By Craig Martin
The sculptor Michelangelo is claimed to have said:
In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.
Scholarship is like sculpting, as Michelangelo describes it, in at least two ways. On the one hand, we attempt to bring into relief for others what seems painfully obvious to ourselves about the world we see. On the other hand, when we as scholars bring something into relief out of the stuff of the world, we often pretend—like Michelangelo—to have merely found what we bring into existence. By contrast, while scholarship doesn’t create knowledge ex nihilo, scholarship is knowledge production. Something new is produced with every commentary. Or, as Derrida might put it, commentary is supplementary: the supplement both exceeds and produces what it claims to supplement. The (scholarly) sculptures we relieve from the stuff of the world are not created ex nihilo, but they nevertheless fabricate when claiming to describe. In a very real sense, scholarship is fiction.