Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Amanda Claybaugh

Posted by Amanda Claybaugh, Guest Author, on 04/23/07 at 10:58 AM

Amanda Claybaugh teaches in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. She is now at work on a book entitled The Literary History of Reconstruction, 1865-1910.

As we come to the end of this book event, I’d like to return to two topics that have been raised by several of the posts. The first is the relation between literary studies and social change. Taking up my argument that nineteenth-century novelists wrote in the shadow of the novel of purpose, Caroline Levine has suggested that we present-day critics write in the shadow of purposeful criticism. Like them, we know that our writings are expected to act upon the world—and, like them, we write with that expectation in mind.

In making this claim, Levine is most obviously skewering those critical works whose political gestures are no more sincere than the temperance fictions that Hawthorne and Whitman wrote when they were young and struggling. But she is also, I think, throwing into relief the continuities that exist between forms of scholarship and teaching that we think of as political and forms of scholarship and teaching that we think of in other ways. Such continuities structured the nineteenth-century literary world: contemporary critics used the term “novel of purpose” to refer not only to the small set of novels that were explicitly reformist in their intentions, but also to a whole host of other novels that sought to act in some sort of way on their readers and on the world. By putting *Middlemarch* in the same category as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mary Barton, these critics acknowledged that novelists had learned their conception of purposefulness from the writings of social reform.

Levine prompts us to recognize that similar continuities exist in our own critical world. They are particularly clear in Scott Eric Kaufman’s most recent post and in the discussion that followed it. In his post, Kaufman confesses to the admittedly naive expectation that the study of literature—or the teaching of literature—should have done something for Cho Seung-hui. But what, he asks, can the teaching of literature do? The answers offered in the comment thread oscillate from the explicitly political (teaching students to recognize that the work of racial justice remains undone) to the vaguely improving (teaching as a way of making a difference in students’ lives). What I think Levine’s proposed “criticism of purpose” helps us to see is that these positions are continuous with one another, rather than opposed, and that they both rely on the same purposeful conception of what our writing and teaching is expected to do.

The other topic that has come up in these posts is trans-Atlanticism. In the past ten years or so, trans-Atlanticism has been institutionalized as a recognized subfield in literary studies. (This is due, in no small part, to the work of Paul Giles). What is remarkable about this institutionalization, I would argue, is that it took place without any apparent opposition. This is in stark contrast to the subfields of feminist, African-Americanist, and ethnic studies, which have had to defend their attention to noncanonical works; and it is in contrast to those subfields, such as literary theory and visual culture, which have had to defend the value of their interdisciplinary approaches. Trans-Atlanticism, by contrast, has so far faced only pragmatic objections—and even these tend to be expressed in tones of regret. “That would be really interesting,” people say to the aspiring young trans-Atlanticist, “but how will you get a job? and who will publish your work?” These pragmatic objections have been losing their force, however, as more and more job postings list trans-Atlanticism as a desired subfield and new journals and series are established to publish trans-Atlantic work. And so trans-Atlanticism has been institutionalized without any real debate at all.

I’d like to believe that there was no debate because the value of trans-Atlanticism is simply inarguable, but I suspect that something more complicated is going on. I suspect that trans-Atlanticism is making a more radical claim than English departments are willing to acknowledge, and that the departments are ignoring this radical claim by pre-emptively embracing trans-Atlanticism as one subfield among many.

Subfields, after all, seek to expand literary study as it is currently practiced, either by adding new works to the existing canon or by combining literary approaches with approaches taken from other disciplines. Such expansions can seem threatening when they are first proposed, but in practice they tend to follow a happy process of addition that does not disturb the fundamental structures of the department: some new works are added to the existing syllabus, and some new courses are added to the curriculum. To be sure, these additions can sometimes entail subtractions (courses that are no longer offered, works that are no longer taught), but the old ways of doing things are still largely preserved.

