This week I thought I’d pull up a nice essay from HG (courtesy of Bill Benzon at the Valve and the late, lamented Stanford Humanities Review) , in order to pursue an argument I’ve seen in HG but never seen discussed in other venues.
The essay itself, which was published in 1998, has an interesting (and debatable) historical argument about the disappearance of the historical and institutional conditions that gave academic literary studies their currency and impetus in the twentieth century.
If I understand him correctly, the emergence of comparative literature and literary theory in the ’60s and ’70s (and this historical conjunction needs to be studied more carefully, if we wish to talk about the Theory Wars) was initially felt as a “departure towards new horizons,” but this optimism about literary studies and its effects quickly dissipated, at least in mainstream literary studies.
What I find most interesting is that HG finds this kind of collective, historical optimism in some areas of lit studies, but not in others: in fields like African or Caribbean literature, or in Gay or Lesbian studies, but not in the canonical fields:
If, paradoxically, our social environment—and this may be especially true for the American situation—seems to remain more convinced of the values inherent to literary reading than do most literary critics, the survival of such attitudes among the cultural public should not make us overlook that, as a social form of leisure, literary reading has a greater number of competitors than ever before. Wherever reading is still a lively form of cultural interaction, its social frame of reference is more likely to be that of a repressed or marginalized minority than that of a (more or less triumphant) nation state. Thus, it has been said that literature has failed to play a role in the process of German reunification, but it makes unquestionably strong contributions towards the identity formation of the emerging African societies.12 While literary reading has become key for feminist theory and for the development of new forms of self-reference among gays and lesbians, it faces increasing difficulties in maintaining its place within national programs of education. (my emphasis)
Oddly enough, while these competing (or collaborating) fields are often found in the same English Departments, they differ strongly in their relations to the nation-state (and its educational programs), and this difference in turn affects their ability to introduce student-readers into palpably “new horizons” of literature. And this difference is something I’ve noticed in my own department, where my closest collaborations have been with colleagues in ethnic and post-colonial literature. In any case, I think that HG’s historical account does explain the ways in which studies of the “Long Eighteenth” have developed since the 1980s.