a new prologue

A new prologue for my book, in anticipation of its dissection in History Seminar rooms.*

Idle seminarian: I don’t have to swear any oaths to persuade you that I should like this book, since it is the son of my brain, to be the most beautiful, elegant and intelligent book imaginable. But I couldn’t go against order of nature, according to which like gives birth to like. And to what can my barren and ill-cultivated mind give birth except the history of a dry, shriveled child, whimsical, and full of extravagant fancies that nobody else has ever imagined– a child born, after all, in the prison of graduate school, where every discomfort has its seat and every dismal sound its habitation? Tranquility, peaceful surroundings, the pleasures of walking amongst stacks of mildewed tomes we once checked out viscerally, the morning cigarette at eleven after a long dark night of excursions through archival anxieties, the serene smells of brewing coffee — these are the things that encourage even the most barren muses to become fertile and bring forth a progeny to fill the world with wonder and delight.

It can happen that a man has an ugly, charmless son, and his love blindfolds him to prevent him from seeing the child’s defects: on the contrary, he regards them as gifts and graces, and describes them to his friends as examples of wit and cleverness. But although I seem like this treatise’s father, I am really its stepfather, and I don’t want to drift with the current of custom, or beg you almost with tears in my eyes, as others do, dearest seminarian, to forgive or excuse the defects that you will certainly see, discuss, and dismiss with the peculiar vitriol of graduate student contempt, in this my son; and you are neither his relative nor his friend, you have your own soul in your own body, and your own free will like anybody else, and you are sitting in your own department’s seminar room, where you are lord and master just as much as the king is of his taxes, and you know that common saying, ‘Under my cloak a fig for the king.’ All of which exempts and frees you from every respect and obligation, and so you can say whatever you like about this history, without fear of being attacked for a hostile judgement or rewarded for a favorable one. Even, it could be said, with hope and yearning for the reward of a hostile judgement and avoidance of the humiliation of a favorable one.

I’d have liked to give it to you plain and naked, undecorated by any prologue or the endless succession of historiographical and theoretical musing, epigrams, and eulogies that are usually put at the beginning of books. Because I can tell you that, although it was quite an effort to write the book, producing the preface that you’re not reading was far worse. Many times I opened my MacBook to stare at a blank screen, and as many times I didn’t know what to say; and once when I was in this quandary, with the computer in may lap and a short double latte on the table, an elbow beside it and my head in my hand, wondering what I could write to impress you, dear seminarian, a friend of mine wandered by the corner of the coffee shop I have sequestered as my own these last months, a lively and clever man who, seeing me thoughtful or despairing according the to observer, asked me the reason, and I didn’t keep anything from him but said that I was thinking about the prologue that I had to write for my tenure book, and that it had reduced me to such state that I didn’t want to write it at all, still less publish it for the knaves of the discussion table to parry and poke.

“Because how do you expect me not be worried about the opinion of that ancient legislator called the academic apprentice when he sees that after all this time sleeping in the silence of oblivion, and burdened by the years as I am, I’m coming out with a book as dry as esparto grass, devoid of inventiveness, feeble in style, poor in ideas and lacking erudition and instruction, a triumph of tenurability riddled with superfluous endnotes in need of exposition, unlike other books I see that, even though they must certainly be fictional, are so crammed with maxims of Foucault, Marx, Bourdieu, Homi Bhabha and the whole herd of theorists that amaze their readers, who consider the authors to be well-read, erudite, and eloquent men? And when they quote the Holy Writ of Deleuze and Gattari! Anyone would take them for no less than so many aspiring Derridas and other canons ministering to the enfeebled body of knowledge. And here they maintain such an ingenious decorum that having depicted a dissolute lover on one line they provide on the next a little deconstruction, a pleasure and a treat to hear or read. There won’t be any of this in my book, because I haven’t anything to put in the margins or anything worthwhile for the notes at the end. Following their burgeoning skills as readers, my dear seminarians, I’ll have to invite them to simply skip the notes. Still less do I know what authors I have followed in my text so as to list them at the beginning, as others do, in alphabetical order beginning with Adorno and on to Gramsci and Lacan and finishing with Williams and Zizek, even though one that last is a slanderer and impostor. My book will also lack historiography at the beginning, or at least extensive exposition of those deans of the colonial literature from Madison and Austin and New Haven to generations beyond.” I continued, “I have decided that my tenure book will remain buried in the stacks of the few libraries that still have the money to purchase codices, and in the judgement file of my department’s promotion process. And though no parent longs to outlive their child, this seems a dignified death, less heaven or the press provide someone to adorn him with all these attributes that he lacks– I’m no up to it, because of my inadequacy and my scanty learning, and because I’m naturally lazy and disinclined to go hunting for authors to say for me what I know how to say without them. this is why I was so perplexed and distraught when you arrived, my friend: there is justification enough for it in what I’ve just told you.”

When he heard this my friend slapped his forehead, burst out laughing, and said:

“Good God, my dear fellow, you’ve just corrected a misconception I’ve been laboring under all this time I’ve known you, considering you to be sensible and judicious in everything you do. But now I can see you’re as far from being that as the heavens are from the earth. How can matters that are so trivial and easy to remedy have the power to engross and perplex a mind as mature as yours, accustomed as it is to demolishing far greater difficulties? I assure you this isn’t caused by any lack of ability on your part, but by an excess of mental indolence. Do you want to find out whether I’m telling you the truth? Well, pay attention, and you’ll see how in the twinkling of an eye I destroy all your problems and remedy all those deficiencies that, you say, are perplexing you and discouraging you from publishing the history of women and the law in late colonial Quito.”

“Tell me,” I replied once I’d heard him out, “how do you intend to fill the vacuum of my anxiety and turn the chaos of my confusion into clarity?”

