Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities

This morning’s Inside Higher Education carried an interesting article by Stephen Brockmann about the destruction of the humanities, making the case that we brought it upon ourselves by abandoning the Western tradition.  This is not the first time this case has been made, and it was something I took up in my MLA paper on a roundtable honoring the late queer theorist and pirate scholar Hans Turley (author of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash) called “The Perils and Pleasures of Legitimacy.”  What follows is an adaptation of that piece, which I think also provides a response to Stephen Brockmann’s piece.

In the last 20 years or so, there have been roughly two different conversations about the object of study in eighteenth-century research and in the profession in general.  One formerly high-profile dialogue has been over the “canon,” in which teaching The Rover in a Restoration drama course felt radically innovative.   The other had to do less with which aesthetic objects attracted our attention and in some way presumably represented national culture than with topics that cropped up well-regarded texts and were threaded throughout a very wide variety of printed documents, such as travel narrative, newspapers, periodical, broadsides, scandal sheets, and sensational narratives designed to sell quickly.  While an earlier generation may have pursued studies of major authors or thematic issues across several authors, the movement loosely referred to as “cultural studies” opened up the possibility of exploring previously overlooked and in many cases despised objects.

Clearly, Hans Turley was one of the pioneers of this kind of work in 18th-century studies, a decision that brought him success, but also some challenges—the worst of which being a widely-circulated email message that mocked his choice of subject as both weirdly prurient and hopelessly trendy.  Perhaps thinking together about rum, sodomy, and the lash no longer has the shock value that it once did.  There might be a case, as the title of this panel suggests, that pirate studies have become fully legitimate, so I will briefly consider both the perils and pleasures of this possible legitimacy.

Turley was not the first in eighteenth-century studies to look at strange objects across literary and popular texts.  Terry Castle’s work on masquerade and then later oddities like the female thermometer provided an exciting alternative to then-dominant forms of scholarship. What distinguished what I will call here “pirate studies” from other fine work was its idiosycracy.  Prize-winning and highly influential studies such as work on the novel by Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong and more recently Ruth Perry; work on the drama by Doug Canfield and Robert Hume, have proven powerful because of their interest in systems and a certain claim to comprehensiveness.  “Pirate studies,” by contrast, tends to be unsystematic or even anti-systematic. Pirates stumble across genres and straddle multiple ideological possibilities.  They have no stable meaning, but suggest different possibilities at different moments.  “Pirate studies” became exciting because it suggested ways to find meaning across cultural objects in ways that included, but also exceeded, literary criticism.

If “pirate studies” were once risky, they have now, arguably, become commonplace.  We might lament a loss of shock value and even balk at a fetishization of the strange: Now that we have books on pirates, prostitutes, queer people, Methodists, rakes, and travelers, are we pointing graduate students to find ever-strangers objects?  Have we run out of weirdness?  Has this fascination with strangeness come at the expense of a coherent understanding of the period?  Observing the multiple threats to the survival of the humanities in higher education, critics will say that maybe we would be doing better if we weren’t spending so much time on rum, sodomy, and the lash.  In an article last year in The American Scholar, for example, William Chase argued that the humanities have dug their own grave through trendiness and triviality; as a result, English departments have lost students and lost funding.  One peril, then, would be that ‘pirate studies’ could lose sight of the literary object that at one point constituted the field.

I have two responses here. First, losing sight of the literary object is not necessarily a peril.  As Gerald Graff pointed out 20 years ago in Professing Literature, the moment during which a literary object defined the field of English studies was a brief one; the discipline itself flourished before it become tightly focused on the literary object. There is reason to suspect, then, that there might be a way to flourish once again without a literary object at the center—or perhaps we should say that the decentralization of the literary object will not in itself destroy the discipline.  If literature has less centrally defined English departments (and perhaps also foreign language departments), other objects of study have flooded in.  Some are non-canonical objects, but others are fascinating and important texts abandoned by the fields they once defined. We are more likely to find Adam Smith on the syllabus in an English department than in history, philosophy, or economics.  In a sense, then, we might be moving back to a more broadly rhetorical model that defined English departments at their inception.

