Coming back from a trip to Miami I read an article in Delta’s Sky Magazine in which the singer/DJ Will.i.am described his view of the creative process:
There’s nothing new under the sun: Tuna tartare, for instance. It’s just raw fish with some soy sauce and some lemon. If you want some raisins in there, that’s the twist. That’s all it is: It’s the combination.
I’m not sure that I want raisins in my tuna, but I digress. While I do think that there are a few genuinely new discoveries and ideas, for the most part scholarly writing in the humanities is just recombining previously available ideas and data into new packages with a new twist (or an old twist is reapplied to a new situation, etc.).
In many ways, this reminds me of parts of Julia Kristeva’s work (much of which is available on her website). Kristeva is often attributed with coining the term, “intertextuality.” When we think of this concept, what we are really saying is that one text is related to another in some way. One of the reasons why a new term was needed to describe relationships between texts is because authors often give old words a “twist,” that is, they do more than merely “cite,” “quote,” or “allude” to previous literature–they change, adapt, merge, or morph previous works as well. Accordingly, intertextuality is a general term that covers all of these phenomena.
In like manner, whenever a scholar produces new research she does it in conversation with previous work done in this area (and others as well), in the context of her own environment and interpretive paradigm, etc. I think, really, what we are trying to do when we write is to bring a new twist to the grand conversation of the history of thought (at least to as much as it applies to our little, tiny corner of it). In other words, the scholarly enterprise is one big effort of intertextuality.
This has many implications but one that comes to mind because of a conversation that I had earlier this week is that scholars, particularly young ones or scholars still in training, do not need to be anxious about coming up with The Next New Thing. You do not need to generate a genuinely new idea to be a successful academic. Rather, all you need to do is give the field a new twist to muse on for a while.