Orbiting the Work of Scholars

Those of you interested in Pynchon scholarship may have noticed that Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon, the open access journal that is edited by Martin Eve, Samuel Thomas, Sascha Pöhlmann, Simon de Bourcier, and Doug Haynes, has taken on a new look. It has recently made the transition from being an independent Open Access (OA) journal to being a member of the Open Library of Humanities. The new affiliation has brought it a new look, which some will find more reader-friendly. (Personally, I tend to download articles and print them out, keeping them on my computer so that I can print them again when I lose the first print out.) What is more interesting to me about the new format is the journal’s comment section.

Orbit demonstrated its innovative spirit from the start, employing, as is explained on the site, “a rolling format…. mean[ing] that articles are published, under a Volume and Issue, as soon as they are ready” rather than as soon as the journal has a respectable number of articles to make an issue. The result is that an issue may begin with a small number of articles and end up with quite a few, and those who finish their articles early are able to see their work become available sooner rather than latter, a positive in the publish-and-perhaps-perish-anyway academic culture that we find ourselves (or perhaps I should say academics find themselves) in these days.

The new comment feature is more radical in a way, not because other online publications haven’t used comment sections but because the comment section (refereed to avoid trolling) allows the scholarly community to engage directly with the article and hopefully start a conversion and maybe produce a superior, collaborative work of criticism. That’s what the editors seem to be hoping for, as authors, Martin Eve has told me, will be allowed to update articles so long as such updates are acknowledged, with the comments in mind. The feature will certainly work better if authors engage in the conversations, participating without just getting defensive and digging their heels in.

There were some e-journals that toyed with a similar idea in the 1990s, publishing works in progress with some replies, but the one I saw, a Renaissance journal the name of which I forget, was very formal: known figures’ works in progress were discussed by a couple of other known figures without any follow up involved: it was more like reading a paper and a response to it.  The whole thing lacked the dynamism of a comment section, which a smart referee could help make respectable, preventing the whole thing from turning into a bunch of people trying to hold their own. “Dear Author, Is that really how you want to respond to the comment?” or “Dear Commentator, Perhaps you’d like to more carefully consider the author’s position before you engage his/her response to your first comment?”

In any case, excited by the prospect of commenting on something that has struck me as off about a paper on Orbit, I started writing a comment, I believe the week the feature appeared, but stopped. What is the etiquette here?  How will my critique of the paper, right there along with it, function in today’s academic culture? This isn’t a critique published elsewhere. Every time a prospective employer or promotion committee looks up the paper to assess its scholarly value, there I will be pointing out that something is funny, unnecessarily so as the point the scholar makes that strikes me as incorrect is tangential to the larger argument. It still bugs me, and I think it ought to be questioned. I’m just not certain such questioning should be articulated along with the paper where people who can destroy a scholar’s career can see it immediately.

The point that I have a problem with is in Emma Miller’s “The Naming of Oedipa Maas,” an article that appeared in the journal’s first issue. Miller writes, “If Oedipa is depicted as Latin-American (through her husband’s nick-name “Mucho” Maas), within this culture she would traditionally retain both of her parents’ family names and then add her husband’s surname to the end of the list, but she would more frequently be referred to as her married title + her husband’s surname. By editing her full list of surnames, Pynchon places the emphasis on her relationship to her husband specifically, and this makes a cultural connection to the contemporaneous discussion surrounding female identity.”

We not only have here a jump from “if” to “is,” but we have the problematic assumption that a married woman who lived in the United States but who is Latin American retains “both of her parents’ family names and then add[s] her husband’s surname to the end of the list” so that it is Pynchon, rather than the accepted cultural practice in the United States, editing her full list of names. That is just not the case: the Latin American practice is not followed in the United States, even today when it is acceptable for women to keep their maiden names or join their maiden names to their husband’s names with a hyphen and possible for men to take the last name of their wife. Furthermore, Oedipa was married in the early sixties when U.S. Hispanics felt pressure to hide their heritage. (See, for example, the poet Pat Mora’s “Why I Am a Writer” for a discussion of Mora’s feeling that she needed to conceal her Hispanic heritage at school during her mid-century upbringing in the U.S. and her hope that her being a writer will give Hispanic kids a sense of belonging without their needing to conceal their heritage. Mora, born in 1942, would be four or five years younger than Oedipa.)

If Oedipa is Latin-American—and her husband’s nickname is scant evidence that she is—her identification as a Young Republican would certainly make her seem like a Hispanic who wanted to be identified as American rather than Latin American. But there is also a troubling element to our identifying her as Latin America. To do so because of her husband’s name is to risk establishing her identity through that name, something that “editing her full list of surnames” apparently calls attention to and that we should critique not do ourselves. Further, the Latin American practice isn’t simply to add the husband’s name to the list of her parent’s names but to add “de husband’s name” to the end of the list, the “de” (“of”) being the way possession is indicated in Spanish. I’m not sure that that is, from a feminist perspective, better, although perhaps that’s not how the “de” is read in the context of a wife’s name in Latin America. (There’s a comment section below, so those who do know could clarify the issue here.)

Is my offering this criticism of a single point in Miller’s paper here rather than in Orbit’s comment section less or more of a problem for Miller? Hiring and promotion committees can easily Google Miller’s paper, find my post, and raise metaphorical eyebrows after reading it. Whether finding my comment through Google or on Orbit, members of such committees should, at the very least, give credit to Miller for eliciting a response, that is, inspiring someone to write about her piece and publishing on it. In the end, Miller’s correctness or lack of it should be viewed as less important than her ability to start a conversation. Scholarship, after all, is meant to engage us, not render discussion unnecessary with incontestable truths. Ideally, Orbit’s comment section will become a place where such engagement emphasizes the communal nature of good scholarship.

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