Tuesday, December 06, 2005

English as a Field

Margaret Soltan of University Diaries has an interesting article on English as a field in Inside Higher Education.

I'm not sure I share in her pessimism. The old ways are collapsing, and I can't tell you how many young scholars have told me that they have a sense that something new fresh is in the air. True, Theory often acted more as a stake driven at the heart of the discipline rather than thoughtful discussion about the nature of critique ... whether the age of High Theory did more good or ill to literary studies remains to be determined by not-yet-born scholars of the future. The post-Theory era will, I suspect, not be a return to the pre-theory era, but will instead follow a more Hegelian path, being a synthesis. In words, I suspect we are entering an era that is post-Theory but not post-theory.

Soltan quotes Andrew Delbanco as saying,
The even sadder news is that although students continue to come to the
university with the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow
register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate
by and for oneself, this craving now, more often than not, goes unfulfilled,
because the teachers of these students have lost faith.

I would expand this idea to the culture at large. People want to talk about art; they need it. Scholars often bemoan film adaptations of books (e.g. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as dumbed-down culture, evidence of a degraded society incapable of grappling with non-visual media. But I'm not so sure. Oh, of course there is a dummy Cliff's Notes element to some of the audiences for these films, but for the others: where else is someone going to find a sustained an accessible critique of a work if not in film?

Too often by writing and speaking in Literary Cant scholars have made their scholarship inaccessible. The problem is not hyper-specialization per se, because we need specialization to express new ideas to other specialists. The problem is that too many scholars are incapable of dealing with subject matter in which they are not specialized. We have drawn the line between the generalist and the specialist too boldly; the ideal scholar is both.

So we shut people out from literature, telling them, in effect, that they are too dumb to get it. People have to find their critique in places like Oprah's Book Club and film adaptations.

Still don't believe me? Let me point out that the most viewed pages on the Unlocked Wordhoard of late have been dealing explicitly with issues of literary critique. The commenters are primarily not English-professor-types -- they are just smart folks out there who want to be involved in extended discussion of literature without being shut out by Literary Cant or condescended to by babytalk.

The hunger for the discipline is out there; I see it every day. When English departments can remember that our job is to feed minds hungry for the language, we'll turn the corner into something fresh and exciting.


  1. I'm a little troubled by the notion that young scholars have only "a sense that something new [and] fresh is in the air." Shouldn't they of all people have the most specific sense of where all this is going? Shouldn't they be directing the future of their own field? Or are they standing around like minions of Gozer, waiting for a sign to tell them what to do?

    I agree with most of what you've written here. I adjunct occasionally, and I see in my adult undergrads a hunger for art, literature, aesthetic experiences, literary history--heck, even rhetoric and diction, stuff that many English PhDs find boring and old-fashioned. If it takes the field several decades to figure out what Oprah Winfrey already knows and what you've so sensibly outlined not in a manifesto but in a straightforward 500-word blog post, then we're talking about a field that's still far too trend-driven, disconnected, and unsure of its actual purpose to have an exciting future.

  2. Anonymous11:44 AM

    The most damaging notion is that literary works can perform only as 'representative' of one thing or another (i.e things in which other departments, and 'high theory' have a stake).

    If texts were first and foremost allowed to speak for themselves, and conceptualised as being creative of effect (rather than as being constructed as unselfconscious repositories of extractable data) a step would have been taken in the right direction.

  3. Jeff wrote:

    "I'm a little troubled by the notion that young scholars have only 'a sense that something new [and] fresh is in the air.' Shouldn't they of all people have the most specific sense of where all this is going? Shouldn't they be directing the future of their own field?"

    Well, we ARE working on specific directions, but not everyone agrees, so it takes a critical mass of Young Turks to determine where we are going. Young scholars have the least say in what gets published, who gets hired, how departments are structured, etc., so we have very little influence as individuals.

    That "sense" out there, is the perception that some critical mass is growing, but beyond that, which position will finally dominate is little more than speculation.

    If I had to speculate, I'd say that the field is moving toward some synthesis of textual scholarship and formalism. I suspect the big loser will be highly political work of all ideological stripes, particularly identity politics.

    *shrug* But all that is mostly speculation, partially biased, no doubt, by my push toward textual scholarship. If anyone is waiting for a sign, then perhaps they should consider me Gozer,and this is my sign:

    The future is textual scholarship! Go forth and consider the material (and electronic) text immediately! I have spoken!

  4. Thanks for such a thoughtful response. That's a rallying cry I can get behind! (It's certainly much better than standing around waiting for the guys from the EPA to shut down the ghost containment grid, so to speak...)

  5. Nice post and responses.

    But could someone please tell me what the heck the minions of Gozer are?

  6. It's a Ghostbusters reference. Incidentally, you aren't the first person to ask about Gozer:

    Dr. Peter Venkman: [discussing the creature Dana saw in her fridge] Zuul was the minion of Gozer.
    Dana Barrett: What's Gozer?
    Dr. Peter Venkman: Gozer was very big in Sumeria
    Dana Barrett: Well, what's he doing in my ice box?
    Dr. Peter Venkman: I'm working on that.

  7. Is it pathetic that I carry a torch for Egon Spengler?