You Probably Think this Essay Is About You

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

A few years ago a brief blog post made the rounds on social media: the blogger had uploaded a photo of a single page of an academic book with the lead-in “This May Be the Best ‘Acknowledgments’ Section of All Time.” The page itself read:

I blame all of you. Writing this book has been an exercise in sustained suffering. The casual reader may, perhaps, exempt herself from excessive guilt, but for those of you who have played the larger role in prolonging my agonies with your encouragement and support, well … you know who you are, and you owe me.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha.

At first I found the performance mildly amusing, as presumably did all the people who retweeted it and posted it on Facebook. But after the quick flash of cynical recognition faded, it just depressed me. Yes it’s a good joke—of that particular genre of academic humor that pretends to be wryly self-deprecating but is really wryly self-congratulatory. (See, for example, the wonderful moment in 30 Rock when Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon comfort themselves after doing something particularly dastardly: “[Jack] We might not be the best people…. [Liz] But we’re not the worst! [In unison] Graduate students are the worst.”) Of course there’s nothing wrong with being self-congratulatory in an Acknowledgments section; that’s one of its core functions—the business of actually thanking people aside. What really depressed me about this one was the thought that its author, in the service of a joke, had thrown away his one opportunity to publicly express gratitude to the people who had supported and encouraged him throughout the arduous process of writing an academic monograph. Why would anyone do that?

It made me start thinking harder about the true purpose of the Acknowledgments section, and its status as a genre. What do those of us who write and read them imagine are their audience? And what do we intend them to actually do in the world? Of course one traditional function of the public declaration of thanks is to assert scholarly pedigree and intellectual genealogy. I know that many people read—and write—these sections as a performance of credentials. Here are the people I studied with, this is the scholarship that influenced me, these are the respected colleagues who presumably approve of the content of this study. Aside from the blurbs on the back of the book and the reputation of the press, the Acknowledgments section is the main place where a reader can decide—if such credentials are important to such a reader—whether or not the book is a worthwhile read.

But Acknowledgments also have a personal and private character as well. The Acknowledgments section of my own book is pretty much the exact opposite of this guy’s: clocking in at three small-fonted pages, it’s verbose, maudlin, and full of stupid inside jokes—basically the worst kind of Oscar acceptance speech. If there was a textual equivalent of swelling music to play me off the stage, it would kick in around ¾ of the way through the time it takes the average reader to get through it. The fact is, when I sat down to write my own statement of thanks, I didn’t fully think through the fact that complete strangers might someday read it. Even though I know that many people read Acknowledgments sections in order to glean the kind of information I’ve already listed, I never read them myself unless I (narcissistically) expect to find my name there. I think of the whole enterprise as private, like the VIP room in a club or something, and it’s faintly intrusive to poke your head in unless you’re invited.

But of course that’s just silly; to acknowledge means to identify, to recognize. Besides, if I really thought the whole thing was meant to be perfectly private then I wouldn’t have been so discomfited by Mr. “I Blame All of You”; in a way that author’s statement ratifies the privacy of the whole enterprise. “You know who you are,” says the writer, and this is between you and me. When I look at it this way, it’s actually kind of lovely, and certainly could be read as the logical extension of my own belief that Acknowledgments are a holy matter between the author and his peeps.

Yet I still find it weird. I rather think the Acknowledgments section should be poised, Goldilocks-like, halfway between a public performance and a ritual of private relationship. Yes, it’s between you and your inner circle, but when you write it you are (or should be—oops!) imagining other people observing your privacy and speculating about it and maybe even feeling a bit envious of it—not just your professional pedigree and impeccable training, but also your supportive famous mentors and your warm circle of friends and your loving family. I will now confess, from this relatively safe distance, that although I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, I certainly must have had some such slightly icky motivations percolating in the back of my mind while composing mine. Perhaps I fantasized about the one or two people I strategically omitted—You know who you are—and imagined their utter devastation upon eagerly scanning my Acknowledgments (having of course followed my career closely and ordered an advance copy of my book direct from the publisher) and not finding their names; the crestfallen disappointment; the personal soul-searching followed by a remorseful reaching out to the Author (a.k.a. Me) to acknowledge and bewail their manifold sins and wickedness; my beautiful and magnanimous gesture of forgiveness followed by a tender rapprochement. (My revenge fantasies always close with tender rapprochement; this is perhaps a failure of imagination on my part.) The more fulsome and detailed and personal the thanks I heaped on my posse, the more stark and chilling would seem the exclusion of the Naughty Ones. Surely some such tiny prickle of motivation lurks in the breast of all Acknowledgments writers? If not the explicit desire for punishment, at least the vague sense that our public thanks will make some impression even on those who are not thanked?

I’m now starting to think that rather than the Oscar acceptance speech, the monograph Acknowledgments section is the scholarly equivalent of teenagers who have loud melodramatic conversations on the bus: while there’s some communication going on, a big part of the whole performance is narcissistic—you can feel their hope that everyone around them is following their fascinating conversation about the party last night and how many times Melanie got sick and whether Blaine took Chelsea home or what. And the truth is, we are listening to their chatter—although perhaps not in the way that they imagine. Rather than sitting in rapt admiration of their compelling lives, we’re wincing at the pettiness of their obsessions, judging them for their poor decision-making, or even just wishing they would pipe the fuck down so we can concentrate on our Kindles.

