Two weeks ago, I was standing in Covent Garden at rush hour, and I noticed an enormous crowd. I wandered over to see what the fuss was about. In the middle of the crowd stood a woman who had painted herself completely pink (hair, face, clothing, the whole bit) and was standing in various poses, like a live mannequin in a store window. The crowd was captivated. I was confused. People, I thought, will watch anything.
Apparently not. Thanks to Thought Bubbles, I just read this Washington Post article about violinist Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in the DC subway to no notice at all. Read the article. It's beautifully written and completely fascinating, both in the discussion of what it means to perform and what it means to hear a performance. But I'm not at all sure about its incredulous observation that most of the hundreds of people who heard Bell's performance were oblivious to its power. I'm idealistic. I think the power of brilliance will strike home and I don't think you need shouts of "Bravo!" to know it.
Because I'm completely self-involved, I couldn't help contemplating, after I read the Post piece, the quiet performance of academic work. Unless I'm running through messy little free-writing paragraphs, I'm not, when I write things, writing them out for myself. I'm writing them out so other people can read them. If that were not the case, then my dissertation would read as I often wish it could: "X is the case. Trust me. I just know it is. The End." That dissertation would be absurdly arrogant and not at all useful to the field, but my god it would save a lot of time and trouble.
That won't work because writing is, in many ways, a performance. It's a demonstration of what we know to be true. It's an illustration of how we came to that conclusion for those lucky enough not to be stuck in our heads with us. And it's a performance destined to be met with silence every single time. Maybe some people read it and get very excited and you get some recognition. Or maybe some people read it, get very excited, and you never know it at all. Those are the good options. Regardless, academia is a constant exercise in learning to perform without applause. My heroes are historians and cultural critics who have never heard me exclaim over their genius. They do not know that they changed the order of things in my head. But they must know, as I do, that some of the best performances are received in a library, where standing ovations are frowned upon. They must know that dozens of people can walk through a DC subway and have the course of their day changed because Joshua Bell's music entered their consciousness, slid around a little, and fell back out as they went on their way.
The really lovely photo is by someone listed on wikimedia commons as "per from Norway."