So far, the English departments I know have treated trans-Atlanticism as a subfield like all the rest. They offer a handful of trans-Atlantic courses alongside the regular course offerings, which continue to be almost exclusively national in scope, particularly at the introductory level. In doing so, these departments refuse to acknowledge that trans-Atlanticism calls the national into question by asking why the national should always be the default. This, then, is the more radical claim that trans-Atlanticism makes: that the old syllabuses and old curricula do not need to be expanded, but rather re-configured.

Once we recognize that the actual reading and writing of literary works is only sometimes confined within national boundaries, then we must reverse subfield and field. British literature, US literature—these would be properly understood as rich and rewarding subfields of a field that we might call “literature in English.” As scholars, we could still choose to focus on the literature of one nation, as we might now choose to focus on African-American literature or queer literature or the literature of the US South. But as teachers, we would no longer be justified in taking for granted the priority of the nation.

All this is meant to be polemical: I’m committed to trans-Atlanticism, but I happily teach one lecture course on the nineteenth-century British novel and another on US Literature, 1865-1945. I’m being polemical because I think it’s long past time for us to begin debating the value of trans-Atlanticism—and, in particular, to begin debating how far we are willing to alter our ordinary ways of doing things in light of its radical claims. Because I think that the resistance to these claims has taken the silent form of refusing to reconceive such things as survey courses and graduate exams, I think this debate is most usefully prompted by the simple question: how should we organize the curriculum? I’m eager to hear what all of you think.

But before I close, permit me a final paragraph to say how very much I’ve enjoyed this book event. I’m grateful to the posters who read my book with such care and discussed it with such imagination and generosity; to the commenters who brought their own expertise to the conversation and made it much more rich; and to the powers that be at The Valve, particularly Scott Eric Kaufman and Miriam Burstein, for making these kinds of exchanges possible at all. Many, many thanks to all.


Comments

In general, many social and individual trends are toward trans-nationalism (i.e., globalization, globalism, global integration) of all sorts. Again, we see this perhaps most strikingly and hopefully in the activity and related activity of the World Social Forum. Meanwhile Europe has integrated in the European Union and continues to do so, as Victor Hugo called for as a member of the French Legislative Assembly over a century ahead of time. South America is making huge strides in continental integration and toward possibly a South American Union. Meanwhile, the United States (officially) is increasingly isolated in its frequent unilateral and intransigent role in the United Nations – not to mention internally, and in the continent, the hemisphere, and elsewhere.

Corporate power, state power – corporate state power remains the dominant force(s) shaping much of the conditions of life in the world. The huge undemocratic features of this rule of force are the greatest threat to liberty, well being, and by now even species survival. The democratic rights that have been won by popular struggles and that have been forced upon corporate-state power are the greatest protectors of liberty and well-being and the greatest hope for their desperately needed expansion. Literature functions sometimes to protect, enable, and advance the corporate-state status quo, which is largely anti-democratic (anti-democracy) rule, and literature sometimes functions to protect, enable, and advance enlightenment ideals and human rights, as some scholars have shown. Literature has a great responsibility to the latter, which should be cultivated, pursued, as it has been to some extraordinarily insufficient degree. Call it the liberation tradition of literature.

Edward Said writes in Culture and Imperialism that “the focus in the destabilizing and investigative attitudes of those whose work actively opposes states and borders is on how a work of art, for instance, begins _as_ a work, begins _from_ a political, social, cultural situation, begins _to do_ certain things and not others….”

“Contamination is the wrong word to use here, but some notion of literature and indeed all culture as hybrid…and encumbered, or entangled and overlapping with what used to be regarded as extraneous elements—this strikes me as _the_ essential idea for the revolutionary realities today, in which the contests of the secular world so provocatively inform the texts we both read and write” (317).

“I keep coming back—simplistically and idealistically—to the notion of opposing and alleviating coercive domination, transforming the present by trying rationally and analytically to lift some of its burdens, situating the works of various literatures with reference to one another and to their historical modes of being. What I am saying is that in the configurations and by virtue of the transfigurations taking place around us, readers and writers are now in fact secular intellectuals with the archival, expressive, elaborative, and moral responsibilities of that role” (319).