This idea that the “outside” reader of an Acknowledgments section—let alone the notion that such an animal existed in great numbers—would be getting something out of it other than what the author intended has come home to me forcefully recently. While my own Acknowledgments garnered almost no acknowledgments—except for one friend (you know who you are) who kindly wrote to tell me that she and her colleagues at the journal where she works really enjoyed reading them—my spouse’s apparently caused a bit of a stir when his book came out a couple of years later. Okay, “bit of a stir” is an exaggeration; but he and I were both shocked when at least two reviewers of his book latched onto his Acknowledgments section and decided to perform public close readings of it in the course of other professional duties.

Be It Ever So Humble thoroughly empties home of its ideological, epistemological, and economic symbolic order such that one will never use the word in quite the same way after reading this book. Yet MacKenzie does. He frames his acknowledgments, even as he acknowledges his critique of home, as a way of marking those who have given him ‘the comforts of home,’ including his partner, Deanna Kreisel, with whom ‘I am home’ (Kreisel is often cited throughout the book for her work on economics in nineteenth-century literature, perhaps bringing things too close to home).

• • •

Particularly revealing is MacKenzie’s acknowledgements section, that academic paratext that pulls back the curtain to reveal a carefully posed group portrait of the author’s professional and private milieu. MacKenzie’s introduction and chapters will unmask the homestead and the homeland as the handmaidens of capitalism and colonialism. But his acknowledgements have already disavowed this critique before it has even gotten underway: ‘This book takes issue with home and its ideals, but my critiques don’t imply that I have been deprived personally of the benefits and comforts of home’ (ix). What follows is a paean to homeboys, homegirls, homies, and home institutions … that ends with an apostrophe to MacKenzie’s colleague and (one infers) spouse or domestic partner Deanna Kreisel: ‘With you, I am home’ (x). Kreisel reappears as a scholarly ally and authority in the body of the text. The idea that the family that writes together cites together constitutes a gloriously welcome twenty-first century updating of earlier domestic ideals, of course, but it also suggests that home comforts may be harder to give up than the logic of MacKenzie’s excellent study should make us wish.

W. T. F.?

[Here Doctor Waffle puts her essay draft aside for a period of contemplation. Having reached the climax of her fulminations—perhaps, if we’re being honest, their raison d’être—she is at a loss as to how to proceed. Can she simply end the piece with “W. T. F.”? We think not.]

Since the genre obliges me to say something analytical, insightful, and—in the ideal world—witty about the passages above, I will begin with the low-hanging fruit: a brief gender critique. Can we imagine a reviewer taking a woman author to task for citing her husband’s work in her monograph? Implying that in doing so, she was allowing the domestic sphere to impinge on her scholarship or was even undermining her own argument? Does patriarchy extend to a collective unconscious sense that if a male author receives intellectual succor—as opposed to the more traditional secretarial kind—from a female compatriot, that he has somehow cast doubt on his scholarly pedigree? That a wifely interlocutor is somehow suspect, but a George Henry Lewes figure in the background is simply to be expected (since surely a female intellectual didn’t come up with this stuff out of her own pretty little head)?

Yet I don’t think this obvious insight is the main reason these two citations disturb me so much. They feel, frankly, like an invasion of privacy. Yes, yes, I know I have hardly been consistent about whether the Acknowledgments section is (or should be) a public performance or private wank, but surely these clever, arch readings of an Acknowledgments section in the course of a book review, pulling the material therein into the orbit of the book’s thesis, is crossing a bridge too far. Or is this critical performance discomfiting only because the author is still alive and kicking (and, at that time, untenured)? I couldn’t even begin to count the words I’ve expended on the “paratexts” of George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, etc., in my own critical writing. But those writers are comfortably dead, and thus forever beyond the bright circle of polite privacy we draw around living authors. Or at least certain kinds of living authors. If you’re a literary type then your paratexts are up for interpretive grabs: our job as readers and critics is to figure out what you’re trying to say, and thus we feel justified in throwing your epigraphs and dedications at the wall to see what will stick. But with a work of academic criticism, surely it is unseemly to “read” this peripheral material in the same way? The thesis should be right there, and more or less—depending on when and where you trained in graduate school—clearly articulated, and it feels against the rules to go poking around in the author’s underwear drawer in order to read against the grain. Such critical heroism should be reserved for our proper objects of study, and we have a gentlepersonly agreement not to do it to one another. George Eliot may, at times, “not be in full control” of her intended meaning, but dagnabbit, when I write about her I sure am. Or at least you should grant me the courtesy of pretending you believe that.

So there you have it. My Acknowledgments section is a swirl of contradictory imperatives, and that’s the way it must be. It’s private yet archly public; it’s about the writing of the book but has nothing to do with the book itself; you’re meant to read it but must pretend you haven’t. So please just leave it alone—at least until after I’m dead.