The Death of English

Judith Halberstam calls for a radical shift in the way her colleagues think about their discipline and its future.

May 9, 2005

This year, even The New York Times could not work up the enthusiasm to perform a real pillory of the annual meeting of the association for for English and comparative literature professors, the Modern Language Association. Back in the day, the media would have a field day with the MLA panel listings and their wacky titles; and they would follow up their fish in a barrel shooting endeavors by visiting an MLA cocktail party and commenting upon the sad efforts of earnest English profs to look hip, cool and vaguely relevant.

A velvet jacket, a matching tie, a paper title that managed to combine canonical figures like Jane Austen with trendy theoretical currents like deconstruction or “outrageous” sexual behavior like masturbation were all fair game. But this year, it seemed, all the sport had gone out of the hunt for the pretentiously self-important humanities professor, and we had to settle for a lame review with its requisite cringing at paper titles with the word “lesbian” in them or “black” or postmodern,” or, God forbid, “postmodern black lesbian.” What’s gone wrong with our blatant attempts to convert the student population to communism by thinking up outrageous paper titles that combine sex and politics? Are we not owed at least a decent swipe, a casual cuff by the medias that be to remind us that they and not we control the minds and hearts of America?

I guess the sad truth is that no one really thinks (if they ever did) that English as a discipline poses a real threat to the status quo. The Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s led some of us to believe that the end of the canon, the end of seemingly objective appraisals of “aesthetic complexity” through close readings, the end of the representation of the culture of white males as culture per se, meant that some major battles in the politics of representation had been won. Some scholars however, suspected that the battle had simply shifted elsewhere and so while the critiques of the canon held strong, while courses on queer theory, visual culture, visual anthropology, feminist theory, literary theory began to nudge the survey courses, the single-author studies and the prosody classes aside, the discipline itself lost currency faster than the dollar. Nowadays, some English departments and most comparative literature departments are beset by massive declines in enrollment and petty squabbles within the ranks.

The Birmingham School in England in the 1970’s probably brought an end to English as we know it by proposing that the study of a small selection of texts written in English by a small group of mostly male white writers served to legitimate certain class interests in the university and elsewhere. By recognizing the predictable and unpredictable effects of culture upon politics and by insisting that the university begin to reflect the new forms of class and racial community in a postcolonial Britain, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams and others buried the notion of literary study as a review of a great tradition and a consideration of what made it great.

The work that emerged from the Birmingham School and that came to be called cultural studies has combined with postcolonial studies, black studies, queer studies, ethnic studies and women and gender studies to create the humanities as we know it and to spawn the constellation of debates and arguments about empire, subjectivity, hegemony, resistance, subversion, imagination and representation that currently occupy contemporary academics and that briefly but powerfully impact the lives and consciousnesses of the students who pass through humanities class rooms and others who interact in a public sphere with versions of these conversations.

I do not want to be misinterpreted as saying that English, and all those who teach in the discipline are redundant; or that the conflicts that made English such a great site for vigorous debate for so long are over. Rather, the study of culture and the function and meaning of culture has moved far beyond the boundaries of the English department and rather than respond by expanding, morphing, shifting and transforming into some other kind of discipline or inter-discipline, English professors have made and keep making the mistake of digging in. We in English need to update our field before it is updated by some administrations wishing to downsize the humanities and before student questions about the relevance of the 18th century novel or Victorian poetry or restoration drama become a referendum on the future of the field.

And it is not that the18th century novel or Victorian poetry or Restoration drama have become irrelevant as areas of study; it is that the way we pursue the teaching of genres and periods has not kept up with the way we study and write about culture and literature and history. The beauty of English as a discipline in the last decade has been how flexible the field became, how receptive to new scholarship, how hospitable to queer theory, feminist studies, the study of race and ethnicity, political economy, philosophy and so on. "English" is in fact the anachronistic name we give to a far more protean field of interests and animating concerns; and the fights that we now have over English, over its relationship to the interdisciplinary forms it has given rise to, are really the aftershocks of an event that is well past.

I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism. While we may all continue doing what we do — reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies — once we call it something other than "English," (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.) it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general, or within administrative plans for down-sizing; it will also, I propose, be better equipped to meet the inevitable demands (which already began to surface after the last election) for an end to liberal bias on college campuses and so on.

Recent debates in women’s studies have led to the renaming of many of these departments. Some are now called women and gender studies, others have become critical gender studies or just gender studies. In the process of changing from women’s studies to critical gender studies, these programs have rearticulated their theoretical projects and shifted the emphasis away from reclamations of lost pasts and affirmation of neglected perspectives and towards the consideration of transnational feminisms, gender and globalization, gender and sexuality in relation to race and so on. In other words, a change of name changes everything and reflects everything that has already changed: it signals a re-conceptualization of the field, its foci and its methods and it notes an historic shift in the politics of knowledge.

English departments are now regularly supplemented in humanities divisions by interdisciplinary programs like American studies, Modern Thought & Literature (Stanford) and History of Consciousness (University of California at Santa Cruz). These interdisciplinary programs emerged as the result of shifts in the discipline that English could not accommodate and, in my opinion, they should be able to replace the traditional English department in the future by recognizing the impossibility of studying literature separate from other forms of cultural production and by exposing the counter-intuitive logic of building Humanities divisions around departments dedicated to the study of the literature and culture of the British Isles. American national culture, after all, does not derive in any obvious way from Britain and it certainly cannot any longer claim stronger links to British cultural history than to the cultural histories of the Americas or the Pacific Rim.