The future shape of the study of “English” – of literature written in English (and, why not?, translated into English) will likely and should be shaped by the ever growing international daily use of English, and by international artistic creation in English, and by the exporting of American art, especially perhaps popular songs and movies but also novels and other books in translation, and untranslated. Also by the importation of many works, typically translated but sometimes not in the case of Spanish especially, and other languages.

In other words, English language literature study must globalize because the English language is globalized and globalizing further, and because our human situation both social and individual has globalized and is doing so increasingly – not least “the full human condition” that literature best addresses, illumines.

I don’t know to what extent, if any, trans-Atlantic “English” study accounts for the other languages of non-English literatures that have always been found within the United States and Britain, but I suppose trans-Atlantic English study could serve in some ways as a micro-analogue for the rapidly expanding macro-reality that is global English language literature, art, and culture.

As for curriculum issues, it seems to me that one practical problem with badly needed reform (needed already decades and decades ago) is that much of the scholarly side of the conventional English department is actually a History department in disguise. The conventional English department is actually basically a niche History department, with of course national English language literature, it’s elements and milieu, as the object of historical focus. In my view, that needed but overly large aspect of English departments should be shrunk, so that something else in particular can grow – be shrunk humanely, respectfully, thoughtfully, by natural attrition if necessary, not forced resignations, or perhaps mainly by encouraging professors to themselves apply more of their historical expertise to the contemporaneous situation (which would also serve to excite students more about important distant historical aspects. Of course a department that pretends to encourage that and doesn’t make moves to structurally realign itself is kidding everyone involved, at best.) The conventional English department has a rather status quo structure at a time when a far more progressive function has never been more badly needed.

What should be “grown” within departments, it seems to me, is much that is badly neglected by English (and other) departments, as I’ve noted in passing and in some detail in my recent posts at this site – liberation literature, to put a handle on it, that goes well beyond what is typically studied, taught, and created. Otherwise, in my view, the vitality of English Departments will continue to be severely compromised, as has been the case, again, for many decades, in fact, always. There’s a reason MFA programs are booming and attract no small percentage of the brightest students. There’s an urgent contemporaneity and vital freedom available there. (Whether or not such opportunity is remotely taken advantage of is another question. MfA programs have their own serious, related, problems, in my view.) So there has been a huge MFA surge. I’ve always felt there could be and should be a similarly sizable scholarly/creative resurgence in the vein I’ve suggested, which is sort of mildly happening university-wide (even in face of backlash), but much more and at much greater degree could be done, needs to be done, ought to be done, in my view.

English language literature departments, literature and writing departments in general (and the other humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences, etc) should develop in congruence with the possibilities and the needs of people socially and individually, in specific locales and the world over. Ascertaining, keeping up with, and helping to create the possibilities, current realities, and needs are crucial and very much in line with what seems to me to be the too-often (often unwittingly, and often ideologically) neglected liberation tradition of literature—a “tradition” that is more of a tendency, not necessarily an overall or wholesale tendency, but one that crops up in bits and pieces here and there, and is integrally, closely, or in concept aligned with other libratory individual and social acts and movements, organizations and various other such tendencies too in other fields and realms of life.

By Tony Christini on 04/23/07 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder-- since the author conjures the spirit of polemic--whether the fact that trans-Atalanticism has been institutionalized without opposition doesn’t bespeak something rather different than a cheerful pluralist inattentiveness to its radicalism. Might it also have something to do with the fact that it is not really all that radical?

It asks us (but politely) to reconfigure the national boundaries of literary studies, true. But it does so in such a way as to reconfirm the centrality of the Anglo-American alliance in U.S. literary study. To wit: the White Atlantic. Okay-- that’s needlessly encendiary and obviously partially inaccurate. I take it back.

But I do think that this subfield, which obviously prides itself upon the wideness of its vision, must perforce ask itself: why THIS ocean? Why the constitution of this field as separate from global literary studies in general?

