Home | Away

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

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.

Posted by Michael on 06/29 at 01:25 PM
(55) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
Page 1 of 1 pages