Everything you know is dead
Yet another long post about literary criticism and theory and things. You have been warned—again.
Early last year, I announced that literary theory was dead. Now, just this past May, while I wasn’t looking, Judith Halberstam announced The Death of English. Well, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. First the author, then Man, then theory, then English. Where are we going to put all these bodies?
Now, I’m fond of Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, which I recommend not merely for its adventures in gender-bending but also for its brief, charming queer reading of the movie Babe. But the disciplinary history of English isn’t her strong suit. There’s a great deal to quibble over in her essay, but I really can’t keep asking my faithful readers to plow through extremely long posts and neglect their jobs, so, ye faithful readers, I will call to your attention only to a couple of things.
Halberstam argues that we need to rethink and rename “English,” mainly because the kind of work now done in English departments far exceeds the old boundaries of the field. And she promises that if we rename the field, we will somehow be able to resist administrative downsizing and respond to right-wing attacks on “liberal bias on college campuses and so on”:
the study of culture and the function and meaning of culture has moved far beyond the boundaries of the English department and rather than respond by expanding, morphing, shifting and transforming into some other kind of discipline or inter-discipline, English professors have made and keep making the mistake of digging in. We in English need to update our field before it is updated by some administrations wishing to downsize the humanities and before student questions about the relevance of the 18th century novel or Victorian poetry or restoration drama become a referendum on the future of the field. . . .
I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism. While we may all continue doing what we do—reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies—once we call it something other than “English,” (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.) it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general, or within administrative plans for down-sizing; it will also, I propose, be better equipped to meet the inevitable demands (which already began to surface after the last election) for an end to liberal bias on college campuses and so on.
OK, color me skeptical. Short of renaming the English department “Patriotism Studies”—and retooling the curriculum accordingly—we’re not going to equip ourselves to deal more effectively with David Horowitz and George Will simply by putting out a new shingle reading “cultural studies” or “critical theory.” Likewise, name changes have relatively little impact on administrative budget decisions. English department faculty lines have indeed been reduced over the past thirty years, partly because (a) English professors keep saying that they’re suffering “massive declines in enrollment” (Halberstam’s phrase) even though they’re not, (b) English faculty are sometimes so fractious that they cannot agree on what hors d’oeuvres to have at a reception, let alone on the “mission” of the department, and (c) universities find it cheaper to staff freshman composition with graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts than with full-time faculty, and much of the English department spreadsheet is devoted to staffing freshman composition.
Which brings me to the “mission” of the department. I will have to be blunt: no kind of renaming or reorganizing is going to make English a coherent, tidy discipline. It would be hard enough to make it coherent if it were devoted solely to literature; literature, as even the most hidebound traditionalists ought to admit one of these days, is a terribly amorphous thing that touches on every conceivable facet of the known world—and, as if this weren’t enough, many facets of worlds yet unknown as well. You want to organize it? Good luck. Or maybe, after structuralism and deconstruction, we could try to organize it around “textuality” rather than “literature.” That would be a fun thing, substituting one unstable, shape-shifting foundation for another. (For more fun in this vein, see Peggy Kamuf’s The Division of Literature: Or the University in Deconstruction and John Mowitt’s Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object).
But it so happens that the English department is not devoted solely to literature. And before anyone gets all worked up about Theory this and Film that and Gender the other (whether pro or con, and with either small or large “o” in other), let me point out that the really destabilizing force in the English department is rhetoric. You know, the Truly Old School, kickin’ it Quintilian style. In my own department, “rhetoric” covers things like African-American Vernacular English; ancient and classical oratory; writing across the curriculum; and pretty much everything else, including theory. And why not? The department of English (in its American incarnations) has never been devoted entirely to the study of literature; most departments were developed under the rubric “language and literature,” and the study of language goes pretty far afield, folks. It’s not that the horses have left the disciplinary barn and are now running loose all over the place; it’s that there was no barn to begin with. (Scholars in rhetoric and composition have made this point about “English” many times, actually. Someone really ought to pay attention.)
That’s one reason why Halberstam’s analysis of the field is a bit awry:
English departments are now regularly supplemented in humanities divisions by interdisciplinary programs like American studies, Modern Thought & Literature (Stanford) and History of Consciousness (University of California at Santa Cruz). These interdisciplinary programs emerged as the result of shifts in the discipline that English could not accommodate and, in my opinion, they should be able to replace the traditional English department in the future by recognizing the impossibility of studying literature separate from other forms of cultural production and by exposing the counter-intuitive logic of building Humanities divisions around departments dedicated to the study of the literature and culture of the British Isles. American national culture, after all, does not derive in any obvious way from Britain and it certainly cannot any longer claim stronger links to British cultural history than to the cultural histories of the Americas or the Pacific Rim.