One answer might be: well you can’t focus on everything all the time. Let us cleave the trans-Atlantic from the global so we don’t go insane. Furthermore that body of water can be shown to have an importance to literary history that is more or less objective.

But, interestingly, the same rationale could have been used to justify nationally bounded literary study. It’s time may or may not have passed, but for a while it provided a helpful reduction of the complexity of the global literary field, one that enabled the writing of a great many interesting works of criticism.

None of which is to dispute the (it seems to me) indisputable value of Claybaugh’s brilliant reframing of the novel in terms of a trans-Atlantic discourse of reform. But I do think that one could dispute her meta-analysis of the subfield within which she works.

By on 04/24/07 at 01:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps organizing literary studies by oceans/seas rather than nations/continents is the wave of the future, so to speak.  I addition to the Gilroy/Giles Atlantic crossings, Boundary 2 has been looking critically at “Pacific Rim” discourses for a couple of decades now; Asian Americanists and Asianists have been fleshing out the “Asian Pacific” concept for awhile as well; Ghosh’s In an Antique Land and Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting make a case for studying Indian Ocean culture before and after 1498; and of course the study of Mediterranean cultures by Braudel and others has been a model for many.

Maybe merging English, Comp Lit, Classics, and Modern Languages would shake us all up enough to come up with a new kind of undergraduate major in literary studies.  Proliferating subfields may be good for departments that can afford to hire that many specialists, but that model isn’t sustainable for the majority of the close to 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. 

Anyone want to organize a conference on competing frameworks for organizing global literary studies?

By The Constructivist on 04/24/07 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, babykong, the specter of “the White Atlantic” haunts most of the conversations I’ve had with people about transatlanticism.  The assumption is that it’s an attempt to back-door formerly canonical literature with a smile and a multicultural-type moniker.  That it harkens back to the work of C.L.R. James and Eric Williams is beside the point—more people will be reading Mark Twain, and the world will suffer for it.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/24/07 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I appreciate the polemic, Babykong, although I fear that we don’t disagree as much as you might think. The problem, I realize, is that I should have distinguished more clearly between “trans-Atlantic” (which is how I work) and “literature in English” (which is how I think we should all teach). That is, I entirely agree with you that oceans are no less arbitrary than nations, and so I’d never advocate that departments become trans-Atlantic. What seems less arbitrary to me is language. Language, much more than geography, *does* limit the access that writers and readers--not to mention our students--have to literary works. And I think our departments should be reorganized to reflect this fact, since it has a much more immediate effect on the writing and reading of literature than nation (or ocean) ever could.

I actually agree with you that this proposal is not very radical at all--hence, my bewilderment that no one is doing it. It seems to me that we’re in a critical moment when few people are willing to defend the national paradigm and even fewer are willing to depart from it. My suspicion has been that this reluctance comes from some combination of inertia (who wants to redesign a major?), fear (who wants to lead one’s advisees astray?), lack of training (who wants to learn a whole new body of literature?), as well as an salutary appreciation for the old ways of doing things. All of these factors are institutional, and so I do think that reorganizing a department around literature in English would be *institutionally* radical, if not politically or intellectually so.

But I wrote this post wondering whether the reluctance to reorganize might have substantive intellectual causes as well--and hoping to flush those causes out. So, if anyone wants to make the case for the value of the nation as the organizing principle for teaching (I don’t doubt its value for research), I’d be very eager to hear it.

By on 04/24/07 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the idea here of an Anglo-American “alliance” is a bit oversimplified.  One of the reasons for studying English and American literatures in parallel is that you can’t really do either of them properly unless you do both.  This isn’t because of their homogeneity of outlook, but, on the contrary, because of the various tensions, power plays, even wars between the two countries over the past 500 years (over religion, slavery, trade, land, empire, etc. etc.). Both canonical national narratives, which got taken on board in the mid-20th century by literature departments, identified themselves with peculiarly narrow characteristics which often sought specifically to exclude transatlantic dimensions, so that to recontextualize authors or issues within a wider conceptual and historical framework is usefully to complicate existing models.  I agree, of course, that simply reifying the Atlantic as a privileged site of scrutiny is not particularly helpful in itself, but the point is how transatlanticism can reflect back upon the parameters of other disciplines, thereby interrogating established scholarly assumptions and the power structures implicitly associated with them.

