Monday, April 26, 2010
So That’s Why We Need Literary Theorists!
Chad Gaffield, the President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, recently defended his literary consitutuents against charges that their research is not relevant outside the academy:
(read the rest of the article here)
Does Canada need students studying fields such as literary theory? More than ever, if we can judge by the example of scholars like Ian Lancashire, an English professor from the University of Toronto, and his colleague Graeme Hirst, a computational linguist, who topped the New York Times annual list of the best ideas of 2009. Their idea was to analyze Agatha Christie’s novels based on the knowledge that written vocabulary changes subtly but perceptively with the onset of dementia. Their textual analysis demonstrated for the first time that the prolific Christie did, in fact, write her last novels while suffering from Alzheimer’s. Moreover, their work suggests new diagnostic tools for identifying the initial onset of dementia which, in turn, make possible new preventive treatments.
Although I appreciate why he would choose this example, it strikes me as a bad choice nonetheless, for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that this project (interesting as it sounds, in its own way) has very little to do with what we usually mean by “literary theory.” At least as importantly, it seems to me to play into the hands of those who want to measure all research by the same utilitarian standards. I’m reminded of Mark Slouka’s rousing piece in Harper’s a while back: as he says, “It can be touching to watch supporters of the arts contorting themselves to fit. . . . We can do this! We can make the case to management!”
With friends like that . . . .
My feeling exactly, Bill: though I have tried since the piece came out to respond more sympathetically to it, this is the man who speaks for us at the very top levels. (SSHRC hands out most of the research funding for both faculty and graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, so he really is the point man, nationally, for these issues.) I’m sure the political reality is that impassioned statements about the intrinsic value of the humanities get him nowhere, though.
I’m in the process of enjoying Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, but I question her decision on four or five occasions to say, while outlining what the humanities teach us, “And businesses value these capabilities too!”