Sunday, July 03, 2005
Judith Halberstam thinks the Department of English needs to go:
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.
I heartily endorse this idea. By all means, let Halberstam and her confreres establish a new Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations. This would allow them to do what they most dearly wish to do--distance themselves from the study of mere literature--and would further allow whatever renegade elements there are within the exisiting English deparment who still find themselves interested in the “merely literary” either to reclaim “English” as the name for what they study or perhaps to join in on the makeover fun and establish a Department of Literary Study, in which what actually goes on is the study of literature. The latter could perhaps be done by incorporating extant creative writing programs, and such a department would probably continue to offer traditional composition and linguistics courses. (Surely administrators would not want to entrust such courses to a department that otherwise focuses on “the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies.” This very phrasing suggests that professors in the new department would not be the logical choice to teach courses the goal of which is to teach students to write.)
I believe that such a bifurcation of English would turn out to be a swell deal for us renegades. Given a choice between the PDPWCM department and its ersatz sociology and a Literary Study department honestly devoted to studying literature, I predict that many undergraduate students would turn to the latter. After all, most English majors have traditionally been drawn to the discipline simply because they like to read. If departments of English and comparative literature are currently suffering “massive declines in enrollment,” as Halberstam herself allows they are, I’d suggest that one of the reasons is that what students find when they get there--and what they would continue to find in the PDPWCM department--is a pedantic, turgid, supercilious, and utterly joyless approach to reading. Should the new department of Literary Study reemphasize some of the pleasures of reading, and some of the delight of discovery in the study of literature, it would do just fine in a competition to avoid “down-sizing.”
Michael Berube doesn’t much care for Halberstam’s proposal, for reasons that aren’t very clear. “[No] kind of renaming or reorganizing is going to make English a coherent, tidy discipline,” he writes. “It would be hard enough to make it coherent if it were devoted solely to literature. . .” Berube doesn’t seem to understand: Halberstam is advocating that those very tendencies in academic criticism that make English as it now stands incoherent be transferred to the PDPWCM department. The English department left behind would be entirely coherent, despite Berube’s doubts. Without those scholars more interested in “cultural production” and “hegemonies” than in works of fiction or poetry or drama, other scholars and critics who think studying such works as forms of literary art is a perfectly nice thing to do would be left alone to get on with the task. Berube continues: “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. . . .” I’m not a hidebound traditionalist--in my version of a Department of Literary Study, periodization and other manifestations of curricular slicing would be absent; professors would be free to teach what they want to teach, as long as the ultimate goal was to understand the literary qualities of literature--but in my experience literature is a perfectly morphous subject. 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.
What Halberstam and Berube share, ultimately, is a plain impatience with if not disdain for trifling old literature. Halberstam sneers at the notion of “aesthetic complexity,” notes approvingly the way “queer theory, visual culture, visual anthropology, feminist theory, literary theory began to nudge the survey courses, the single-author studies and the prosody classes aside,” recommends that the study of Victorian literature be replaced with “studies of ‘Empire and Culture,’ romanticism with “the poetries of industrialization.” Berube wants to preserve close reading as “our distinct product line,” as “what we sell people” (so much for resisting the corporatization of academe), but reduces such readings to “skills in advanced literacy,” something that promotes students’ “own symbolic economy.” Besides, “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.” Berube forgets that “close reading” was developed specifically as a method of reading literary works, which required close reading because they don’t give up their intended meanings so easily, are not storage centers of “meaning” at all but occasions for a reading experience of a distinctive kind. His appropriation of “close reading” is really just a theft of the term for purposes to which true close reading is simply not applicable. (But of course the New Critics have become the collective bogeymen of contemporary literary study, returning now and then from their repressed state to scare the children. They and their appalling practices must be warded off.)