By on 04/25/07 at 07:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course we can’t fully study any literatures, of any nation, or form, or focus, unless we study others, since all literatures are interconnected to various other literatures—if not in “parallel,” then in some other serious relations.

Moreover, the influence on and interplay with English and American literatures has always been and is increasingly proceeding in close conjunction with world literatures and languages, as has been evident in the novel, for example, going back centuries (and in other forms, for much longer, always). Thus, if anything, by this logic of studying the influence-interplay-interaction of various “parameters” that has been advanced here, one would think “English” (& American) Departments should be reorganized as Global Literature Departments, or simply as Literature Departments, with a global focus—otherwise the department remains a largely binational, largely monolingual fishbowl…

“...the point is how transatlanticism can reflect back upon the parameters of other disciplines, thereby interrogating established scholarly assumptions and the power structures implicitly associated with them.”

And reflect back upon and interrogate the discipline itself, and related “power structures,” literature more broadly viewed, the micro analogue to the macro.

Amanda, it might be useful to think about how your proposal might look to the thousands of Navajo (Diné) college and university students in particular—those who attend college in the U.S., and those who attend Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College) in the Navajo Nation (reservation—the reservation alone is virtually the exact size as West Virginia with one tenth the population, and even the further majority, let alone minority, Navajo inhabited land and population is considerably larger). Or how it may look to many of the ever more quickly growing recent non-English language speaking population of the U.S. Or even to anyone who thinks seriously about their families’ distant immigration to the U.S. from non-English speaking countries. When I taught at Gallup High School (a large school with a student body that is about 80 percent Navajo or other indigenous, and the school is not even on the Navajo Nation reservation, also over 10 percent Mexican American, which means greatly indigenous too, and less than 10 percent “Anglo"), I saw an Anglo teacher in frustration over something say, “We don’t do the things we should do. We don’t even say The Pledge of Allegiance anymore!” (as required by state law, I believe). Can you imagine the look the Navajo students gave her? To the extent they even bothered, they looked at her like she was a Martian living on Earth who thought, or pretended to think, she was living on Mars. Of course, we never said the Navajo Nation Pledge, or were required too, not even in English, let alone in Navajo.

You write that “Once we recognize that the actual reading and writing of literary works is only sometimes confined within national boundaries, then we must reverse subfield and field. British literature, US literature—these would be properly understood as rich and rewarding subfields of a field that we might call ‘literature in English’.”

The problem with this is that it appears to eliminate (or at least de-emphasize) some of the most important literature of my Navajo neighbors when I lived in Gallup, and of my Mexican and Mexican-American neighbors when I lived on the Texas-Mexico border, because some of their/our central literature can seem to be not even a subfield of “literature in English,” at least in a sense that you appear to define it. (Unfortunately, I don’t find that you ultimately define this phrase “literature in English” clearly, that is, functionally.) And so, in this important regard, nation state literature categories are more inclusive, more comprehensive than literature originating in English, at least as far as it may be said that you appear to define ‘literature in English’.

“Literature in English” seems to me to be a peculiar, baffling, and troubling term and phrase (from just about every vantage point, including the national) unless it means literature that has been composed in or translated into English. But it seems impossible to tell what you mean by ‘literature in English’ (and I have now scanned your book). What you write here seems representative of what you write in your book. And you write here that “British literature, US literature—these would be properly understood as rich and rewarding subfields of a field that we might call ‘literature in English’,” but as near as I can figure, except for disavowals, the closest you come to defining this concept is in geographic terms: as either trans-Atlantic literature, which you disavow, or as largely Atlantic basin literature, which you also disavow.