Any struggles over the legitimacy of disciplinary objects in English and foreign language departments, however, lately seem overshadowed by concerns for the legitimacy of those entire fields. Popular reporting on our pathologies in the New York Times (another institution struggling for legitimacy) could be instructive here.   Twenty years ago in 1991, Anne Matthews described the MLA conventions in the Magazine as tense but glamorous, zeroing in on a 34-year-old Andrew Ross, just tenured at Princeton, who was over turning staid paradigms by writing about “subjects ranging from Batman comics and computer hackers to new-age trance channeling and the semiotics of the Weather Channel.”  Matthews describes an eclectic gathering defined by high-profile stars like Ross on the one hand, and anxious but determined graduate students facing alarmingly unfavorable odds on the other. Matthews affectionately mocked the sessions them, describing them as ranging from the “sedate (“Encyclopedias as a Literary Genre”), the arcane (“Aspects of Iconicity in Some Indiana Hydronyms”) and the standing-room-only (“The Sodomitical Tourist”; “Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Female Body”).”  No pirates yet on the horizon, but close enough.  Recently, the Times has run more stories about the funding crisis–already a theme, actually, in the 1991 article, but noted less as a social issue than as a source of graduate student distress.  My unscientific survey, however, suggests in recent years fewer scandalized articles about underwear and instead a much more approving series of article on attempts to merge literary studies with cognitive science, computer science; medical science, evolutionary science; environmental science.  Perhaps there is a pattern here.  The Times even ran a forum entitled “Can Neuro Lit Crit Save the Humanities?”, although for many of the contributors the answer was, for various reasons, not really.  Still, Matthews clearly did not think that underwear could save the humanities; at best, the humanities could tolerate a little underwear as a side show between encyclopedias and iconicity.  This is not the place to debate the value of linking literature with science; my only point is to observe a recent impulse, which seems to be a less troubling to general public although certainly not without controversy, to align literary study less with the rogue fields of pirates, underwear, and sodomitical tourists than with other areas of the university that might not stand in as much need of saving.  Perhaps at this point, those pirates would only pull us down with their own leaky vessels.

Matthew’s iconic article linked pirate studies with the defunding of the humanities in only in attenuated ways: both raised the stakes for already-nervous graduate students, who somehow had to figure out a way to move beyond encyclopedias and iconicity.  Harsher critics like Chase, as mentioned, have claimed a directly destructive relationship.  But while Chase (who, parenthetically, offers his qualified support to the idea that ‘Neuro-Crit’ can save the humanities) and others have argued that pirate studies have led to the demise of English departments, I want to suggest instead that they have brought the past into the present in productive ways.  Pirate studies, in other words, might in fact have been a prescient move toward preservation, sharing this impulse with those who have gravitated toward different forms of science.  The more systematic studies that have defined the field in their own way assume a kind of value in the object of study, be it the novel, poetry, or drama, in a way that we can no longer take for granted.  At a key moment, pirate studies offered an alternative to the hermeneutics of suspicion, now itself under suspicion, and replaced it with a hermeneutics of curiosity and a history of the present. What is missing in analyses by Chase and even Matthews is the recognition that pirate studies might come across as weird, sensational, and even pandering, but in the best examples there is always a reason for the particular object.  They are objects that, legitimate or not, hold meaning for our own particular moment in history and that also, arguably, offer a more vivid picture of the past that was indeed once unspeakable.  The more persuasive examples of pirate studies turn around distinctions between outliers and ‘inliers’, asking us not to look at anomalies, but rather challenge us to recognize the extent to which pirates and their ilk, in fact, defined the period, and that all of those advocacies for moral order in the eighteenth century, beloved by an earlier era and skillfully analyzed for their ideological components by another, only make sense in an eighteenth century comprehended through its piratical subjects.  (Parenthetically, I think this is why Joe Roach’s work has been so effective: he took the ‘pirate studies’ model and worked it backwards, embracing and rendering explicit its implied presentism.)  The best of pirate studies has not shown, simply, that there were lots of pirates, or that pirates belonged to both the exploiters and the exploited; rather, it has shown how Defoe was actually more interesting than we thought, and in ways that we might care about right now.  The best of pirate studies—and this is what Chase and others fail to grasp—is ultimately a form of preservation that, unlike criticism in better times, knows it cannot assume the value of its object and therein, I believe, lies an important lesson for the future.

