Autobiography, Travel-Writing, and Everything Studies


 [cute, fiercely inquisitive kittens= Members of The Valve]


[irresistibly colorful balls of yarn= Timothy Burke]

Like kittens fussing over a ball of yarn, some members of the Valve have been playing around with an interesting thread about Tim Burke’s notion of “Everything Studies,” a version of cultural studies that would include (potentially, anyway) the entire field of “expressive culture.”  Sounds ambitious?  You bet.

Burke’s proposed field or “megadepartment,” which began life as a response to a Valve discussion about theoretical inclusiveness in English departments, ventures into some interesting theoretical and institutional territory, because Burke wants to exploit the de facto breakdown of disciplinary boundaries that cultural studies has helped to reinforce and institutionalize.  As a result, Burke actually celebrates the theoretical eclecticism that others have worried about, or regarded as a symptom of decreased intellectual rigor or innovation.  For Burke, this kind of provisional attitude towards theory is a sign of health for a department, a form of intellectual “diversity” that we should foster and strengthen wherever possible.

Taking seriously this kind of redescription of the present leads to some interesting speculations about the potential benefits of “everything studies,” which he sketches out below:

 I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I’d call it Cultural Studies, but I don’t want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what John is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

And here is how he concludes:

If I had to boil it down to what the normative selective principles of my new megadepartment ought to be, I’d say that the only things I really care about are: 1) be smart; 2) be interesting; 3) be communicative and 4) try to keep the ecosystem of cultural criticism as varied as possible. Don’t load up on neo-Arnoldians or exclusive historicists or cognitivists or anything else besides. Stay invested in as many media and as many historical settings and contexts as possible. Don’t let anyone categorically say that the Department of Everything Studies (Expressive Culture Division) doesn’t deal with popular culture or doesn’t concern itself with aesthetics or regards actually trying to produce culture as some kind of riffraff vocational thing suitable for the lower orders and capitalist hegemons.

There’s lots of stuff to react to in this post and in the subsequent debates, but my own thought was that paraliterary genres like pamphlets, travel-writing, or autobiography (which I’m teaching this term) really lend themselves to this kind of explicitly open-ended research program, largely because we have to admit material questions (like “is this true” as well as “how did this work at the time?”) into our considerations of these texts.  They all have formal (sometimes narrative, sometimes rhetorical) qualities to be analyzed, but they also have irreducibly referential and theoretical dimensions, as well, so the eclecticism demanded by Burke makes a lot of sense.  But, in the final instance, I also think that “everything studies” is most likely to be housed in English departments, if only because it seems closest to what is currently going on inside those departments.  What do you think?


2 responses to “Autobiography, Travel-Writing, and Everything Studies

  1. I think that the kittens and the yarn are so cute that they’re better than compliments. It’s interesting to me, specializing as I do in the Modernist era of the Great Literary Work, how older periods always hew much closer to Everything Studies in the best sense of the term, because of the greater fluidity of genre during those times (though that is not to call something like Clarissa less than a masterwork).

  2. dave mazella

    Glad you enjoyed it, Joe. And you know, I think we need more graphics just like it around here, all the time.

    It’s interesting you raise the masterwork/genre tension in literary studies, because Burke’s approach, as attractive as it is, seems too ad hoc to formalize and extend the study of genre-categories along chronological lines. Those kinds of generalizations emerge, I think, from specialist talk about a particular period’s writing. And genre itself undergoes major revisions as a concept between the early modern and the modern periods.

    So I suspect that everything studies may ultimately depend on the continued existence of specialized, discipline-specific knowledge, in order to show that it has made a good-faith effort to include “everything.” Hmmm.