Really and truly, the best thing that could happen to literature would be, once the Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations (or some equally dreary equivalent) was actually created, for it to disappear from academic curricula altogether. After eighty years of experimenting with the study of literature as an academic subject, those carrying it out (myself included) have made a complete hash of it. Literature itself is held in contempt not just by the majority of ordinary people but by those professing to teach it. “Literature Professor” has become a near-synonym of “lunatic.” That literary study would come to such an end was probably inevitable, since the primary imperative of academe--to create “new” knowledge--is finally inimical to something so difficult to dress up in fashionable critical clothes as serious works of fiction or poetry. Once it was perceived that “aesthetic complexity” was a spent force (at least as the means for producing new monographs and journal articles), approaches to literature that essentially abandoned its consideration as an art form were practically certain to follow. If Judith Halberstam is proposing that, in this context, everyone should acknowledge that the experiment failed, she’s performing a useful service. Give literature back to the amateurs.
(Thanks to Scott Esposito for providing both of these links.)
Do you think that what you’re proposing would have been accepted by the avant-garde New Critics, who were more radical relative to prevailing norms of study than anything that’s come after?
Gosh, Daniel, don’t you read B&W any more? Thrown out like an old kleenex, eh - and to think there is an article of yours
on B&W’s articles page. [mops streaming eyes]
I did a clog dance on that article of Halberstam’s nearly two months ago - in fact I did two of them, since there was so much to say it wouldn’t all fit into one post of a seemly length -
We’re getting the makings of a pretty good little anthology here on the subject of this one article.
"Literature...is a terribly amorphous thing that touches on every conceivable facet of the known world”.
I don’t know about Berube, but that seems like a good thing to me. There seems to be an excess of specialists and a dearth of generalists these days.
As I dimly remember, in XIXc Oxford there were about five majors: Divinity, Law, Classics, Philosophy, and Mathematics(?) Wasn’t a big fight to shoehorn Modern Languages in?
Am I asking to return to the amateurish past? Yes—but who cares what I think?
Here in Backwoods Binghamton, our Department is quite happy to merely require Theory professors to perform the penance of teaching four credits once a year on the unpardonable sin of deviating from AP Style, under a Rhetoric banner, to undergraduates. It manages to keep precisely nobody happy.
I’m sure there are more than plenty of schools which would be incapable of supporting a plethora of departments where there’s currently only room for one to die.
Literature itself is held in contempt not just by the majority of ordinary people but by those professing to teach it. “Literature Professor” has become a near-synonym of “lunatic.”
Daniel, have I led a stupidly sheltered life or what? Because, this description, it corresponds to no reality I’ve ever experienced or witnessed. Apart from the odd troll, I can’t think of a single person, not even an ordinary one, who’s sneered at me because I study literature. I once told a Hanoi cyclo driver what I did back home, and he returned to my hotel in the evening with his little boy so the child could show me his poems written in English.
Either I’m really failing to grasp something essential about American society and culture and university English departments, or.....
Hanoi is probably not the best place to start your investigation.
OT, I thought that Bao Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War” was a great novel.
First off, as Berube shows, there has been no decline in undergraduate enrollment in English courses.
Secondly, with the hundreds or thousands of smart, middle-brow book-clubs springing up all over the place, I think it’s insane to say that the Mobility don’t care about literature. Reduce it to a cult of personality if you must, but when Oprah recommends Carson McCullers, her books sell. Check out the Borders stacks: Graham Greene has seen a recent “collectors” centennial edition, the Library of America is always in stock, the Booker and Nobel winners always do well (even Jelinek’s difficult work sold well at local bookstores). Poetry, always the subject of doomsday pronouncements, is actually a decent seller as well: check out Anne Carson’s figures for *Autobiography of Red*, for instance.
