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  • Against Scholarly Enclosures:Reconsidering the Art and Economics of Review
  • Carolyn N. Biltoft

When the american rhetorician, poet, and literary critic Kenneth Burke assigned himself the task of deconstructing the English language edition of Adolph Hitler's My Battle, he opened with the burdens and importance of textual analysis: "The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called forth too many vandalistic comments." It may seem strange that Burke would object to assaults on such an odious text—one that he himself described as nauseating. However, he had his reasons: "I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author." Burke stood on the inference that open societies require a strict commitment to intellectual rigor as a safeguard for that most precious right to dissent. He warned against the political dangers of allowing debate to devolve into mere contests of mutual defamation. After all, in Burke's words, "[t]here are other ways of burning books than on the pyre."1 Even faced with the text's clear toxicity, Burke asserted that Hitler had been "helpful enough to put his cards face up on the table, that we might examine his hands. Let us, then, for God's sake, examine them."2 Burke argued that truly questioning the book's credibility required the patience of "the close reading."

That is what Burke did, carefully, section by section, subjecting each paragraph to the same hermeneutical attention that he would give any canonical text. In doing so, Burke cast light on Hitler's numerous logical flaws as well as his egregious factual inaccuracies. As he argued: "Nowhere does this book, which is so full of war plans, make the slightest attempt to explain the steps whereby the triumph of 'Jewish Bolshevism,' [End Page 231] which destroys all finance, will be the triumph of 'Jewish' finance."3 In this way, amidst a depression, Burke warned his audience against imbibing any snake oil that attributed all economic ailments to a single scapegoat.

Of course we now know what Burke did not yet foresee: the inhuman consequences of the "ideas" outlined in that book. As such, there is room to discuss the kind and amount of scholarly attention we should even give to expressions of pure hate. What is more, Mein Kampf was not, of course, a "scholarly text" submitted via the customary channels of peer review.4 In addition, Burke had his own intellectual blinders; he often reduced race to a mere epiphenomenon of class and gave nary a thought to questions of gender.5 Still, in our own vitriolic political climate, it is worth thinking with Burke anew about the nature and role of the review in the broader matrices of our scholarly practices (which are, after all, also embedded in the world).

Beyond serving as clickbait for journals engaged in a struggle for market share, the review sections of many excellent publications (as just a little homework reveals) contain at least a few artifacts of what Burke would have considered vandalism—the mere inflicting of symbolic wounds on books and their authors.6 The relevant question, of course, is why? As a way of answering that question, I want to linger specifically on Burke's use of the word vandalism and its connotation of property rights.7 More specifically, because this is a journal dedicated to the interdisciplinary examination of capitalism, I want to think about the subtle links [End Page 232] between intellectual vandalism and what we might call scholarly enclosures, or efforts to secure and reinforce specific scholastic territories.

Even reaching for the metaphor of enclosures summons a bundle of processes that attended the birth of capitalism itself. In its most specific denotation, the enclosures movement refers to how lands once held in common were legally cordoned off into privately owned farms in sixteenth-century England.8 However, in a broader sense, that movement constituted just one dimension of the multifaceted emergence of market societies.9 Within this larger perspective (and despite variances in the details), there are still two primary overarching interpretations of how the process of enclosure unfolded...


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pp. 231-240
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