Twenty years ago, one of the most burning questions was whether or not we could use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.  Now, on a good day, we’re thinking that we might remodel the kitchen.  On a bad day, we’re fighting the bank against foreclosure.  The master’s house may have a few madwomen in the attic, but as Turley and other have shown, it also has some rum in the basement, a little sodomy in the bedroom, and a few lashes somewhere in the back of the closet.

12 responses to “Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities

  1. Hi Laura,

    There is a lot to discuss here, but this is the money quote:

    The best of pirate studies—and this is what Chase and others fail to grasp—is ultimately a form of preservation that, unlike criticism in better times, knows it cannot assume the value of its object and therein, I believe, lies an important lesson for the future.

    I agree that seeing cultural studies as a response to this destabilization of literary values, not its cause, is key to recognizing its significance for this historical moment. I also believe that what made this possible were the models of strategic de- and recontextualization that Theory popularized prior to the cult studies boom. But some people would rather re-fight the battles of 30 years ago than think about what’s happening right now.

    I glanced at the Brockmann piece, and I’m not persuaded about its claim that the humanities lost support when they lost interest in the essentially didactic values of moral uplift, the unity of the literary work, and the untroubled transmission of elite culture from one generation to the next. I think that a generation’s worth of scholarship about the institutional history of literature and the canon might have impinged upon this view, but what I see in Brockmann is a nostalgia for the historical moment when literary studies comfortably identified itself with high culture (not, incidentally, the 18th century).

    I like contemplating different approaches to literary studies, but much of the stuff that gets publicized at places like the NY Times sounds quite lame, second-hand science-envy stuff. I think that the desire for literary studies to seek out alliances with more “legitimate” kinds of inquiry will turn out to be a dead end, but who knows? Maybe in the course of trying to emulate other disciplines they will invent something genuinely new and interesting. But I think that it probably won’t come out of discovering a new method, but by assembling a new audience.

    [PS: Fixed the link, and note: "Brockmann"]

  2. Why is there this constant insistence on conflating English and the humanities? Maybe it’s just English that’s constantly in crisis. History, for instance, is probably less wracked by neurotic disciplinary self-doubt today than it’s ever been.

    • Hi Greg,

      No desire to conflate English with anything else. For that matter, Brockmann doesn’t seem aware of how many different things are already inside English departments besides literature. But I would hope that the job market, the place of the humanities within today’s corporatized universities, and the internal disagreements within our “discipline” would provoke some reflection. And anthropology, for example, has been having its own debates. So you think that history has had a different kind of response to these broader conditions?

      • I think there are a few different kinds of conflation going on here. First of all, I don’t think job market issues/casualization/etc. are at all part of the same complex of issues as “the crisis of the humanities,” and conflating the two enables arguments like Brockmann’s “we brought it on ourselves” line of reasoning. Non-admin academics did not bring the casualization of the academy or threats to funding on themselves–there are powerful actors with clear agendas that were interested in pushing the humanities in this direction for a long time.

        The conflation of English with other humanities disciplines is a different question. Of course, to a certain extent each discipline went through its own little culture war over Theory-related issues–but my sense is that history came out of them in better shape because it had been fighting the same sorts of battles for decades (see Novick’s That Noble Dream if you haven’t already). As a result, historians are now more or less content to let each other do what they want, methodologically speaking, and even the most conservative of the middle-aged and younger scholars are conversant with Foucault.

        From what I understand, English is in a worse situation both because it was a discipline founded in a context of ideological coherence (as in, it was intended as a cultural substitute for the classics, right?) and because, unlike history, English doesn’t offer one face to students and amateurs and another face to initiated professionals, causing MLA politics inevitably to spill over into the classroom in a way that AHA politics rarely do. Then there are the epistemological questions, which a lot of lit people tend to shrug off (as do historians, of course) but which became really acute once there was a publicized disciplinary crisis–what kind of knowledge are we (you) really producing here? It’s interesting that the approaches that have been doing best, in my fairly limited experience–book history and some kind of thick and interdisciplinary New Historicism–are the ones that have the fewest obvious epistemological issues associated with them.