Thirdly, one of Berube’s major examples of the amorphousness of literary studies is RHETORIC itself, always the seventh son these days, whether in the guise of tedious “rhet/comp theory” or in the guise of classical studies. Let’s remember that while studying literature as literature is important, it was the more rhetorically-oriented work of folks like Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch in English, *not* history, departments that really catalyzed interest in 17th and 18th century American writing—and I say “writing” and not “literature” because it’s unclear to me that something like an Election Day jeremiad is “high literature,” but it’s clear to me that people who study American literature need to know something about these texts. Can’t we simply say that we in “English” study language as language, and so include the rhetoric and historical documentation that are essential to our field? Historians might work with language, but on the whole they want to reconstruct the Real. While we in literature might work with history, but on the whole we want to see how language works as a system of meaning-making and meaning-circulation. I personally don’t think English is the place for research on *Buffy the Vampire Slayer*; but at the same time, that work needs to happen, and sociologists/historians/communications scholars frequently drop the ball or ignore such phenomena all together. I don’t like a lot of the pop sociology that goes on in English departments—but someone needs to examine the cultural phenomena that might fall into another discipline’s boundaries but which that discipline ignores.
Fourthly, I don’t necessarily want English to be aligned with the sort of know-nothingism that goes on in many Creative Writing programs today. It’s one thing to reject certain “theoretical” ideas on the basis of argumentation and evidence; it’s quite another when many of our major “lyric poets” (who Ron Silliman calls “the School of Quietude,” after Poe) keep their head in the sand and refuse to engage serious ideas and serious poetry that might seem a little “strange.”
So I think that it’s neither time to pronounce Literature Studies dead nor time to make some simplistic institutional division between “the study of literature” and “the study of patterns.” Berube’s correct that the idea of “English” needs to be opened up in new ways to account for what could be called Global Literatures in English. Commonwealth Studies tried to do that, but ended up reducing a rich variety of traditions into a constellation with London as the brightest star in the bunch. More interesting work should be happening across national and period lines (rather than, say, across disciplinary lines). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across 20th century Americanists who have never read Wilson Harris, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, or Sylvia Wynter! As if the small stretch of water separating the Caribbean from the American southeast can also separate two closely connected cultures.
I don’t see why Literary Studies need have a single rationale. It might eventually be the case that the discipline needs to break off into sub-fields, just as Science (and the individual sciences) are fragmenting and specializing more and more every year (my favorite example was listening to two biologists talking at a bar. They worked in the same sub-field, but one worked on the computing end, the other on the empirical/experimental end. They eventually decided they couldn’t have a meaningful conversation because they shared very little common disciplinary knowledge. So we all turned to talking about Bharati Mukherjee!).
My proposal to return to the Stone Age has been rejected once again. Fortunately for me, I am a paranoid fanatic who cannot be discouraged by adversity, nor learn from experience.
Berube forgets that “close reading” was developed specifically as a method of reading literary works
Not me! I forget nothing. And I won’t forget this, either:
which required close reading because they don’t give up their intended meanings so easily, are not storage centers of “meaning” at all but occasions for a reading experience of a distinctive kind. His appropriation of “close reading” is really just a theft of the term for purposes to which true close reading is simply not applicable.
Finally someone makes a clear distinction between literary and nonliterary works—and none too soon, either! Now, let me see if I’ve got this right: “To His Coy Mistress” is cleared for close reading, but Sidney’s Apology is off limits. Ivanhoe does not give up its intended meaning so easily, but Philosophical Investigations is a piece of cake. Got it. I promise I’ll give back the term “close reading” now, with an apology for the dents and scratches.
What Halberstam and Berube share, ultimately, is a plain impatience with if not disdain for trifling old literature.
By way of clarification: I used to be impatient with literature, and then for a while I disdained it. Now, however, I simply hate it. Delineating the way literature explores every conceivable facet of the known world is boring, and, as Daniel says, morphous. I’d rather go pronounce on the facets, myself.
Just one thing: I don’t get the part about how selling “close reading” contributes to the corporatization of academe. I read this post pretty closely, and it seems to me like Daniel’s taking a bit of a cheap shot here. But then, my post called for English departments to teach more contemporary literature in English, and Daniel’s response is that I disdain literature. Hmmm, that just doesn’t seem right. Maybe I could ask for a closer reading?