I’m afraid these aren’t good examples. Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness and Stanford’s Modern Thought and Literature are doctoral programs, not supplements to the English department, and they have as much to do with the social sciences as with the humanities. They did not, in fact, emerge as a result of shifts in the discipline that English could not accommodate; they were created before those shifts took place (1967, for History of Consciousness; and does anyone know what year Albert Guerard founded MTL? Late 60s, right?). As for American studies, oh, goodness, that’s a whole nother story. But suffice it to say that substantial, interdisciplinary American studies programs exist on a relatively (and strikingly) tiny number of campuses.
And as for those British Isles: I would be surprised if there were very many English departments in the United States devoted to the study of the literature and culture of the British Isles. In the departments with which I’m familiar (as professor, visitor, observer, or former student), the curriculum is pretty evenly divided between the British Isles and the good old U.S. of A. As for why we continue to focus more on those Isles rather than on the Americas or the Pacific Rim, well, much of that has to do with the English language itself, rather than with our links to British cultural history. Yes, the discipline of English was once severely Anglophilic in the Eliot-Leavis mode, and in a couple of places still is. But the truly astonishing thing is not that we continue to study the literature and culture of the British Isles; outside of Shakespeare, who remains extremely popular on campus and off, most undergraduates aren’t doing too much reading in British literature before 1800. Rather, the astonishing thing is that we devote so little time and energy to the study of contemporary world literatures in English. I say this not out of self-interest—I know far too little about the field, so little that if I had the capacity for shame I would be ashamed of myself—but simply out of the recognition that while we “English” professors are sitting around squabbling about theory here and rhetoric there and tweaking the undergraduate curriculum just so, the English-language writers of Asia, Africa, and Australia have been coming up with all kinds of stuff. I hear there’s even another English-speaking country on this very continent, but I don’t remember its name.
Still, this point is (I think) very much in the spirit of Halberstam’s essay. The next one isn’t. Halberstam writes, in response to Gayatri Spivak’s defense of “close reading,” that
while Spivak’s investment in the “close reading” and formalism betrays the elitist investments of her proposals for reinvention, I urge a consideration of non-elitist forms of knowledge production upon the otherwise brilliant formulations of The Death of a Discipline. If the close reading represents a commitment to a set of interpretive skills associated with a very particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, the plot summary indicates a much wider commitments to knowledge production, high and low.
When I first read this, I said softly to myself, “no no no no no no no no.” But since that’s not a sufficient argument, let me supplement it by saying that close reading is not, in fact, elitist. Although it was once applied to a particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, it is not forever tainted by that association. Hey, you can’t use that—don’t you know that Cleanth Brooks once used that on John Donne? And you know, if cultural studies (which Halberstam invokes early in the essay) taught us anything, it taught us that cultural practices do not have fixed meanings that they carry around with them from epoch to epoch, continent to continent. In the right hands (ours, naturally), close reading is a good thing, and we ought to keep on doing it, not least because it remains one of our best defenses against the lies and slander of our attackers. And we should make it clear—much clearer than we have to date—that close readings (or, if you like, skills in advanced literacy) are precisely what English departments have to offer. They’re our distinct product line; they’re what we sell people—and even better, they’re a product that just doesn’t wear out. Once you know how to do one, you can do more of ‘em. And you don’t have to confine yourself to literary works, either. You can go right ahead and do close readings of any kind of “text” whatsoever, in the most expansive sense of that most expansive word. I said something like this at the end of Public Access, too. (What, you thought I was going to get through a long post without quoting something I wrote 12 years ago? You thought wrong.)
The work of literary critics just is the work of interpretation, and the teaching and training of literary critics is the teaching and training in varieties and possibilities of interpretation. Historicizing a text, speaking its silences, making manifest its “latencies,” reading its rhetorics, interrogating its implicit assumptions or explicit propositions about race or gender or nation or sexuality or “culture”—this is what we do, and what we try to interest our students in doing. We make the promise that if you do these things, if you practice the fine arts of textual interpretation, you will “get more out of” your readings, in terms of your own symbolic economy: you will learn the process of constructing analogies, drawing inferences, making finer and firmer intertextual connections among the texts you’ve read and the texts that compose your world. In theory, you can do this in nearly any field of human endeavor, from astrophysics to sports commentary, but you can probably do it best in those fields that give the widest possible latitude to understanding the formative and “productive” aspects of language, where the interpretation of discourses and rhetorics necessarily involves interpretation of the discursive and nondiscursive work that “discourses and rhetorics” have done in the world.
