Marc Bousquet writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education of “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies” today. He believes that it stems from “loyalty to a pedagogy from the 1950s.” I think he’s right—and I’ve little sympathy for the handwringers. Though I do think that the shift in English Departments toward Rhetoric and Composition and Digital Humanities is happening because of changes beyond the walls of academia, it is also the result of a deliberate collapse created by the scholars of literature themselves. They focus too closely on texts themselves and refuse to see (outside of certain formulaic constraints that have been with them for generations) that the objects of their study only exist in context and not as things in themselves alone.
In addition, this collapse, of a sort seen too often within ivory towers (or of them), stems from valorization of a particular way of looking at a topic (the basis for Bousquet’s fifties pedagogy), one that insists on creating a ranking—and a ranking that places a particular subject matter, not just a particular way of looking at it, at the top of an academic pyramid.
But that’s not the whole of it.
The study of literature is being passed by not because there is anything wrong with it in and of itself. Not even because it does not meet the needs of the contemporary age and reflects hierarchies long discarded. Yes, the study of literature is being passed by because it has become backward looking and dependent on a high-culture/low-culture distinction that has become increasingly seen as irrelevant, seen as a vestige of class systems no longer operating.
But, as I said, there’s more to it.
When I returned to academia after an absence of well more than a decade, one of the things I did for myself was to try to orient my own work to a changing field. To do so, I pulled out work on literary studies going back into the 1930s (even before, actually). One of the pieces I looked at was the old Wimsatt and Beardsley Swanee Review article “The Intentional Fallacy.” That led to one of my first publications, “Intentionalism: On the Assumption of Authority in Literature.” I end it with this:
The intent to tell the truth is the virtue of art—and its savior from indifference and, if I may, even from exhaustion.
What I was seeing, even a decade ago, was a field, literary studies, in exhaustion, one that had, also, lost sight of any quest for truth or greater understanding. It was so tired that it could no longer sense where it was going or what was around it. Anxious to distance myself from the dying but not wanting to lose contact with literary studies completely, I turned part of my attention to cultural studies which, to me, encompasses literature. The rest of it I turned to composition and to new media, areas of growth and dynamism.
Today, if Bousquet is right (and I think he is), literary studies is about to drop dead. Or, if not quite dead, is finally ready to admit it must go under the knife for surgery cutting away the cancerous growths of the past century, allowing it, one would hope, to recuperate and return as a vibrant—though different—field.
Literature is entertainment. Many of us in literary studies have forgotten that, have dressed it up in all sorts of other vestments, abandoning the old clown suits and false armor. But that’s what literature is: fun and games. Certainly, as Horace and Sir Philip Sidney tell us, it can instruct as well as delight. In point of fact, it always does, whether it comes from the avant garde or from kitsch. As entertainment, literature is as much a part of cultural studies as is television or the comic book, or even film. There is no need to separate it from the others—the same types of analysis, divided only by the specific tools of each medium, work for each, and each needs to be viewed within contexts of authors, composition, and audience/milieu. And, of course, of cultural history (which, of course, includes the history of literature).
Take Shakespeare: The play’s not the thing, not alone or even with traditional cultural/historical contexts. The place of the play is just as important. Over the years, who has watched Hamlet try to catch the conscience of a king, and where? And why? Instead of dismissing as crackpots those who insist that Edward De Vere or someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, wouldn’t it be neat if, in a Shakespeare class, we asked why such theories persist? Wouldn’t that, in a backdoor way, tell us more about Shakespeare than does a mere concentration on the words of his texts? Certainly, it would tell us more about Shakespeare in today’s world—and isn’t that what it is all about, Alfie?
It is wrenching, really, for many in literary studies to turn they eyes from the text, but do so they must, if literary studies is going to turn itself around and prove it can have relevance. Text, after all, never builds a world of its own… though it does, of course, help build the world we live in. That’s what we need to be examining.