good things, suggesting seriousness. At the end of a very long process of tutelage in the rigors of the discipline, I was told that the rule of the guild was “publish or perish.” My eyes glistening, my cheeks bright with the flush of youth, desire surging through my veins, I permitted myself a momentary pause— 486 social research and then, instead of asking, “What’s the difference?” I asked, “Where do I sign?” But enough about me. The hypothesis to be explored in this essay is that the tradition of scholarship that we in the West have inher­ ited includes as part of its self-understanding an implied bargain: an exchange of pain for knowledge. In this...


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