If you asked the New Critics, they would have indeed said that “To His Coy Mistress” required close reading, while the Apology did not. “Close reading” was reserved for poetry and fiction--poetry, primarily.
Your post did call for teaching more “contemporary literature in English,” but not because it might have literary value per se, but because “the English-language writers of Asia, Africa, and Australia have been coming up with all kinds of stuff.” Heaven forbid that all that “stuff” be deprived of its turn through the grinders of “advanced literacy” offered by American English professors.
Putting contemporary non-American literature in English through the grinders - if that really is all that one is capable of doing with it - is considerably better than not reading and teaching it at all, ever.
Daniel, don’t you think students sometimes learn more than they are taught?
My mistake—I honestly thought the literary value of writers like Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, Robertson Davies, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Wilson Harris, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, and Sylvia Wynter went without saying. In fact, I thought it would be kind of condescending of me to say “we should teach the literature of the English-language writers of Asia, Africa, and Australia because it has literary value.”
But if you’re seriously arguing that literary works should be read not for meaning but for “occasions for a reading experience of a distinctive kind,” then I can understand why you’d argue against teaching them at all. In place of Halberstam’s Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations, what’s the point of creating a Department of Occasions for Reading Experiences of a Distinctive Kind?
Re Luther’s comment on the accessibility of Nobel authors’ books, I couldn’t walk into a Barnes or Walden here and find a Gunter Grass novel, from Tin Drum to lowly Crabwalk on the shelves a month after he bought his tux for Stockholm. I asked the clerk, and eventually the manager, if they had the book I was looking for, yet I was told in both stores that the databases contained no Gunter Grass (mit oder ohne umlaut), and that I should check the name of the author and return again. I’m still voting for cult of personality as mover of bleached and flattened wood pulp.
The English Deparment is going to need to do something actively different to register as anything other than the sweet-smelling log on the forest floor of academics.
Oh, and sorry for not replying to the point about the New Critics. You’re quite right, Daniel, they would have ruled out the Apology—as they ruled out a great deal of literary prose and a couple of books of Paradise Lost, as well. But that was the very weakest aspect of New Criticism—its deliberately blinkered and (yes) ahistorical idea of the literary. Which is why Viktor Shklovsky’s insistence that the proper object of study is not “literature” but “literariness” (i.e., language used in its capacity to renew perception and “make the stone stony") is so much better a formulation of the problem of how to distinguish ordinary from extraordinary uses of language. It’s hardly perfect, for like all formalisms it winds up providing the grounds for its own collapse: the “making-strange” Shklovsky described was, ultimately, not an intrinsic property of language but a specific (and, I think, valuable and irreducible) way of attending to it. But, most likely, this is where you and I part ways, because I would insist that the experiences associated with Shklovsky’s “literariness” are not specific to literature, just as I believe that there’s no clear way to dissociate the experiences induced by literary modes of mimesis (in their ability to touch on every conceivable facet of the known world) from the experiences induced by nonliterary events in the world around us. That doesn’t mean I call the police when Cornwall blinds Gloucester. It simply means that the pity and horror one feels at Cordelia’s death are not qualitatively different from the pity and horror one feels at the death of an innocent young person anywhere on the globe.
"Like all formalisms...” isn’t a nod at the Gödel-myth, is it?
I think that we should discuss individual critics instead of institutional abstractions such as “New Criticism.” As I wrote above, I’m not sure that any of them would have endorsed or recognized Daniel’s baroque program.
Dunno, I had the same experience—at first—with Jelinek’s books. But when I finally made it to my local respectable bookshop, they too didn’t have anything but *The Piano Teacher* (due to the film). When I asked why, I was told that they were “out of stock at the publisher.” Which is to say: the brute capitalism of much publishing doesn’t help things any. I remember trying to teach Jay Cantor’s *Krazy Kat* for years, but the novel was out of print. Finally, upon the publication of Cantor’s most recent novel, his earlier works were finally reprinted. Until more publishers shift to “print by order” mode, readers will be left with only what’s already actively being read to read. But today, when I went to buy a copy of Graham Greene’s *The Comedians* at Borders, I did see that this small, South Jersey corporate beast had multiple copies of Cantor’s and Jelinek’s work.
