The Books That Wouldn’t Die

The Red Dress for The Chronicle

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Scholars rarely write books like these anymore: ambitious, erudite works that boldly set forth big, original ideas but were written as much for other scholars as for a broad public.

These are the Undead Texts. Their ambition and success inevitably made these works targets of specialist rebuttals. There is probably not a single claim they make that subsequent scholarship has not queried, criticized, or refuted. Yet these texts refuse to die. Novices and experts alike remain susceptible to the spell they cast.

Though these zombies are too miscellaneous in subject matter and style to constitute a proper genre, they are a recognizable type. When we asked a dozen scholars, in classics, history, anthropology, literary studies, sociology, and philosophy, to participate in a conference dedicated to Undead Texts, no one had difficulty coming up with an example; indeed, most had numerous candidates. Nor did other colleagues, who reeled off their own titles: Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-­Element in Culture (1949), Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory (1966), Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).

Lorraine Daston and Sharon Marcus have defined Undead Texts as big, bold, original works of scholarship that don’t fit easily within any single discipline. These are books that have been aggressively queried, criticized, and refuted over the years, yet endure. Think Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

We’d like to hear from you: What’s your favorite Undead Text, and why? Later, we may publish a selection of feedback from readers. By sending us your thoughts, you give us permission to publish your submission, in whole or in part

Undead Texts display impressive scholarship, often drawing on original sources in other languages and disciplines. Works such as Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942), Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959), and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982) make strenuous demands on readers. Many were originally published by university presses and respectfully reviewed in learned journals. Some titles later migrated to trade presses as sales figures mounted: Langer’s book first appeared with Harvard University Press, then the New American Library (1951), before being reissued by Harvard (1957 and subsequent editions). Goffman’s The Presentation of Self was originally published by the University of Edinburgh Press and later by Doubleday Anchor (1959) and Penguin (1990).

By the end of their careers, Undead authors were laden with honors, made fellows of august academies, and awarded honorary degrees and prizes for lifetime achievement. With good cause: For all their iconoclasm, many of their books inaugurated subfields and even contributed to the founding of programs such as gender studies and nationalism studies. Most Undead Texts remained fixtures on undergraduate syllabi years after their publication and recruited a generation of scholars to their respective fields. They have never gone out of print.

Yet despite making their authors’ reputations, Undead Texts rarely received their disciplines’ most coveted book prizes. It is easy to see why: Although undeniably scholarly, Undead Texts were also, in their day and ours, radically antidisciplinary. They challenge the diction, scope, and preoccupations that keep branches of knowledge distinct. Their claims encompass continents and centuries, ignore the controversies raging in specialist journals, and are formulated with woodcut-like starkness, minus the hedges and qualifications addressed to other specialists. In contrast to narrowly focused monographs, Undead Texts tackle topics outside the disciplinary mainstream, blithely ignore periodization, and disregard the boundaries separating bodies of knowledge.

Undead Texts were written in a jargon-free but serious style, often by authors whose academic status was anomalous, whether by chance or design: Goffman had a sideline in casino gambling; Kuhn was trained as a physicist and held degrees in neither history nor philosophy; de Beauvoir held a doctorate in philosophy but, by the time she wrote The Second Sex, no academic position.

Scholarly but antidisciplinary as they are, Undead Texts have not become academic classics — works that continue to serve as disciplinary touchstones long after their footnotes have become outdated. Examples of such classics include Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946), Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944), A.O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (1970), and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1984). Undead Texts and classics share the aura conferred by renown, but unlike their more venerable cousins, Undead Texts have lost stature over time.

Though still widely read decades after their publication, today Undead Texts usually appear on graduate syllabi only to serve as the whipping boys of advanced training, examples not only of superseded answers but also of the wrong kinds of questions to ask. At least one prominent professor of sociology who claims to have loved Goffman’s The Presentation of Self when he first read it, in college, told us that he would never assign it to graduate students. When we asked recent Ph.D.s on social media whether they had read, cited, or taught The Second Sex, they replied that they saw its key purpose as illustrating the limitations of white bourgeois feminism. Undead Texts remain crucial to the history of their fields, but their arguments and methods are no longer seen as viable.

Undead Texts are not popularizations, although many enjoyed better sales figures than those of today’s crossover books. The authors of Undead Texts did not conceal their learning, even if they wore it lightly and wrote with élan. They buttressed original ideas with evidence from diverse and often novel sources, and aimed to persuade fellow scholars.

By contrast, popularizers often wield impressive academic credentials but tend to speak with their backs turned to the academy, translating arcane ideas into accessible edutainment. Popularizers speak with fluency and authority but rarely say anything new. They synthesize and simplify existing scholarship rather than add to it. For example, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), a popular explanation of why violence has declined, relies heavily on Norbert Elias’s Undead Text The Civilizing Process (1939) for many of its key ideas. Elias himself, however, developed the ideas original to him in the way scholars do: He immersed himself in primary sources, familiarized himself with the scholarly literature, and forged a new narrative of cultural history.

Undead Texts are now read by scholars only to indulge a guilty pleasure or to congratulate themselves on how far their discipline has come.

Authors of Undead Texts reframe what both academics and laypeople thought they knew: about nationalism, about religion, about scientific progress, about femininity. After reading these books, readers often see the world with new eyes. This reorganization of one’s mental furniture can last a lifetime, not least because Undead authors combine scholarly erudition with the popularizer’s talent for coining (or citing) memorable phrases: Kuhn’s paradigm shift; de Beauvoir’s "One is not born, one becomes a woman"; Mary Douglas’s repurposing, in Purity and Danger, of William James’s notion of dirt as matter out of place.

For all their virtues, however, most Undead Texts are now read by scholars only to indulge a guilty pleasure or to congratulate themselves on how far their discipline has come. The problem is not simply one of obsolete ideas and refuted arguments but also of untenable form: No one in the academy seems to be writing books like these anymore. Why not? How have scholarship and publishing changed, both institutionally and intellectually, since the years from 1920 to 1980, the heyday of Undead Texts?

One way of thinking about what happened is to imagine a two-by-two matrix in which the four squares are labeled Disciplinary and Scholarly (the usual academic monograph); Disciplinary and Unscholarly (the bad academic monograph); Antidisciplinary and Unscholarly (the popularization); and Antidisciplinary and Scholarly (the Undead Text). This fourth square, once a viable option, now seems like a contradiction in terms. Why?

The short answer is that disciplines now enjoy a monopoly over what counts as scholarly. The professionalization of the humanities and social sciences that has taken place over the past 40 years has standardized graduate training, career paths, publications, and the criteria of academic evaluation. As a result, disciplines have become more disciplined — and less tolerant of brilliant outliers like the Undead Texts. For the same reasons, marketing departments of trade publishers now use the term "scholarly" as an epithet, synonymous with the strictest and narrowest conventions.

Subtler forces have conspired to erase the fourth square of the matrix once occupied by Undead Texts. Chief among them is a shift in the meaning of historicism. Many of the Undead Texts were deeply historicist, informed by a panoramic grasp of multiple epochs and cultures, and alert to how the most fundamental assumptions about sex, literacy, nation states, cleanliness, and the sacred could be made and remade. But their authors’ historicism did not stop them from drawing analogies between apparently unrelated phenomena and seeking overarching patterns. Simone de Beauvoir compared women in France to African-Americans in the United States. Kuhn established a template for scientific revolutions from Copernicus to quantum mechanics. Walter Ong likened the verbal jousting of Caribbean men to the agonistic battles in The Iliad. Goffman linked the role-­playing of waiters in a 1950s restaurant to the conduct codes of 19th-century monarchs.

In contrast, the brand of historicism that began to take hold in the humanities and humanistic branches of the social sciences around 1980 enshrined local context as its unit of analysis. Scholarship now emphasizes variability and specificity in ways that discourage cross-historical and cross-cultural comparisons. Under pressure from the encroachments of both economics and sociobiology, the humanities turned historicism into a shield against unwelcome reductionism — and a weapon against what were perceived to be reckless and politically regressive generalizations.

Consequently, the very fields created by Undead Texts now fault them as being too quick to flag cross-cutting similarities and too slow to acknowledge differences. Feminists criticize de Beauvoir as lapsing into the essentialism she sought to overturn. Historians of science dismiss Kuhn as homogenizing the particularities that distinguish one scientific revolution from another. Scholars of nationalism fault Benedict Anderson for obscuring local differences with his schematic account of nations as imagined communities. The dazzling diversity of evidence that Undead Texts marshaled to make their points, once a badge of broad learning and deep insight, now seems irresponsible, the very essence of unscholarly.

Could the antidisciplinary but scholarly text be revived? Should it be? It was always risky to write such books. Those risks have only risen for scholars whose hopes of academic employment often depend on sticking to the disciplinary straight and narrow. Furthermore, the polyglot erudition so characteristic of Undead Texts is increasingly incompatible with the emphasis on speed and efficiency in turning out Ph.D.s, at least in Anglophone research universities. Finally, brilliance is, by definition, always in short supply. Undead Texts were and remain virtuoso high-wire acts without a net.

One of the strongest arguments for tenure has been that security encourages its holders to take risks to advance scholarship. The problem with Undead Texts is not that they are unscholarly; it is that they are antidisciplinary. Yet all of us who have taught undergraduates know that it will probably be an Undead Text they’ll remember the longest. The brighter the student, the deeper the impression left by a work that defies current scholarly conventions by straddling specialties and zooming out from the local. Those same students, if they go on to graduate school, will be taught to sharpen their critical teeth by tearing apart the very texts that led them to devote their lives to their fields. Has the time come to rethink a definition of scholarship that excludes the very texts that once mesmerized and inspired us?

Lorraine Daston is director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, and a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is Against Nature (MIT Press, 2019). Sharon Marcus is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the editor of Public Books. Her new book, The Drama of Celebrity, will be published by Princeton University Press in June.