To which he replied:

“Your first problem, about the epigrams and eulogies written by important theorists that you lack for the beginning of your book, can be remedied if you take the trouble to write them yourself and christen them and give them whatever names you like or simply use a search engine to google up some quotes, saving even more labors. The applicability of such epigrams matter not, and you can always adapt them to your purposes whatever their original meaning with a simple bracketed interjection or two; and even supposing the quotes don’t really work and some pedants and academics (are they distinguishable?) start their backbiting and their nit-picking about whether this is relevant or not, you mustn’t care a hoot about that, because even if they do find out that you were telling lies or proof-texting they aren’t going to cut off the hand with which you wrote them down. As for references in the text and notes to the books and authors from whom you take the sayings and maxims and models and theories that you include in your history, all you have to do is to stick in a few relevant bits here and there, whatever you can look up without too much trouble, such as when you’re writing about power:

"There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations"

And then in the margin, mention a little more Foucault or whoever it was that said it. You can even add some agency to your subject by universalizing its opposite:”

"Where there is power, there is resistance."

If you’re talking about the triumvirate of race, class, gender, go straight for the verbal kung fu of Butler, which you can do if you take just a little care, in a manner that will appear incontrovertible to the neophytes of the profession and allow you to ignore the subjects you wish not to write about: “Race and class are rendered distinct analytically only to produce the realization that the analysis of the one cannot proceed without the other. A different dynamic it seems to me is at work in the critique of new sexuality studies.” Or, simply take an aggressive stance towards all criticism and follow the Deleuzian path:

"The shame of being a man - is there any better reason to write?"

and,

"Every time someone puts an objection to me, I want to say: 'OK, OK, let's go on to something else.' Objections have never contributed anything."

And with these scraps, and other similar ones, you’ll be taken for a scholar, at least; and that brings no little honor nowadays.

As for beefing up your endnotes, you can easily do it like this: if you include a discussion of gender relations in the book, just include the term patriarchy, which will hardly be any trouble for you, and will give you a splendid endnote, because you will be able to say, “Exclusion from political power is indeed a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the particular form of patriarchal male domination, particularly in light of the poststructuralist insight into articulation of power throughout social and cultural forms,” in the chapter where you have written it. After that, to show that you’re erudite in the legal and cultural history, you could contrive to name a process as a thing, and there you have another fine endnote: “By judicial form, I mean to indicate the actual physical form used to submit petitions, document actions, make declarations, notate transactions, and so on, as well as the discursive form in which the documents were formed. There was a remarkable discursive continuity across the variety of acts that have entered the written record, encapsulated in the judicial form.” In short, all you have to do is contrive to mention these names or touch on these stories in your own story, and leave it to me to provide the endnotes and marginalia; I swear by al that’s scholarly to fill your margins, and use of reams and reams at the ned of your book.

Let us now consider the list of authors cited, which other books include and your lacks. The remedy for this is simplicity itself, because all you have to do is look for a book listing them all from A to Z, as you say, then copy this list into your own book; and if your deception is plain to see this won’t matter in the slightest, because you hardly need to use the authors anyway, and there could always be someone stupid enough to believe that you have used them all in shit simple, straightforward story of yours. Even if it serves no other purpose, you long list will at least lend your book an instant air of authority. Besides, people aren’t going to take the trouble to check whether you follow your authors or not, because they haven’t anything to gain from doing so.

What’s more, unless I’m much mistaken, this book of yours doesn’t need any of those features you say it lacks, because from beginning to end it is an invective against colonial histories. All that has to be done is to make the best use of imitation in what one writes; and the more perfect the imitation the better the writing. And since this work of yours is only concerned to destroy the authority and influence that certain books enjoy in the world and among the graduate-seminar reading public, there isn’t any need to go begging maxims from theorists, counsel from historiography, fables, clauses, or miracles from the virgin cults, but rather to attempt, using express, decorous and well-ordered words in a straightforward way, to write sentences that are both harmonious and witty, depicting what is in your mind to the ver best of your ability, setting out your ideas without complicating or obscuring them. You should also try to ensure that the melancholy woman is moved to laughter when she reads your history, the jovial woman laughs even more, the simpleton is not discouraged, the judicious marvel at its inventiveness, the serious-minded do not scorn it nor the wise fail to praise it. In short, always have as your aim the demolition of the ill-founded fabric of these books of history, despised by so many and praised by many more; and if this is what you achieve it will be no mean achievement.”

I listened in profound silence to what my friend said, and his words so stamped themselves on my mind that I accepted them without any argument and decided to use them for this prologue, in which, gentle seminarian, you will discover my friends intelligence, my good fortune in finding such a counsellor at a time of such need and your relief on finding that there will be no deviousness or circumlocution in this history of the women in late colonial Quito. I have no desire to extol the service I am rendering you in introducing you to such a noble and honorable subject as this; I won’t even solicit your thanks or appreciation for providing a book such as this for your dissection table. And so, may the grace of Clio grant you health, and maybe even employment someday my dear graduate student. Farewell.

*This is, obviously, Cervantes remixed. Thanks Penguin Classics!

About

Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Books, Research and Writing
6 comments on “a new prologue
  1. Nicolas C. says:

    Brilliant prologue! :)

  2. Brilliant – I shall make a point of copying it for myself to accquire the semblance of erudition!

  3. Miguel Gomez says:

    Nice

  4. Dr. Liz says:

    How short was that latte?

  5. ctb says:

    Short enough that the rest of the latte didn’t even need to be read.

  6. […] heard from are graduate students who’ve had it assigned for seminar. That prompted me to post a new prologue for the book on this site in August, in anticipation of just what a graduate student reading of any […]

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Chad Black

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I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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