In a recent book titled The Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak, one of the humanities’ most important and effective spokespeople, argues along slightly different lines that comparative literature as we know it needs a make over to acknowledge the move that has been made already away from comparative studies of European literatures to studies of the literatures of the Global South. Spivak argues that comparative literature and area studies, like certain forms of anthropology, constitute a colonial legacy in terms of the circulation of knowledge and that in order to confront and replace such a legacy, we have to reconstitute the form and the content of knowledge production.

The argument is typically elliptical but powerful and timely. Surprisingly, however, Spivak does not see the reorganization of the humanities as part and parcel of the rise of cultural studies, queer studies and ethnic studies; indeed, she tends to cast these interdisciplinary rubrics as part of the problem. For example, in an unfortunate move designed to recognize and hold on to the importance of the "close reading," Spivak designates "close reading" as a usable skill in the new comparative field she envisions and she prefers it to another kind of intellectual labor that, in her opinion, has come to be associated with the entirely "unrigorous" fields of ethnic and cultural studies, namely "plot summary."

The designation of the method of cultural studies and ethnic studies as "plot summary,” by Spivak, is supposed to indicate to the reader how mired these fields have become in plodding, identitarian concerns  and “plot summary” indicates a crude tendency to rehearse the “what” rather than the “why” or “how” of political process and cultural production.

I want to make common cause here with Spivak’s diagnosis of the problems of the discipline. But, while Spivak’s investment in the “close reading” and formalism betrays the elitist investments of her proposals for reinvention, I urge a consideration of non-elitist forms of knowledge production upon the otherwise brilliant formulations of The Death of a Discipline. If the close reading represents a commitment to a set of interpretive skills associated with a very particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, the plot summary indicates a much wider commitments to knowledge production, high and low. As any freshman comp instructor knows, the plot summary is a skill rarely mastered by the freshman writer and so even at the point when the neophyte English major is eating up metaphors and similes in gorgeous close readings of even the most banal passages, the plot summary, the skill to say what has happened succinctly and enagagingly while separating the relevant out from the irrelevant, the meaningful detail from the misleading truism, remains elusive.

Clearly we need both close reading skills and plot summaries to grapple with the confusing political realities of our times: what is the plot summary of the last election for example, or of the drama of the red versus the blue states? What is the plot summary for the narrative of gay marriage? How do we say what happens in a novel like Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway? What is Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours but a gorgeous summation of the plot of Mrs. Dalloway? What happens in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz? What on earth is the plot outline of Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie?

Being able to say what happens, ultimately encapsulates the ability to say why and how it happens and for students and non-academics, plot summary may be a fruitful, relevant and crucial form of intellectual engagement. Still, Spivak’s obituary for a fallen discipline is timely and important and it begins the hard working of mapping a future for the interdiscipline of literary and cultural studies in terms of the development of more non-European language skills, more engagement with non-European literatures and more recognition of what Dipesh Chakravorty has termed the “provincialism of Europe.”

On the road to re-imagining our field or institutionally acknowledging how it has already changed, we have to make both practical and abstract changes. In addition to the proposals that Spivak and others have made for the future of the discipline, I would propose that we abandon the meat market hiring procedures of the MLA by breaking the discipline down into more manageable forms; we should also allow and encourage graduate students to write dissertations that do not nod to the canon or fall within the genre/period requirements of MLA hiring protocols.

We must imagine new categories of jobs: not Victorian Studies but studies of “Empire and Culture,” not 19th century American or English literature but “popular literatures of the Americas” or “modern print culture,” not romanticism but “the poetries of industrialization.” Or something. Let’s rename the interdisciplines within which we, and our students, work (Culture and Politics Program, World Literature, Global Cultures, Transnational American Culture) and let’s insist upon a wide range of language study at a moment when the United States is actively imposing monolingualism on an increasingly heterogeneous, multilingual population. Let’s serve up histories of English and American culture along with healthy doses of non U.S.-centric, non-contemporary cultural studies and let’s recognize that the university may be the last place in this increasingly conservative and religious country to invest in critical and counter-hegemonic discourse.

The end of English is not the wishing away of a traditional field, nor is it a fantasy of its replacement with something shiny, new and perfect; rather, it is the acknowledgement of the seismic shifts that have already changed the field and that have allowed for the rise of new forms of analysis and new areas of focus. In my career thus far, I have been in only two departments as a professor and each one, in its own way, has been committed to the transformation of the field.

At University of California at San Diego, the literature department, which basically represents the new discipline that Spivak calls for, has never privileged the study of English and has always located the study of English in modest relation to the study of Spanish, French, German and Italian. And in more recent years, the UCSD literature department has recognized the Eurocentricism of focusing on those literatures to the exclusion of the literatures of Vietnam, Taiwan, China, India and so on. Hiring in that department has recently looked to Asia, to the Americas, to a comparative version of Europe for its rubrics and to organize the field.

At my new job at the University of Southern California, recent clusters of senior hires have allowed for a fertile mix of the study of music, popular culture, sexuality and race to combust with the already impressive breadth of interests that characterized the department and to allow folks to contemplate the meaning of the field in new and exciting ways. The end of English is not the end of the relevance of the study of the literature of the British Isles, it is simply an opportunity, as I have found, to place that literature, English and others, in context in a rapidly changing world and on behalf of the invention of a new intellectual function in the humanities. Let’s hope that in another decade The New York Times has to attend not one monstrous conference like the MLA to report on a bundle of provocative titles but is forced to spend the entire year reporting in meaningful ways on the reinvigoration of the humanities after the death of English.


Judith Halberstam is a professor of English and director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California.


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