I gave a paper recently as part of a colloquium at George Washington University whose general title was "Futures of the Field." The tension in that plural -- "Future s" -- carried the weight of much of what I had to say about the current state of literary study.
My audience and I were seated around a seminar table in what has long been called, and continues to be called, an "English" department. The name "English," I pointed out, designates a primary activity involving the reading and interpreting of literary texts in English. (This would include foreign literature translated into English.) If we want primarily to involve ourselves with historical texts, we go over to the history department; philosophical, the philosophy department, and so forth. What distinguishes our department, as Judith Halberstam wrote in her essay, is the "appraisal of aesthetic complexity through close readings." Not philosophical or historical, but aesthetic complexity.
This model of the English department, and the carefully chosen canon of great aesthetic works which comprised its content, has in most colleges and universities collapsed. The value and nature of our reading (that is, when English departments feature reading at all, film, television, music, and material culture courses having displaced to some extent written texts in many schools), has radically changed, with the inclusion of cheap detective novels and poorly written political essays, for instance, now routine in departments that used to disdain prose that exhibited little aesthetic complexity and/or stylistic distinction.
On the other end, there's also now the inclusion of notoriously over-complex -- to the point of unintelligibility, never mind stylistic ugliness -- advanced critical texts in our courses. A character in Don DeLillo's White Noise says of his university's English department, "There are full professors in this place who do nothing but read cereal box tops." But there are as many professors there who read nothing but the densest, most arcane, and most poorly written critical theory.
All of which is to say that there is no "field," so there can't be any "future" or even "futures." That "s" in our GW lecture series title is trying to reassure us that instead of a profession-killing chaos what we have now is a profession-enhancing variety, richness, flexibility, ferment, inclusiveness, choose your reassuring adjective. Yet when there's not even a broadly conceived field of valuable objects around which we all agree our intellectual and pedagogical activity should revolve, there's no discipline of any kind.
Instead, there's a strong tendency, as Louis Menand puts it, toward "a predictable and aimless eclecticism." A young English professor who has a column under the name Thomas Hart Benton in The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it this way: "I can't even figure out what 'English' is anymore, after ten years of graduate school and five years on the tenure track. I can't understand eighty percent of PMLA, the discipline's major journal. I can't talk to most people in my own profession, not that we have anything to say to each other. We don't even buy one another's books; apparently they are not worth reading. We complain about how awful everything is, how there's no point to continuing, but nobody has any idea what to do next."
The English department mainly survives as a utilitarian administrative conceit, while the English profession operates largely as a hiring and credentialing extension of that conceit.
If we wish to say that we've retained disciplinary integrity based on our continued close attention to texts of all kinds -- aesthetic and non-aesthetic -- that sharpen our ideological clarity about the world (or, as Menand puts it, texts that allow us to "examine the political implications of culture through the study of representations"), then we have already conceded the death of the English department, as Halberstam rightly notes. Indeed, since highly complex aesthetic texts tend to be concerned with personal, moral, and spiritual, rather than political, matters, we shouldn't be surprised to find in Halberstam an outright hostility to precisely the imaginative written texts in English that have more or less from the outset comprised the English department's objects of value and communal study.
Menand notes that the "crisis of rationale" I'm describing here has had serious negative consequences. Among a number of humanities departments that are losing disciplinary definition, English, he says, is the most advanced in this direction: "English has become almost completely post-disciplinary." (Menand has earlier pointed out the inaccuracy of another reassuring word -- interdisciplinary: "The collapse of disciplines must mean the collapse of interdisciplinarity as well; for interdisciplinarity is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. The very term implies respect for the discrete perspectives of different disciplines.") The absence of disciplines means the "collapse of consensus about the humanities curriculum," and this at a time of rapidly escalating outside scrutiny of the intellectual organization and justification of the expensive American university.
Further, "the discipline acts as a community that judges the merit of its members' work by community standards." When there's no self-defining and self-justifying community, English departments, Menand continues, become easy marks for downsizing administrators. "Administrators would love to melt down the disciplines, since this would allow them to deploy faculty more efficiently - and the claim that disciplinarity represents a factitious organization of knowledge is as good an excuse as any. Why support separate medievalists in your history department, your English department, your French department, and your art history department, none of them probably attracting huge enrollments, when you can hire one interdisciplinary super-medievalist and install her in a Medieval Studies program whose survival can be made to depend on its ability to attract outside funding?"
