We can rely on the contingency of our knowledge-gathering by setting up a triangular relationship between us and the objects of our studies. In doing so, we do not seek to juxtapose random texts, but to work, instead, to understand what kind of relationship we find between two apparently disparate topics. First, we can consider a more standard approach to scholarship, and the way we can look at different texts that have obvious linear connections to each other. Once we have a basic understanding of that process, we can examine the ways we can draw connections between texts that we just happen to be reading at the same time.
Consider the relationship between Vernon L. Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought (1927) and Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950). Trilling can only come to his conception of the liberal idea of the "real" through reading Parrington. I come to my understanding of Parrington, in part, by reading Trilling. By recognizing these lenses, we increase our self-awareness and create a reorganization of thought. Parrington (as read by me through Trilling) creates a narrative of American thinkers in socially and culturally determinant positions. He is one such thinker, too, and becomes situated in the narrative he has helped create. Because Parrington becomes canonical, Trilling discovers him, and, partially in resistance to his work, enters the same narrative. To further understand Trilling, we must consider his contextual relation to Parrington. What does it mean that he came to Parrington when he did? Then, we move on to a scholar who fits at the end of this line, such as Gene Wise, and continue the same narrative.1
The process we often take in this type of scholarship is to construct a somewhat linear narrative:
In creating such a lineage, we reinforce existing narratives, and place ourselves at the end of the story. Even if we resist preceding arguments, we enter into their narrative by debating them, thereby continuing an existing train. To break from these existing narratives, we can utilize our individual contexts. We can develop one way to utilize these contexts by setting up a triangulation between ourselves, Trilling, and Parrington:
We still examine the relationship between Trilling and Parrington, but we can also very self-consciously examine the ways in which we relate to and interact with each of these scholars. Our understanding can then begin to take shape through a web of ideas and an interconnected net of intellectual relationships. By drawing ideas from this net, we can take examine different approaches to the topics, and begin to see how a structured system can start to exist among seemingly randomly connected bits of information.
A juxtaposition of more seemingly unrelated sources can highlight this procedure. For example, if I am working with the texts of Ralph Waldo Emerson while reading John Irving for pleasure, I should bring the two together in a sort of triangulation. I first ask myself about my relationship with Emerson: "What am I trying to draw out of his texts? What seems to be the important hub to me?" Then I ask similar questions of my
Ralph Waldo Emerson
exchange with John Irving. In understanding my relationship with each author opens my eyes to a connection between the two. I sit down with Emerson's "Fate" and Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and start to work through Calvinist themes in influences between the two texts I just happened to have in my hands at the same time. I uncover that the works do have a dynamic interaction, and the acknowledgement of this exchange allows me to critique American mythology and religious influences through two unlikely sources.
This procedure may appear to be a fairly standard practice. People typically find similar themes in two works, and analyze the works based on those themes. Someone reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, for example, might be reminded of some of Emerson's later writings, and precede to develop connections between the two. However, I suggest that we should consciously attempt to find the connections between texts that we have immediately at hand. What has simultaneously drawn us to different texts may be subtle, but important. By trying to consciously understand the synchronicity of our readings, we can recognize aspects of the works that had previously been hidden from us. We will not always be able to articulate coherent connections between such works, but by relying on the contingent nature of our accumulation of knowledge, we can open doors to get through previously invisible walls.
1The choice of the Parrington-Trilling-Wise path may seem somewhat arbitrary, and perhaps forms a somewhat idiosyncractic lineage. I chose these authors simply because I had been working with them, and had been reading them reflect on their predecessors. The fact that these are simply the authors I had at hand should support my ideas about working with the texts at hand. Many narratives could be substituted with the same results. To use a more contemporary example, we could look at the scholarship that runs from Ralph Waldo Emerson through Van Wyck Brooks (and many others) through Joel Myerson.