If I were rewriting that passage today—say, like right now—I’d strike “literary critics” and say “humanists” instead. It was too parochial a formulation the first time around. And that’s why, despite my argument about our inattention to contemporary English literature, I wouldn’t want the Department of English to be reconstituted as the Department of World Literatures in English; it’s still too parochial, insofar as it doesn’t give rhetoric its proper respect (old schools and new). Instead, we could reconceive the English department and make it more marketable in one stroke, by calling it the Department of Uneeda Close Reading.
Hey! This post is already too damn long. I was going to proceed from here to do a close reading of Mark Bauerlein’s essay on “Theory’s Empire,” recently posted at Butterflies and Wheels, but I think I’ll give you all a break for once. Stay tuned for John McGowan’s Thursday Guest Post tomorrow, and I’ll be back on Friday with an arbitary but fun value judgment. The close reading of Bauerlein will just have to wait until after the weekend.
What if we were to change the “British Isles” to the “Anglophone world” in her critique of the “counter-intuitive logic of building Humanities divisions around departments dedicated to the study of the literature and culture of the British Isles”? Or delete “in English” from your phrase “the astonishing thing is that we devote so little time and energy to the study of contemporary world literatures in English”? The oft-criticized philologists aside, what is there about the (unchanging, elemental unit of the) English Language that justifies the “English” rather than the generic “Lit” approach (and here, arguing about the shortcomings of “world lit” is as fair as criticizing the notion of women’s basketball on the basis of the shortcomings of the WNBA). I’ve been reading Masuzawa’s “The Making of World Religions,” which has its flaws but made me think about the inherent hierachies in the way disciplines such as “comp lit” are positioned.Posted by on 06/29 at 03:25 PM
Short answer, MarkC—as a pedagogical matter, we’d have to make those unavoidable concessions to the necessity-and-impossibility of translation, since we have so few students (and faculty!) who can read world literatures in their languages of composition. Yes, we already make those concessions in Western Civ survey courses, for everything from The Iliad to Don Quixote, but it’s an even more vexing problem when you consider the vast amount of contemporary world writing outside the Anglophone world and the pidding amounts that translators get paid.
But that reminds me—Halberstam’s entirely right about language study. More, more, more.Posted by Michael on 06/29 at 03:30 PM
But I want to read what you have to say about Bauerlein’s essay. It inspired my own blog post, even if I didn’t acknowledge the source of my ruminations ... now you’ve got me hungry for the Bérubé touch.Posted by Steven Rubio on 06/29 at 03:33 PM
"Short of renaming the English department “Patriotism Studies”—and retooling the curriculum accordingly—we’re not going to equip ourselves to deal more effectively with David Horowitz and George Will simply by putting out a new shingle reading “cultural studies” or “critical theory.””
Do you think Horowitz might accept District Commissariat for Mandatory Literary Patriotism as a sort of compromise?Posted by on 06/29 at 03:39 PM
So, what does Halb. do with foreign language departments?
Are these foreign language depts—with their teaching of language basics, teaching how to teach language basics, and giving a wide set of texts in that language, largely from the language’s designated country of origin—just echoes of what we do in English and equally dead?
Would they be folded into her program of Culture, which, after all, includes, well, everything that’s done partially on purpose?Posted by on 06/29 at 03:45 PM
please remember to write about Bauerlein’s essay - I love the “theory was better back when it was punk!” approach - it used to be about the theory, man, and now it’s all name-dropping and posing.
But I was stopped dead in my tracks when listing the trendy things theorists were up to (writing for People magazine, etc.) unionizing TAs was one of them. ??? huh? Mentioning that right next to the skirt made of neckties is absurd no matter where you stand on the issues at hand.Posted by on 06/29 at 04:37 PM
I believe the course of study known as “Patriotism Studies” has already been instituted at Fort Huachuca’s University of Military Intelligence.Posted by on 06/29 at 04:45 PM
Taking a page out of your book, Michael, I’m going to quote myself--from a sentence in the conclusion of my disseration (which I defend Aug. 18) and that I wrote only a few days ago (I cite both you and Halberstam in the chapter, by the way):
“Neither rhetoric, nor English, nor the liberal arts needs—in theory, at least—a unifying theory. The simplest way to support this claim is point out two incontrovertible facts. First, few if any disciplines actually have unifying theories or methodologies, which is another way of saying that all disciplines, to a greater or lesser degree, have internal strife. Second, there are many very healthy disciplines in academe. Ergo, unifying theories are not necessary for the healthy functioning of disciplines.”