It seems the only possible alternative to a geographically/nationally based understanding of “literature in English” or an “English originating” understanding—which, again, is in serious ways more constrictive than even the limiting national, bi-national, and larger regional approaches to liteature—is that you may mean the (main) contemporary meaning of the phrase—any and all literature in English whether originally written in English or translated into English. But then that’s approaching global literature—everything.

And that doesn’t appear to be what you mean. If it were, it would make this statement and others seem dubious or incongruent: “I actually agree with you that this proposal is not very radical at all--hence, my bewilderment that no one is doing it.” Changing a department from a largely binational, largely monolingual focus to a global, extraordinarily multilingual focus could be done in a very status quo way, but still it would be a huge change (and a good one, in my view).

In any event, though by logic you seem you may be possibly saying it, by implication you don’t appear to mean it. Of course it’s not easy to be willing to go along with a bewildering proposal, which is what you appear, to me anyway, to be putting forth. Best I can tell, you appear to be advocating a supersized Anglo-American nationalism, apparently against your own inclinations; or in other words, a vaguely, in fact indeterminately, limited trans-nationalism, or rather, some sort of pan-English(language)ism, of again some indeterminate but apparently non-global contour. Which is to say, it’s impossible to tell.

You state that “Language, much more than geography, *does* limit the access that writers and readers--not to mention our students--have to literary works. And I think our departments should be reorganized to reflect this fact, since it has a much more immediate effect on the writing and reading of literature than nation (or ocean) ever could.”

If language differences more than geographic differences limit people’s access to literature, why would we want to enforce that greater limitation by prioritizing it? It seems to me the sensible thing to do would be to work against that limitation by taking advantage of the many available translations (and pushing for many more) to reduce not “reflect” limitations of language, as well as geography/nation.

The vital concerns of literature (by which I mean reading and writing) have relatively little to do with the language the reading and writing is carried out in. In other words, the vast majority of the vital elements of novels, of poetry (more arguably), of drama, of essays, of scholarship are very largely beyond the originating language. Specific language issues are an important but very specific specialty within the vast domain of the concerns of literature. (Is this even controversial? Did the English language force George Eliot to write Middlemarch and not say Crime and Punishment, or for that matter, within her own language, Wuthering Heights? Of course not. Did the English language cause the flow and feel and sentence structure, etc, in Middlemarch to be at least somewhat different from War and Peace? Of course, but these are relatively marginal elements compared to the nature of the novels as a whole.)

Apart from the humanities, we can consider science and science literature, scientific literature: language is only an obstacle to be overcome by translation or multilingualism both in conducting research and in teaching (again, apart from some very specific linguistic concerns).

Of course the humanities are _somewhat_ different, especially in considering aesthetic issues, but even in this, language differences account for only a fraction of aesthetic issues. And aesthetic issues make up only part of the elements and focus of literature.

Language differences should not be allowed to limit the access that writers and readers – not to mention students – have to literature, and I think the department(s) should be reorganized to ensure this as much as possible, especially since in an ever more globally integrated age (which, incidentally, is not what the corporate-state establishment means by “globalization"), people can benefit from and otherwise need insight into and from the world over – across geographic and language differences both, and more.

And of course the departmental evolution away from both geographic/national and language insularity is going on, not least in scholarly World Lit courses and other broad international offerings. This trend is obvious in many MFA programs (where aesthetic and comprehensive concerns are often primary), as MFA faculty teach literary works from all over the world, translated from all sorts of languages, and no one necessarily thinks twice about it, except I suppose often about how exciting or intriguing such diversity is. It makes no sense to say these are “English” (&/or American) Department courses, or even “English Language” Department courses when many of the novels have been translated into English (or are even read in the original non-English language, as at the University of Texas El Paso (and elsewhere) which offers a bilingual MFA degree).

Fundamentally question the national basis of “English” (& American) Departments (a very good thing to do, in my opinion) and you’re left with quite possibly no justification for a large “English” Department. On the other hand, easily justifiable at large Department size is a wholesale “Global Literature Department,” or simply “Literature Department” that would include literature written everywhere in any language (translated, typically).