I mean, Peter Ackroyd’s *London* sold well in the States, but you still can’t get most of his novels here. And I don’t think it’s because American readers are somehow nativist (hell, my Borders stocked Alasdair Gray’s *Lanark*!). As more and more power is concentrated in the hands of a few publishers and a few book-chains, these businesses are gonna havta step up to the plate and start making a wider variety of books available in more creative formats (digital, print by order, etc.).
[A similar responsibility falls not only on college professors who, as Berube wrote, should be paying attention to a wider variety of English-language literatures—but also on non-academic reviewers and writers of critical non-fiction. I mean, how many articles are really necessary on “Who was Shakespeare?” Why can’t the LRB or TLS or New Yorker publish a substantial piece on Ackroyd or Armah or Zakes Mda or Wilson Harris or Bessie Head. For every tedious “Elizabeth Costello” story Coetzee gave us in the LRB, we should have five articles on ignored African novelists.]
"In place of Halberstam’s Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations, what’s the point of creating a Department of Occasions for Reading Experiences of a Distinctive Kind?”
If my post did not make it clear that I think there probably isn’t a point to this, I stipulate it here. Which is why it was probably a mistake to introduce literature into the academic curriculum in the first place. Formal literary study perhaps can help some readers to enhance this experience--which is what the New Critics had in mind--but not to an extent that justifies an elaborate curricular structure to support it.
When I studied literature in the late 70s very little was ‘taught’ to us about it at all, we were expected to go off and find out about the works in question and come back to class educated and ready to laugh at all our tutors’ erudite jokes. When my mother finally did an honours degree in the late eighties and early nineties, I was delighted when she was directed to purchase a very useful little book about versification, which I would have loved to have used in my own time ( and which I’ve since lifted from her library weeding). There’s a great deal to be said for the study of rhetoric within the discipline of literary studies as long as it’s kept within reason. It can be a very practical pursuit taken in moderation, but should not be relied upon to keep the lucrative academic publishing industry in the black. Very little, in fact, should be allowed to feed said industry which is the real root of all the woes listed here. “Publish or perish” is killing the study of literature, not the work itself, which has lifelong value.
For example I wouldn’t be blogging here at all if I hadn’t spent four years being forcefed French and English literature, nor would I be reading William Gaddis or Richard Ford, or be terribly interested in who Ismail Kadare is. Probably I’d be trying to write novels like Jacquelyn Mitchard’s, or failing that, D.K. Broster. And my kids wouldn’t know the plots of Othello and Macbeth (no longer taught in our schools - alas!!), or have the foggiest notion why Beowulf was important to Tolkien. I have a young comedienne living here who got to watch the Abbey Theatre made-for-TV production of Godot with me, around the time she was working on it for her final year drama class at school. That sort of life learning about challenging writing can’t be bought at a bookshop, Dan, or picked up in a suburban bookgroup.
That’s my rant, people. Over to you…
“Like all formalisms...” isn’t a nod at the Gödel-myth, is it?
Ouch! No, I wouldn’t go there. I meant only that formalist definitions of the “intrinsic” properties of literary language inevitably wind up in one of two places. Either they turn into simple tautologies (literature affords reading experiences of a distinct kind, and reading experiences of a distinct kind can only be induced by literature), or they involve their proponents in angels-dancing-on-pins exercises, like trying to determine how the sentence “Twenty minutes later we were in the car” can be nonliterary in a journal or diary, but literary when it appears on page 119 of DeLillo’s White Noise. (And let’s not even bother with the question of whether journals or diaries themselves can be considered literary; I’ll just say that Samuel Pepys is really bummed about Daniel’s definition of literature here.)