Which is not to say we couldn’t use one--but the question then becomes: what is the difference between a discipline and a department? In Halberstam’s article, as in your post, that line appears to be awfully thin, but it’s really, often, quite fat. Tell me, for example: do you really feel as if you are in the same discipline as Paul Prior, a sociohistoric ethnographer who holds no degrees in English and who writes in the social scientific language of “chronotopic laminations” and “cultural historical lifeworlds” and studies students learning to write in graduate school? Literature isn’t even on his radar, nor, I would be willing to bet, are the “laminated chronotopes” of “literate activity” on yours. But, at Illinois, you *were* in the same department.
Maybe you could post on this (and maybe your post will help me work through couple problems in my conclusion I’m still working out!)Posted by on 06/29 at 04:57 PM
"Close reading is elitist.” Wow. That would make *reading* elitist, since if you’re not reading closely, it’s hard to see how you’re reading at all. But wait! Reading *is* elitist. After all, most people don’t do it! Damn if she hasn’t got our number!
This is probably the campus version of an urban legend, so you’ve probably all heard this, but let me relay an anecdote from my undergrad Shakespeare class.
The prof in the anecdote (not mine), one of those old guys who probably knew Shakespeare as a small boy, has a dozen Sh’re plays on the syllabus. The course begins with Hamlet. They discuss the ghost in Act I, Scene I. The prof digresses, over several days, on ghosts in Elizabethan lit, contemporary religious beliefs about ghosts, the Reformation controversy over ghosts and Purgatory, etc., etc. And the whole course goes like that.
By 2/3 of the way through the semester, they’re in like Act III of Hamlet, and one day a brave student dares to raise his hand and inquire whether the class will really be responsible for all the plays on the syllabus, being as they seem unlike to even finish H. that semester.
At which the old guy draws himself up magnificently, harumphs! loudly, and declares, “Of course you are responsible for them all! I am not here to teach you the plays. I am here to teach you the method.”Posted by on 06/29 at 06:33 PM
Your prose has not been so enthralling since the glory days of yesteryear, when you became a Republican and the Bush Daughters held forth on the fate of their own hamster.Posted by on 06/29 at 07:38 PM
i didn’t know you on January 28, 2004, and thus had absolutely no reason to read the posting on the death of theory. having done so now (being one of those graduate students on whom is foisted the responsibility of teaching freshman composition at a major state university and, concomitantly, doing everything in my power to avoid class preparation), i dare say it’s the funniest thing i’ve read in years. i particularly liked Eve’s sly insertion of a Foucault title, but fail to understand why queer theory can’t be both nonsense and hogwash, as this homosexual has often thought it to be. shhh. don’t tell Dr. Caserio.Posted by on 06/29 at 08:40 PM
Count me in for re-claiming “elitist” as a non-insult. It should be a value-neutral description, not a term of approbation. Of course, there is such a thing as non-close reading, and it’s the most common type of reading (if “close” is to have any meaning, which it should). And yeah, close reading is an elitist activity, just like solving differential equations is elitist, or playing Rachmaninoff, or deploying phrases like “non-elitist forms of knowledge production.”
Obligatory substance: it’s fun to try to accurately describe the ill-defined and constantly shifting boundaries of disciplinary discourse, but a waste of time to be constantly re-describing university departments to conform to them. The cost of updating CV’s and departmental stationery alone would be prohibitive.Posted by Sean on 06/29 at 09:02 PM
Damn you, Konczal. Damn you. Of course I was going to mention Bauerlein’s cavalier dismissal of TA unionizing, and now everyone is going to think it was your idea. Well. I suppose that’s what I get for tipping my hand about my next substantive post!
Likewise, Lance, damn you. I was, indeed, going to post something one of these days on the difference between a discipline and a department, and I was going to say some really incisive things about why the rhetoric of “anti-disciplinarity” doesn’t make any sense. But now, my remarks will be but a chatty footnote to your comment. Great comment, by the way. I agree with everything in the passage you cite from your dissertation, except “ergo.” Just never liked that word.
Bridey, thanks for laughing at the “death of theory” post. Back then I had about one-tenth the daily readers I have now—and couldn’t believe my good fortune at having 500 readers a day. Sometimes I think I should repost one or two examples of that old, old stuff from early 2004 (when this blog was still punk, not the name-dropping enterprise it is today), but I think I’ve been citing myself quite enough lately. And you do know that queer theory has put the nonsense/hogwash distinction under erasure, right? You were “kidding” “me,” weren’t “you”?
