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.