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Words, Words, Words, or: Why Publish (remarks on the debut of the George Mason Review, an interdisciplinary undergraduate journal)

In Act 2 of Hamlet, Polonius comes upon Hamlet reading and asks him "what do you read, my lord." "Words, words, words" – "what is the matter, my lord?" –"between who?" – "I mean, the matter that you read, my lord." Hamlet's sarcastic answer occasions from Polonius one of those Shakespearean phrases that has entered the lexicon as an all-purpose saying: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

From this, we can extract two themes that may be relevant to tonight's celebration.

The first theme has three variations: Words matter—in the sense of bearing importance—and words matter—in the sense that they cause problems, the sense Hamlet obtusely insists on as he toys with Polonius—and words matter, in the sense that they are material things, part of the matter of the universe, especially when committed to ink and paper, as well as, these days, electrons and pixels. So the launching, or re-launching, of a Review, a journal, in the old parlance a "little magazine," matters.

The second theme has to do with method in madness.

It may seem an act of madness- or at least a bit Quixotic – to launch a "little magazine" in this era of consolidation, of abbreviation, of tweetification. It may actually BE mad to add another journal to the stack, which numbers in the hundreds (if you count only "little magazines" and general interest intellectual journals) or the thousands (if you bring in the range of specialist publications). It certainly will seem mad to some audiences in this age of specialization to insist on publishing work that, in the editor's words, "explores how to effectively incorporate improbable structures from other genres, disciplines, or fields."

But I would say, with Polonius, if this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Human nature (like nature itself) seeks balance. Low pressure systems draw cold winds from nearby highs as the atmosphere dynamically tries to even things out. Mountains are upthrust and then subside, or erode, until the Tetons become the Blue Ridge. Wildfire reclaims overmanaged land and gives it a fresh start, sometimes with a few less human structures on the margins. Intellectual movements and styles and trends also flare up and cool down, usually not returning to a status quo ante, but to a new dialectical synthesis that implies a corrective balancing act—and the chance to mess things up all over again in a new way.

So I think this is what is happening in the reinvigoration of the GM Review. Into a world where both scholarly and popular communication have made comfortable space for specialists and partisans talking only to each other (or themselves), the wise young minds of the Review invite – and here I am repeating various terms from the magazine's guidance for authors — clarity, enjoyment, challenging boundaries, making connections, having concern for the audience, and a host of other virtues that seem to me to be a balancing act against the current pendulum swing of academic and popular discourse.

So, to answer the question in my subtitle: Why Publish? I think there are several good reasons related to the concerns I've alluded to just now.

First, the writers, staff, and readers of the Review will be encouraged—actually required, if they live up to their ideals—to do a hard thing in today's world, what might be called "thinking long thoughts," staying with an idea until its perfect form is realized or its imperfections become part of the conversation. It is sometimes a slow, elongated conversation (another unfamiliar rhythm in the text and tweet era), across volumes and numbers and years, but these caesuras, these fermatas in the dialogue leave space for reflection and correction by both author and reader, enriching the subject and refining our perceptions. Publishing a Review that demands this kind of attention bodes well for the future of the academy and the society it serves.

Second, the notion that the Review intends to publish articles that blur distinctions between academic and creative forms of expression, and between disciplines and genres, strikes me as entirely possible and welcome. We invented these distinctions, after all, and each one of them can be approximately located as a moment where life became, paradoxically, both more precisely understood and harder to talk about. It will be both fun and profitable to see how the Review's authors maintain complexity while achieving clear communication across disciplines and in new forms.

They might think up things like the soundscape I heard on NPR this weekend, generated by meterological observations of Hurricane Katrina as it advanced on the Gulf Coast—composed of pure abstract data translated to sonic signatures, it was as patterned and multi-layered as any piece of minimalist music, but it opened up an unexpected new channel to the inside of that ferocious natural event. Or they might find new ways of making global-scale phenomena visible, like Tom Lovejoy did in last night's Vision Series lecture, by animating several years' worth of equatorial cloud formations—which looked like a beautiful dance of swirling silken veils but illustrated why the Amazon rain forest had two crippling droughts in the last decade. Or they might find new uses for old ideas and, with William Blake and Wendell Berry, see the world in a grain of sand or all nature in one's own backyard, making these things come alive in vivid words for new generations.

Third, publication suggests permanence or at least durability. It suggests opportunities for impulsive encounters with ideas, and not in the way that you might expect. Now, I love my i-Pad with almost unseemly passion, but in my office and at home I have back issues — read, partially read, and (truth be told, mostly) unread — of whole bunches of little magazines and journals, and from time to time they call to me in a way that the infinite riches that lie behind the shiny blank screen from Cupertino cannot. "Pick me up," they whisper, "open me, join the conversation." I never regret it when I answer that call. So I am glad that the Review will be available both in print and on-line, so as to exploit the differing strengths of ink and pixels.

We often say, and the Review's mission statement repeats, that at George Mason, innovation is tradition. But this may be one of those cases where, with due deference to new contexts, tradition is innovation. The time-honored but embattled tradition of high-level discourse that challenges boundaries and encourages creative expression of difficult ideas in a form that is accessible to the intelligent general reader is, in fact, a bit of an innovation in today's scholarly landscape. And that it is to be re-engaged here at Mason, entirely managed and written by undergraduates, qualifies as a genuine innovation indeed. Congratulations and best wishes for a long run!


This blog post was first published on April 27, 2011 on the George Mason University General Education blog. Rick Davis is an associate provost for undergraduate education at George Mason University.