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  • Obliterature:Toward an Amateur Criticism
  • Melanie Micir (bio) and Aarthi Vadde (bio)

"I keep on typing the same typo: not obliterate but obliterature."

—Kate Zambreno, Heroines1

In his magnum opus Economy and Society, Max Weber offers two contrasting types, the priest and the sorcerer, as the representative figures of religion and magic. The distinction, which serves to explain how religion differentiates itself from magic and thus legitimates itself as a modern institution, rests on a more general and more surprising division between the professional and the non-professional. What differentiates the priest from the sorcerer is his "professional equipment of special knowledge, fixed doctrine, and vocational qualifications."2 Unlike the sorcerer, the priest acquires his authority from the rationalization of his training: his ties to an organized and regularized enterprise; his mastery of religious concepts (as opposed to the sorcerer's exercise of "personal gifts"); his perpetuation of a systematic ethic based on the doctrine in which he was schooled. This specialization and professionalism, as Weber argues elsewhere, is the "condition of any valuable work in the modern world."3 In contrast to magic's "irrational means" and "purely empirical lore," the professionalization of the priest establishes religion's modernity (Weber, Economy and Society, 425). Yet as Weber acknowledges, there remains a fluidity between priest and sorcerer belied by strict typology. Although the nature of their learning is different, the sorcerer may be as deeply learned as the priest. [End Page 517]

In her short story "The Mark on the Wall," Virginia Woolf also contemplates the uneasy division between modernity and magic by injecting genealogy where Weber acknowledged fluidity:

And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars? And the less we honour them as our superstitions dwindle and our respect for beauty and health of mind increases … Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen.4

Later, in A Room of One's Own, after being blocked from entering Oxbridge's famous library, Woolf's narrator gazes at the library from outside its walls and imagines another version of that "quiet, spacious world" as she ponders what the campus had looked like in the time of those "witches and hermits": "Once, presumably, this quadrangle with its smooth lawns, its massive buildings, and the chapel itself was marsh too, where the grasses waved and the swine rootled."5 Woolf's declarations would seem to denigrate knowledge, yet her nostalgia for a world without universities is irreducible to a simple rejection of modernity or professionalization.6 Rather, she is interested in how "learned men" evolve from "witches and hermits." In Weber's words, she attends to the way in which "two contrasted types flow into one another," and what that flow has to say about the definitional politics of knowledge (Economy and Society, 425).

In drawing Weber and Woolf together, we observe how some of the most powerful accounts of (and anxieties over) modernity coalesce around the themes of occupation, knowledge, and expertise. In the early twentieth century, modernization became synonymous with professionalization and with the compartmentalized conception of knowledge on which it was based. Sociologist Talcott Parsons labeled that compartment a "'field' of knowledge and skill" in his 1938 address to the American Sociological Association, with the word field appearing in quotation marks (reminding us that the term was once strange).7 The parceling of knowledge into fields or specialties had some egalitarian effects. For example, it challenged class hierarchies by allowing professionals to advise those of higher status who lacked their specific expertise.8 But the cost of this egalitarianism was the extraction of what may be called the moral component or higher purpose of learning. Specialty knowledge shifted emphasis away from the achievement of holistic understanding (what Parsons calls "wisdom") toward the more modest goal of "technical competence" ("The Professions and Social Structure," 460). When Woolf longs for "a quiet, spacious...


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