Sean, I agree with both paragraphs. Basically, I think that rigorous close reading, like cosmology and Rachmaninoff, is usually the preserve of an intellectual elite. But it isn’t elitist to teach such stuff to all the undergraduates you can reach. (I’m with Anderson on this, too.)
And thank you, morajokaj. I do hope, though, that my humble prose hasn’t been boring you between the RNC last August and now. . . .Posted by Michael on 06/29 at 10:04 PM
Great post Michael. Can I say I enjoy this work much more than your shilling for the Democrats. I think, because I live outside of the US, I can.
One of the things that troubles me about the comments here is the whole elitism discussion, and I’d like to hear you post more on it. Spivak deals with it adequately whenever it comes up in situ, but the whole concept needs a good Cultural Studies Cliff’s Notes, a la your lecture notes on deconstruction maybe, otherwise we get people like Sean using your post to “reclaim” elitism.
As I read arguments, the point is that Halberstam’s evocation of the world system that creates “popular culture” assumes a globalness, eliding the structuring role of the dominant language, English, in our very concept of popular culture. Now that is elitist. If we’re trying to be non-elitist, surely some of the most important work to be done right now is in showing how native English speakers who happen to control a massive proportion of the world’s resources use their language to set cultural agendas that have terrible effects on those who are not able to effectively speak back to us for whatever reason. The more I know about economics, the more I feel that my lack of training in English (and literature in other languages, but one should learn one’s native tongue properly, right?) is a serious barrier to understanding the way the financialisation of culture works, and how it can be interevened in.
I say this as someone who grew up reading Cultural Studies in the 90s and is a Santa Cruz nutrider, with Clifford, Haraway and de Lauretis probably in my top 20 academics (Traweek on the bubble, and Sandoval in my top 10 polemicists).
ps - please change your photo.Posted by Danny on 06/29 at 10:09 PM
But “Ergo” is in italics in my diss, giving it a sly but ironic wink that I just can’t reproduce in this comments section format. If that makes me a technological caveman, then so be it--with apologies, of course, to the boom operator in the GEICO commercial.Posted by on 06/29 at 10:41 PM
I think I’m basically in agreement with Halberstam about what ‘English’ is currently doing, I’m just less dissatisfied with the title.
As you mention, most English departments are actually doing fine in terms of enrollments. At my university, English is the largest undergraduate major in the Arts & Sciences—and it’s bigger now than it’s ever been. Hardly declining, though we faculty still have periodic anxiety attacks along the lines of “what is the point of the discipline?”
Close reading (or, as you say, advanced literacy—a nice alternative) is an important part of the answer to that question.
But another part of it might be something along the lines of ‘cultural literacy’. I know that was once a conservative slogan (E.D. Hirsch, wasn’t it?), but I mean it in an expansive-inclusive sense: many students come to English, not just for the analytic skills we’re always touting, but for the range of cultural references and the interplay of the ideas that want discussion… Maybe 50 years ago that meant Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot (though really, the ‘great tradition’ was always a bit of a fake). Whatever its origins, today ‘cultural literacy’ means something more, and I think English departments have been finding pretty intelligent ways to expand to both respond to what students both want and need (in terms of preparation for the jobs they will go on to hold after college). It’s a little messy, and maybe it’s not a ‘discipline’ in the classic sense, but the mix of skills, and the exposure to a smattering of the Good Stuff (broadly defined) does have the potential to give students a good (and yes, useful) humanities education.
Oh, and if we want to get less elitist, we should probably be talking more about that last point—the use-value of English in terms of the jobs students get after they graduate… I’m a little puzzled, actually, that Halberstam didn’t mention that issue. (The only time she uses the word ‘job’ is when she focuses on her dream titles for academic jobs...)
A smaller quibble: “American national culture, after all, does not derive in any obvious way from Britain.” That’s a surprising claim… Wasn’t there some business about colonies somewhere back in the day?Posted by Amardeep on 06/30 at 12:51 AM
Brilliant.Posted by bitchphd on 06/30 at 01:46 AM
So if theory is dead, does that mean I don’t have to write my 481 anymore? Or is it still on, since it’s for History, and we’re still about 10 years behind you guys?
Plus, to subvert the dominant post-comment thread hierarchy, I will here express admiration for your lovely detailed response to your DTN page. Elegant and thunderous as an elephant in a tutu.
That’s a good thing.Posted by on 06/30 at 06:51 AM
"I hear there’s even another English-speaking country on this very continent, but I don’t remember its name. “
That would be Belize.