Halberstam acknowledges these effects and proposes that we "update our field before it is updated by some administrations wishing to downsize the humanities." By "update," though, she means provide a decent burial: "The discipline is dead, we willingly killed it," and we must "now decide what should replace it." In place of the "elitism" inherent in close readings of aesthetically complex works, Halberstam proposes an education in "plot summary," a better skill for making sense of our current reactionary political moment (as Halberstam sees it).
Indeed throughout her essay, Halberstam attacks religious Americans, conflating religious seriousness with politically reactionary positions.
Now, a huge amount of Western culture's high literature involves religious seriousness. If, like Halberstam, you regard contemporary America as a fundamentalist nightmare, and if your very definition of the American university is that it is, as she writes, "the last place in this increasingly conservative and religious country to invest in critical and counter-hegemonic discourse," then you have a problem. You either want to steer your students away from much of this literature, since, though perhaps not fundamentalist, it assumes a world permeated with religious belief (or, as in much literary modernism of Kafka's sort, as suffering from an absence of belief), or you want to present this literature in a way that undermines, to the extent possible, its own status as a document that takes religion seriously.
It's just this sort of cognitive dissonance relative to the very body of knowledge that, as an English professor, Halberstam has been trained to teach, that in part accounts for the death of English. Halberstam's primary motive as a university professor is political and social - she has situated herself in an American university because that location is our last best hope for changing the politics of the country. Indeed, if there is a "consensus" about anything in many English departments, it lies here, in the shared conviction, articulated by Halberstam, that focusing upon and changing immediate political arrangements in this country is our primary function as teachers and scholars.
One assumes, that is, a socially utilitarian attitude toward what one teaches.
There was nothing inevitable about this turn outward to the immediate exigencies of the political and social world, by the way. As Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, the intellectual is, more often than not, "cut off from practical life; revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind." But this withdrawal also drives the intellectual's critical power: "Only someone who keeps himself in some measure pure has hatred, nerves, freedom, and mobility enough to oppose the world."
No one's arguing here that we return to a very narrow canon, to uncritical piety in regard to the literature of our culture, and to monastic withdrawal from the world. Instead, what I'd like to suggest is that we return to the one discrete thing that our discipline used to do, and still, in certain departments, does.
A few years back, in The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, an English professor at Columbia University, announced "the sad news… that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and themselves… . English today exhibits the contradictory attributes of a religion in its late phase - a certain desperation to attract converts, combined with an evident lack of convinced belief in its own scriptures and traditions."
Delbanco continues: "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." In similar language, Robert Scholes writes, "As our Romantic faith in the spiritual value of literary texts has waned, we have found ourselves more and more requiring knowledge about texts instead of encouraging the direct experience of these texts."
Notice the language here: direct experience, contact. The political and more broadly theoretical abstractions that have been thrown over the artwork from the outset, as it's often presented in class, block precisely this complex, essentially aesthetic experience. This experience, triggered by a patient engagement of some duration with challenging and beautiful language, by entry into a thickly layered world which gives shape and substance to one's own inchoate "cravings" and "longings," is the very heart, the glory, of the literary. Students -- some students -- arrive at the university with precisely these powerful ontological energies. Certain novels, poems, and plays, if they let them, can surprise these students, both with their anticipation of particularly acute states of consciousness, and their placement of those consciousnesses within formally ordered literary structures.
One of the noblest and most disciplinarily discrete things we can do in the classroom is to take those ontological drives seriously, to suggest ways in which great works of art repeatedly honor and clarify them as they animate them through character, style, and point of view.
One of the least noble and most self-defeating things we can do is avert our student's eye from the peculiar, delicate, and enlightening transaction I'm trying to describe here. When we dismiss this transaction as merely "moral" -- or as proto-religious -- rather than political, when we rush our students forward to formulated political beliefs, we fail them and we fail literature. Humanistic education is a slow process of assimilation, without any clear real-world point to it. We should trust our students enough to guide them lightly as they work their way toward the complex truths literature discloses.