Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More on the State of the Field

It's the first week of classes here, which explains the paucity of posting. Michael Drout has an interesting post responding to this post on Tiruncula about the state of Anglo-Saxon studies. Since I'm part of the "nest of Saxonists" online, I figure I ought to have something to say. Indeed, I have a lot to say, but not the time in which to say it.

So, let me instead make a couple of unsupported statements -- more a bit of bomb-throwing than actual argument.

It strikes me that the problem is that we have abandoned literature. Too often, the study of Anglo-Saxon literature is that it has been abandoned for the practice of philosophy-lite and history-lite.

First off, philosophy-lite. This problem is more pronounced in the rest of literary studies, the problem in which one can have semesters in grad school, getting degree in "English Literature," in which one spends more time talking about Kristeva and Spivak than one does talking about Milton and Austen. The trouble with this is that we already have people who do philosophy and do it better than those in English departments do it. We call these people "philosophers" and house them in philosophy departments.

History-lite is also found in the field at large, but Anglo-Saxon literary studies is especially prone to it. Besides (old) Historicism and New Historicism, darn near every faddish theory to come around "situating" everything wants to do so from a historical perspective, though often only implicitly. We seem to have forgotten that history is situated IN LANGUAGE, and that the discipline of history is itself situated in narrative storytelling (i.e. literature). In other words, history is the younger child of literature, not the other way around.

There you go. No argument, just bomb-throwing. Let the angry comments commence.


  1. Anonymous6:39 PM

    have two points, or questions, or somewhere in between...I'm typing off the cuff here.

    My first point is that I tend to agree with you regarding the seeming divorce between literary criticism and the literature it is supposed to be criticizing. That said, I'm not sure how to get back to actual discussion of literature from a critical standpoint without reintroducing formalism, and I think formalism is too limiting and judgmental in what should and shouldn't be canon (at least insofar as New Criticism is concerned).

    My second point is about the concept of History-lite. Are you suggesting that history be ignored or eschewed? Personally, what I find fascinating about medieval literature (I'm still a grad student so I'm not quite gelled, so to speak, but right now I'm working on late medieval stuff) is the reception and transmission of narrative. How Sir Gawain and the Green Knight becomes the Grene Knight, how salvation history informs theater, or how the French Arthurian tradition is received by Mallory and in turn how Mallory informs every writer who takes on Arthur after him. To understand the hows and whys of that transmission, it would seem to me that it is necessary to understand history. Am I misinterpreting your bomb toss here?

  2. I'm not saying that history should always be ignored -- I'm saying that it can be ignored, and should never be our organizing structure for the understanding of literature.

    From my perspective, history is a literary genre, and is best understood that way. It is the way that we organize our memories into narrative form. Literature should not be considered a sub-set of cultural history -- this is akin to describing your body as an appendage to your arm, rather than visa-versa.

    Taking the example you have offered, I would say that an "understanding" of the reasons for transmission of narrative that finds those reasons in history is no understanding at all, but rather an obfuscation. A better question to ask is "How did the power of these narratives affect history?"

    It comes down to this -- there is only one intellectual pursuit in the world -- the pursuit of language. Whether that language be English or math or Latin, everything else is just moving the pieces around the board. Language IS the pieces and IS the board.