I always wondered why I was reading Sarte and Homer for my high school English classes.Posted by on 06/30 at 09:07 AM
Today I posted, on my own blog, about “close reading.” Basically, I say that it is simply a tool, and that tools can’t be blamed for their uses.
As to renaming “English,” I don’t really care one way or another. I didn’t know my “real” name until I was in first grade (I had always been called by a nickname). But that discovery did not suddenly make me someone else (Major Major Major’s experience notwithstanding). Whatever they call my department or my field, I will go on doing what I am already, studying language and the arts within a cultural context. That’s my garden, and I’m going to work in it, no matter what anyone says (thanks, Candide).Posted by Aaron Barlow on 06/30 at 09:38 AM
Halberstam: “ . . . the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies”.
Could anyone provide an example of a *fractal* relationship between these things? Or does H. just mean ‘sorta hard to capture; woozy’? Or is this just metaphor taking revenge on the distant reader?Posted by on 06/30 at 09:40 AM
I would be a lot more inclined to pay attention to what the scholars in rhetoric and composition had to say if they weren’t constantly trying to get out of teaching courses in rhetoric and composition and into teaching literature courses, as they are at my institution. Seems very often (though, admittedly, not always) that such folk wrote their dissertation in Rhet/Comp because that’s suddenly where all the jobs seemed to be and then realized that a career of teaching composition, structural grammar and tech writing was really not the expansion of the discipline one might have hoped for. To be sure, in the hundred or so research jobs in Rhet/Comp, I’m sure there’s quite a lot of interesting work being done, but in the other 5,000 jobs at teaching colleges, Rhet/Comp is an albatross around would-be lit. teachers’ necks, not a vindication of the rich variety of inquiry in the discipline.Posted by on 06/30 at 09:47 AM
Last September I returned here to Ann Arbor to finish up my BA in English after a 30 year hiatus. In my first class back—Literature of Post-Renaissance Harlem—Prof. Blair asked for a close reading of Invisible Man. I’ve found that since I’m now 50 years old I have to hold reading material a bit further away than I used to, even with glasses, and so a close reading proved difficult.
Perhaps I need a new prescription.Posted by on 06/30 at 09:58 AM
Outstanding. Distracting.Posted by punkrockhockeymom on 06/30 at 10:54 AM
To anybody who may have taken Joaquin’s comment seriously: don’t. The portrait he paints of composition is a work of utter fantasy. Joaquin, your local situation may in fact be as you say it is, but that tells me more about where you study than about the discipline of composition. As for us being an entire discipline of lit-crit wannabees who jumped ship for the jobs--please.Posted by on 06/30 at 11:22 AM
’When I first read this, I said softly to myself, “no no no no no no no no.” But since that’s not a sufficient argument, let me supplement it by saying that close reading is not, in fact, elitist.’
That’s not a sufficient argument? Damn. It’s one of my favorites.Posted by Ophelia Benson on 06/30 at 12:34 PM
Read your post again after you’ve served on a few hiring committees for literature jobs and received twenty or more CVs from Rhet/Comp specialists trying to remake themselves as “literary discourse” specialists. If you’ll note I said “often” this is the case, not always. I do not “study” at my institution, I’ve worked here for well-nigh thirty years and this has been a consistent pattern not only here but at several of the other colleges in the area. If you don’t fit the mold, then good for you, but my “utter fantasy” is pretty well supported by my admittedly local but hardly unusual data set.Posted by on 06/30 at 12:58 PM
Ophelia, “no no no no no no no no” can be a sufficient argument, but only if it is uttered at 70 dB or greater. (Over 80 dB, it is damn near incontrovertible.)
And Lance and Joaquin, there will be no rhet-lit squabbling on this peaceful blog. This blog is where we go to get away from these rhet-lit disputes. For the record, when I appealed to rhet/comp scholars’ accounts of the field, I was thinking of Stephen North’s The Making of Knowledge in Composition and (further back) Arthur Applebee’s Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English.Posted by Michael on 06/30 at 01:32 PM
Michael - ah, it was the saying it softly to self that was the problem. Good, that’s fine then, I always say it such that I sound like a bandsaw.Posted by Ophelia Benson on 06/30 at 02:10 PM
Like a bandsaw will work! Though personally, I favor the delivery of Don Logan, Ben Kingsley’s character in Sexy Beast.Posted by Michael on 06/30 at 02:52 PM
I never much liked the comp/lit dichotomy in the first place. Make it seem like reading and writing were two different things--and can somehow be taught, one without the other. And I’m sad that, when I look for jobs, I can’t really apply for the comp ones any longer--they want degrees in rhetoric, now, not in literature. It doesn’t matter that I have taught composition more than literature, and have even published on composition.
It seems to me we’re now making a distinction without a necessary (or needed, or desired) difference.Posted by Aaron Barlow on 06/30 at 03:31 PM
Sorry, Michael. I didn’t mean to imply a composition-lit split, and, indeed, I don’t see any need at all for them to be at odds with each other. In fact, I think there’s less division between comp and lit than North claimed to have found among compositionists themselves in 1987 (and that Fulkerson appears to find still today—see the most recent *CCC*).
But I can’t sit quietly when somebody implies that my discipline is composed of significant numbers of people who secretly want to be Keats scholars. I also cannot let go unremarked the unfathomable claim that in “5,000 jobs at teaching colleges, Rhet/Comp is an albatross around would-be lit. teachers’ necks.” The first claim is built on flimsy logic (English PhD’s of all stripes try to make their credentials fit job descriptions clearly not meant for them, as anybody who’s ever served on lit, comp, rhet, and/or ed committees surely knows). The second claim is simply unsubstantiated, not to mention incendiary.
So, again, sorry to take exception with your assessment of my comments, Michael, but I’m not squabbling, and I’m certainly not denigrating literary studies. You of all people ought to know how exciting I find literature and literary theory. I’m simply correcting what I see as an inaccurate and unnecessarily inflammatory representation, qualification notwithstanding, of my discipline. You of all people also ought to be able appreciate that.Posted by on 06/30 at 04:27 PM
Excellent post. I am a card carrying rhetorician in a Comm., not an English department, and if you think antidisciplinary objects, think Communication. Lord god that says so little and yet, it is kind of important to, well, everything. There never was any International house of Comm., but of course people want to discipline it, make it behave. We have a quite a passle of rhetoricians who bemoan the lack of orthodoxy in studying rhetoric, weep for a canon that never really was formed.
And I wholeheartedly agree rhetoric undoes any attempt to bring a discipline to heel. And as per the “Death of Theory” post, I regular experience students who say that theories of rhetoric dramatically alter their view of the world, and in the same breath complain that it is so obscure and words and symbols are actually pretty transparent things when it comes down to it.
Believe me, renaming a discpline and/or department into something more obscure, like say Communication (which WAS a splintering from English and Theater) will do next to nothing except provide an excuse to cut budgets more ("we already have a thing named like that so why pay twice for the same thing").
Why not put Comm., English and Foreign Languages into one giant Rhetoric Department? Oh, wait, that would suck.Posted by on 06/30 at 05:42 PM
I understand completely, Lance—thanks for the followup. I just didn’t want this thread to degenerate into a lit-comp debate, because you know what happens next: somebody always mentions Hitler!
Seriously, I know that you and I are both leery and weary of the self-policing of these wings of the English department. One wing says, as Joaquin does, that comp teachers secretly want to sneak over to the lit side, and have to be corraled by the lit folk; the other wing notes, as Aaron Barlow does, that comp can be too wary of people with lit backgrounds even when they’ve taught and published in composition. I’ve seen both phenomena at work in the past twenty years, and like Aaron, I don’t have much patience with the territorial separation of reading and writing it entails (and enforces). Especially when it affects graduate students in rhet/comp who are deeply engaged by literature and literary theory, and students in lit and theory who do a terrific job teaching and writing about composition.Posted by Michael on 06/30 at 05:59 PM
"I hear there’s even another English-speaking country on this very continent, but I don’t remember its name.”
That’s okay Micheal, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood,Yann Martel, the MacKenzie Brothers,Stompin’ Tom Conners and Guy Lafleur never heard of you either. Happy Whatchamacallitland Day!Posted by rev.paperboy on 06/30 at 10:31 PM
“I hear there’s even another English-speaking country on this very continent, but I don’t remember its name.”
Of course, us Aussies don’t share our continent with nobody.
Even the civilised foreigners who do speak English.
Oh, and I am most certainly not going to mention Hitler.Posted by on 06/30 at 11:50 PM
Let me stick another oar into the water here. You quote Halberstam as writing:
the study of culture and the function and meaning of culture
Whatever we teach in these related fields, be it Communications, Rhetoric, Literature, aren’t we supposed to be champions of effective utilization of the English language? Shouldn’t we, by example, show how to communicate swiftly but to effect (Michael, you do that--it’s the contrast between your prose and Halberstam’s that sparks this comment)?
The phrase quoted: what about it is better (or more precise) than a truncated the study of culture?
rather than respond by expanding, morphing, shifting and transforming into some other kind of discipline or inter-discipline
Why not rather than encouraging transformation?
Do those who write like Halberstam fear that their thoughts, if presented clearly, are going to seem simplistic? Do they have such little faith in their colleagues (and their own thinking) that they have to try to fool them with excessive verbiage?
This bit, further in the same paragraph, almost makes me carsick with its ups and downs:
We in English need to update our field before it is updated by some administrations wishing to downsize the humanities and before student questions about the relevance of the 18th century novel or Victorian poetry or restoration drama become a referendum on the future of the field
Why not: We must restructure our field ourselves before outsiders (be they administrators or students) do it for us.
OK, that’s enough. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.Posted by Aaron Barlow on 07/01 at 08:01 AM
Dang! Just as I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about a positive and apparently perceptive mention of rhetoric, along comes a snark so venerable with age it antedates Leavis. Jobseekers do what they must. They are told by their dissertation directors to “take a couple of classes in rhetoric” in order to pass themselves off as specialists. As if. But who can blame them? Rhetoric/composition is virtually identified with the required freshman writing course in the minds of many “English” profs--which compounds the irony from where I sit because FYC is the creature of literary studies, established to support it. Required FYC has nothing to do with rhetorical studies; never has and probably never will, given its profit potential. Sorry to keep stoking this fire Michael but as you acknowledge the rift runs very deep in the history of “English” departments and some of us on the downside of department politics are VERY thin-skinned about negative reflections on what we do.
DiotimaPosted by on 07/01 at 10:38 AM
I was struck (negatively) by the idea of “plot summary” as a form of non-elitist knowledge. That’s the solution for English Departments: more plot summaries! Also the facile dismissal of close reading, as others have noticed.Posted by Jonathan on 07/01 at 01:36 PM
May I just say, there may have been a time when American Culture Departments were the way of the future (my father helped to found one IN 1943--and it’s still alive and kicking), but recent developments in THEORY (say, beginning around the 80’s) have perhaps made English and Philosophy departments the more likely allies, as undergraduate courses like “Nietzsche’s Umbrella” indicate.
I see no reason to get even mildly upset about any of this.
Granted, it could (and should!) be happening on a much larger scale, but the wingnut attack on all things literary, combined with an entrenched hegemony on the part of all things Anglo/Analytic, does seem to be having a lingering, jaundicing impact on the confidence levels, if nothing else, of those who might otherwise be so inclined.
Um, inclined to read and teach Derrida, say.
Anyway, that would be my experimental tone of expertise on the matter, about which I say a few more things on Long Sunday.Posted by Matt on 07/03 at 11:29 AM
Truly, what baffles me is the seeming inability of those increasingly senile, doomsday resent-niks and self-fancying “renegades” who would “bifurcate” English into the bizarre straw categories Socio-cultural/symbolic/"theoretical" Studies and “the study of mere literature”...to recognize the fundamental reactivity of such a gesture. Surely there are both good and bad ways of doing each (single author courses, say, and Nietzsche’s Umbrella), and no pure split or facile re-naming is about to solve anything. Moreover, the time for such “debates” is long past (though there is something incantatory and cyclical about them, yes). Using the present political climate as justification for drastic measures strikes me as profoundly foolish.
But ah, these evil deconstructionists have sucked all the JOY out of Henry James! It’s impossible to have both--Hugh must choose, Hugh Person, Dickens or Derrida, Hemmingway or DeMan! Choose, damn you! Forget your cultural/symbolic/theoretical sociology-lite soundbites; Jameson was a hack journalist. The world is black and white and Hugh have not yet begun to read! Literature merely! Neocons! Merrily! Literature!
You see, when Derrida spoke of ‘literature’, he whispered the inverted commas and wore felt gloves, writing “S.D.T.” in the margins in invisible ink. The challenge, simply put, is to recognize when “theory” is and is not responsive to the question of the ‘literary.’ When close reading is not merely performed in the service of formulaic answers and finality. A “trembling” interpretation that transforms what it interprets (as it cannot help but do!), but in a manner not untroubled by the contradictory (not quite paradoxical) question of literature itself.
Ah, but there is a safety clause:
“Individual works of literature certainly do explore “every conceivable facet of the known world,” but the study of literature concentrates on delineating the way they do this, not on using literature as an excuse to pronounce on such “facets” oneself.”
There is some truth in that. But what follows does a great disservice to that grain of truth. Which is unfortunate, really.Posted by Professor Rumbling Officious on 07/04 at 12:32 PM
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