        English isn’t alone, and you’re right that anthro is a good example–the recent brouhaha over “science” is a pretty good indication of that. On the other hand, philosophy seems to be healing the analytic/continental split pretty nicely, now that the cranky old guard is largely gone. My point was simply that the disruptive influence of Theory on each field didn’t lead to the same sorts of crises everywhere. Therefore, to associate the canon wars with some kind of humanities-wide problem is pretty problematic, and to then link that with the current economic problems in the academy is even more so. We need to be careful about blaming ourselves for material phenomena that are mostly out of our control, since the logical conclusions are pretty unsavory (commit to the New Criticism or lose your job!).

  3. And I don’t even see why Brockmann’s blather about tradition and self-critique within the tradition needs to be taken seriously, given that it’s an obvious Germanist déformation professionnelle. Either the tradition is alive and kicking and adapting to the times or it never existed in the first place.

    • Laura Rosenthal

      I think it’s worth reponding to because one sees the same connections being made all the time, over and over.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    The last point that Slawkenbergius is making to Dave is exactly the one that gets continually recycled: literature programs have given up their claim to significance by abandoning a particular version of a canon. And yes, this gets speciously linked to defunding.
    But I am actually intrigued about the point you make about historians keeping their conflicts among themselves:
    “unlike history, English doesn’t offer one face to students and amateurs and another face to initiated professionals, causing MLA politics inevitably to spill over into the classroom in a way that AHA politics rarely do.”
    Can you explain this a little? What are the conflicts and how do they manage to keep them out of the public and out of the classroom?

    • Well, obviously, if you know where and how to look it’s very easy to identify what side of a particular issue a given syllabus leans towards. But history can be–and still often is–taught as a series of events or as some kind of disaggregated system in which you can pick out “politics” and “economics” and “culture” and then assign readings that are “representative” of each. The fewer secondary sources you use, the less you have to explain or engage with current debates in the field.

      So, just to give an example off the top of my head, in 18th-century intellectual history there’s a long-running conflict between the Peter Gay “there was one big, self-conscious, modern, secular Enlightenment” school and the e.g. J. G. A. Pocock “there were many different kinds and contexts of enlightenment, many of them were religious in nature, and the link with modernity was often tenuous” school. (The latter is often associated with the more Theory-oriented types, although of course Pocock himself is very old-school.) If I teach a class on the subject, I don’t have to assign or explain Gay or Pocock. I can just decide that it’s more important for people to read Diderot than Fréret and it will be a perfectly serviceable class for which people are unlikely to criticize me, and if I make the opposite decision it will be a quaint eccentricity rather than a gay-commie-feminist assault on Western culture.

      Students and amateurs, meanwhile, will expect nothing else, and when they think “history” they’ll still see in their mind’s eye the popular history books sold in Barnes and Noble. Nobody is particularly interested in what the professional historians have to say, because popular history satisfies that craving pretty effectively for most people. (And when professional historians write for popular audiences, they tend to deliberately avoid engaging in intra-field disputes.) As a result, most historians are only marginally aware of the most recent contentious issues even in neighboring fields, much less across the discipline–and this has contributed to a sense that there is now a broad pluralistic consensus.

  5. To respond to Greg’s notion of “reasoning people out of arguments who didn’t reason themselves into,” I think we need to answer bad arguments when we are engaging others, because the stakes are more than academic. They are about the quality of public discourse. The recurrence of easily answered arguments only means that there are interests and entities pushing the discussion in particular directions, and these need to be accounted for, as well.

    Greg’s suggestion to detach some of these issues from one another, however, is well-taken, and probably the best first step to avoiding the banality of the Brockmann position.

    I wonder whether one of the reasons why both English and Anthropology have experienced such severe divisions is because they are both so invested in a model not just of culture, but the linear transmission of culture, a model that seems to have completely disintegrated Post-Theory. Perhaps history and the other disciplines can just do their thing without worrying about what they are transmitting/preserving/etc.

  6. Laura Rosenthal

    Very interesting. I agree that separating out these issues is an important step. It’s also interesting to think about academic history scholarship as shielded in certain ways by the market in popular history books. We really don’t have an equivalent in literature, do we? Possibly biographies of writers and book reviews, but not much beyond that. What we have in common are the books themselves, but that might actually be a disadvantage if we are suggesting something that seems unconvincing about a beloved classic. Probably most readers of popular history do not see themselves as in a position to argue against a historian’s account of events.

  7. Hi Laura,

    I absolutely LOVE this posting — particularly the final paragraph. Will read this to all my graduate students immediately!

    LE