For a way out of those impasses, I recommend Jan Mukarovsky’s 1936 monograph, Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. For Mukarovsky, when we assign the “aesthetic function” to a work, we abstract it from immediate use and attend instead to its formal properties; but nothing about those properties themselves compels such a form of attention. Compare that to Roman Jakobson’s stubborn insistence, over twenty years later, that “Hiawatha” is still “intrinsically” poetic even when a U.S. Senator is reading it as part of a filibuster, and you’ll see that (a) Mukarovsky sidestepped all such formalist auto-collapses and (b) René Wellek—to name just one New Critic—did a particularly poor job of paraphrasing Mukarovsky’s work as a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle when he came to the U.S.
"(literature affords reading experiences of a distinct kind, and reading experiences of a distinct kind can only be induced by literature)”
Literature affords the kind of reading experience distinctive to literature--more broadly, the kind of attention distinctive to experiences of art of all kinds. Plenty of other distinct reading experiences can be induced by plenty of other texts. They just won’t be literary experiences.
"It simply means that the pity and horror one feels at Cordelia’s death are not qualitatively different from the pity and horror one feels at the death of an innocent young person anywhere on the globe.”
Hmmm. I’m not sure that’s true - in fact to put it more strongly, I think it’s not true. For at least a couple of reasons - but I don’t think either reason necessarily has anything to do with distinctive qualities of literariness. Though then again it might.
One is the trivial obvious reason that Cordelia’s death isn’t that of a real innocent young person.
The other has to do with knowledge. The pity and horror we feel is because of who Cordelia is and what we’ve been seeing her do (and hearing her say), and because of what has just happened between her and Lear. (No cause, no cause.) We don’t feel the same horror and pity about the servant who interferes to try to protect Gloucester, because we don’t know as much about him. And Cordelia is more than just innocent - she’s also the truth-teller, the teller of truth to power, the anti-flatterer; the touchstone, the honest person in a diseased court of dishonest people. Then in her next appearance she is the gratuitous forgiver and reconciler, the loving generous fool, the non-calculating pitying all-giving pardoner.
Which is perhaps a literary thing to be. At least an artificial thing to be. The pity and horror is bound up with all of that - it has to be - that’s why we don’t feel the same kind or amount of pity and horror for Goneril and Regan and Edmund. But that’s a literary set-up. In real life, people aren’t known in quite that way - especially not by strangers. So a newspaper headline - ‘Innocent young person dies on far side of globe’ - won’t give the same kind or amount of pity and horror...will it? Unless we know the same kind and degree of thing about that IYP as we do about Cordelia - and how would we do that?
Points taken, Ophelia. If I had phrased things more carefully, and with due respect for what mimesis is all about, I wouldn’t have likened Cordelia’s death to just any innocent young person. I should have specified as Cordelia-like an innocent young person as possible, one who tells the (unvarnished) truth, whose being is defined by love and compassion, and whose death is unbearable. Or I should have gone for simplicity, and said that drama gives us an imitation of an action. Whether it does so convincingly or not depends on our estimate of the literary craft and emotional depth with which the action is rendered; but if it is convincing, then it doesn’t give us an experience that is qualitatively different from the pity and horror induced by nonliterary events. Rather, it is—just as Shklovsky said—drawing on and renewing our perception of nonliterary events.
In other words, I still disagree, respectfully, with Daniel about the distinctness of “literary” experience, even as I believe there’s something worth calling an “aesthetic” function (and that our assigning of the function is a kind of valuation). To pick something closer to home, the reason the character of Caddy Compson moved me so when I first encountered her in my teen years was that I was struck not merely by her compassion for Benjy but by her uncanny ability to understand him; and my response to Caddy, and to Faulkner’s rendering of her, is (I think) of a piece with my response to real people who have Caddy’s largeness of soul, regardless of whether they share anything else with her. Or with Cordelia.