As your proposal stands, it seems to take as many steps back as forward, and/or seems very arbitrary overall, and/or seems indeterminate in various ways. Thus, what does seem clear is why there would be a “reluctance to reorganize”.

A “conference on competing frameworks for organizing global literary studies,” literature studies as a whole, not a bad idea – but maybe better it be an article or book event like this, the Valve’s specialty.

By Tony Christini on 04/25/07 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It may be interesting to revisit the Colacurcio-Spengemann debates in early American studies from the early 1990s for influential perspectives on “literature(s) in English”.  Spengemann, in A New World of Words and other books, was arguing for a “literature in English” approach to research, teaching, and curriculum while Colacurcio was representing the generation of Americanists who saw their task as identifying what’s distinct about American literature from world literature.  So if you want a case for literary nationalism, Colacurcio’s introduction to Doctrine and Difference is not a bad place to start.

Another touchstone here ought to be approaches to nationalism from postcolonial studies--I’m thinking in particular of Larry Buell’s turn from recasting New England as a regional culture in the United States in New England Literary Culture to his argument in an early essay that was revised for Postcolonial Theory and the United States that early national and antebellum writings in the U.S. are in some fairly strong sense “postcolonial.” I admit, when Buell’s essay first came out I thought he was wrong, but on further consideration he may have been on to something.

Sorry for all the links, but I’m not sure how familiar people here are with pre-1850 scholarship that considers various models for revising curricula and research agenda in early American studies--these are just the tip of the iceberg a few big names.

By The Constructivist on 04/25/07 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A further thought (and I may have broken teh intertubes with my last long comment--it’s not showing up, perhaps because of my linkage madness in it!):

One reason why people may be willing to tinker as individuals with the ways they teach survey and period courses but that departments may not be willing to commit to revising the structure of their majors is the time it takes to come to a consensus and work out the kinks of the new system.  Let’s not kid ourselves that following through on a proposal like Amanda’s would be a major investment, even in a department where people got along personally, theoretically, and politically.

I was lucky enough to be hired by a department that had already shifted to a genre-based intro to the major (with instructors having the freedom to choose works from various times and places in world literature within the one or two of the four intro courses they would teach regularly) years before I arrived (a three-year-plus process, that, from what I’ve heard), and in the eight years I’ve been there we’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to dealing with the consequences of this shift (pressure on new faculty to actually design world literature rather than multicultural American or Britain and its colonies courses; pressure on students who are getting certified in English Education to still teach British and American traditions; gaps between intro and intermediate courses, between, that is, world genre and national period ones, and hence a great fragmentation among the students, in that each develops a personal canon through arbitrary course selections; and much more).  Just coming to agreement that there are problems and arguing through possible solutions is a huge investment for us--and we’re not even riven by factions or personal rivalries.  I’ll stop here before I get too freaked out that I’ll be coming off my leave and return to being Associate Chair in just a few short months.... 

My point is that as grad students we’re trained in the entrepreneurial model for scholars, we are still lucky to get some focused training for teaching, and we get very little experience in or understanding of service.  And that if you’re not lucky enough to get a job where you’re simply ignored as an assistant prof (at Princeton, they were commonly referred to as temporary faculty when I was a grad student there, and better to be neither seen nor heard when it came to departmental decision-making) but lucky enough to get a tenure-track job, then you’ll likely be coming into a department that’s stretched very thin and needing you to commit to the running of it almost from the start.  Under that kind of pressure, it’s all too easy to fall back on the familiar--and by the time you get your feet under you, habits have been formed, schedules and expectations have been set, and it’s difficult to be critical of the structures you’ve been assimilated to.  (Yes, think Borg.  Not Bjorn.)

Ah, this is probably just a variation on the inertia argument--but my small point is it’s not a force of nature, it’s the effect of joining a bureaucracy in a field where competence at bureaucratic matters is neither valued nor fostered nor sought after!  Speaking of which, I have a book to finish!  See ya!

By The Constructivist on 04/25/07 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: