Contemporary scholarship has a content problem. I do not mean that there is anything wrong with the actual contents of academic criticism. Rather, I mean that the academy focuses too narrowly on innovations in content. We assume that advances in modern scholarship will arrive as content-ideas and not as form-ideas. This state of affairs is endemic to an academic situation that privileges publication over pedagogy, knowledge of smaller periods over broad-based investigation, and that allows an economy of information to dictate an increasingly unjust labor market.

 We should rethink academic labor as constituted by innovations in form, remapping scholarship as performance. If we value scholarship as the creation of aesthetic experiences of information, as much as the creation of argumentative turns, then it becomes easier to see why constructing an expertly conducted, interactive, digitally-enhanced lecture course should count as much for scholarship as a new argument about the literature of any given period. Furthermore, such an attention to form increases theoretical pressure on the research-driven, two-tiered academic world that benefits an increasingly small percentage of faculty.[1] This focus also helps us think more clearly about the "public humanities" – a valuable content-idea that will disappear if we do not properly value its innovations.[2]

What might such scholarship look like? Consider, as an example, the academic cabaret organized by the academic-artist hybrid group Our Literal Speed, entitled "On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 2011." At one point in the evening, art historian Claire Bishop was slated to give a talk, "Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity." Bishop walked up to the podium, put down her lecture notes, and returned to her seat. A hired performer dressed in a burlesque costume took Bishop's place and began to perform the lecture. As Mashinka Firunts wrote in her review of the event: “The performer gingerly sips a glass of white wine. She transitions to drinking straight from the bottle and swaggers into the audience. She announces, ‘We must therefore ask, what is the relationship of outsourced performance to the market?’ She removes her pumps and absentmindedly spreads her legs. She assaults a politely obliging Princeton professor with her décolletage. She requests assistance pronouncing ‘fetishistic.’”[3]

When, following the outsourced lecture, Theaster Gates pounded rhythmically on the lectern and chanted, "I want the value of my labor, artistic labor," the audience saw that this was not mere self-reflexivity, but part of a battle cry for a new aesthetic education: one in which the content and the form of our intellectual labor in fact works towards the social conditions that would give it meaning. Such a collective, organized performance may be beyond what most of us can reasonably accomplish, but even simple gestures of formal innovation can advance our scholarship. For example Margaret Price, a scholar of disability studies, passes out notecards for people to write questions and comments on during her lecture, so as to interrupt the presumed orality of academic interaction, which excludes any number of physical and mental dispositions.

Such activities require time and collaboration; they also require being brave enough to risk looking foolish. But the form-content of aesthetic experience is always a part of the work we do, and it is time to engage it more broadly and more conscientiously. Performative scholarship calls upon us to think beyond the restriction of our scholarship to pure content, and invites us to make the presentational and formal varieties of teaching, political organizing, database-making, and creative writing, among others, equal aspects of our scholarly careers.



[1] This is not at all to suggest that full-time faculty are responsible for the corporatization of university life, but it is to insist that in such a context we need to find more robust vocabularies to defend the value of non-tenure track faculty.

[2] And, indeed, if we do not respect the fact that public university teaching is already "public humanities," as Kristen Case has recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

[3] My interest in performative scholarship has grown through my collaborations with Firunts and Danny Snelson. I owe my claims here to many conversations with them over the past few years.