Tita Chico continues the discussion:
In the 2008 edition of Profession, William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin, scholars whose work is grounded in the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies, advise literary critics to stop doing cultural studies altogether. Their primary complaint is that the term “culture” connotes two ideas that emerged concurrently in the late eighteenth century, both the notion that every society has a culture and the understanding that culture more narrowly means high culture, not just any art form. For them, this “historic doubling” (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 102) produces an incoherence that negatively implicates cultural studies, forcing practitioners both to dispense with disciplinary logic to accommodate the broad meaning of culture and also, contradictorily, to revert back to the disciplines in their most traditional forms to analyze great art. Given the double-bind they imagine, the only solution, in their view, is to stop the practice altogether. Long before the emergence of cultural studies, however, the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies in particular had been shaped by what might be called “culture,” “historicism,” or even “background.” The historicizing tendency is evident, for instance, in footnotes to Gulliver’s Travels that narrow the satire to a specific political allegory (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 22 n. 1; 36, n.1) as well as in the work of critics such as F. R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks, who would not ordinarily be associated with contextualizing (Norris, “Pope among the Formalists,” 141). Given the field’s persistent, if uneasy, relation to these references, Warner and Siskin’s complaint posits an opposition that, in effect, undermines the important ways cultural studies over the past twenty years has opened up topics, texts, and methodologies for consideration – and a flexibility and capaciousness – that have, in turn, strengthened the field. Their message also obscures the genealogy of today’s eighteenth century, an archive and an epistemology that have been made available because of the questions and concerns that cultural studies raise.
When cultural studies began to emerge in the academy during the late 1980s and 1990s, eighteenth-century literary studies was buffeted by the recovery of forgotten texts and by explicitly theoretical work that called “attention to the resistance to contemporary theory that has largely characterized the study of eighteenth-century English literature” (Nussbaum and Brown, 1). The conceptual reframing of “early modern” that often accompanied the moniker of “cultural studies” at this time likewise offered a loose boundary to think beyond the confines of the traditional eighteenth century. Cultural studies scholarship opened up the canon, extended the boundaries, re-conceived historical difference, and produced political criticism. In its most hopeful manifestation, cultural studies asked literary scholars to look at different things–to take the literary critical eye to examine the formal features of materials that were beyond the normative bounds of the literary and, in so doing, to look at them differently. If the field of eighteenth-century literary studies has long engaged with “culture,” then cultural studies has given many scholars concerned with eighteenth-century literature an opportunity to reflect upon these texts’ relation to history and other contemporary artifacts per se, and to grapple with and deepen the various intellectual and political legacies of the theory wars.
Even as cultural studies began to make these kinds of inroads into how eighteenth-century literature was studied and taught, there were various forms of resistance to its practice and findings. One year (2004), the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Cultural Studies Caucus featured a panel of scholars voicing their fatigue with political criticism and hoping that scholarship might just focus on art again. The next year (2005) showcased critics who firmly advocated for political criticism, a conversation that led, in part, to a special issue of Philological Quarterly edited by Rajani Sudan, entitled “Rethinking New Formalism.” While the arguments back and forth can be productive, the significant difference today is that these debates now take place within a much more fraught and tenuous economic environment for higher education in which almost every unit on campus is under budgetary – and, at times, political – siege. As it turned out, the year that Warner and Siskin published their cease-and-desist message happened to be the same year that the worst economic crisis in the US since the 1930s began. Why does the concurrence of the call to stop cultural studies and the economic contractions convulsing through institutions of higher education matter? If this recession “threatens to be not so much a period of retrenchment followed by recovery as an opening onto a thoroughgoing transformation of the postsecondary system” (Porter), then it is even more incumbent to articulate and to advocate for the field’s pedagogical and scholarly work, and that economic entrenchment not be allowed to be repackaged as an intellectual principle.
Implicitly underwriting Warner and Siskin’s work, as well as that of others, may be a concern for preservation, perhaps in response to material and political conditions that threaten obsolescence (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 105; Siskin and Warner, Enlightenment, 1-12; Rosenthal; Latour, 232). At this time, there is much work to be done to demarcate and identify the intellectual work that literary scholars do, though arguably the trope of the humanities in crisis has circulated for more than a century. When a friendly and curious colleague from the sciences asks why graduate students are reading Robinson Crusoe, “a book they all should have read years ago,” the question incorrectly presumes that the reading of literary critics is just like all other reading and that the meaning of a literary text is easily decipherable and ultimately transhistorical. The answer to such a question must convey the knowledge production of literary studies writ large as well as the specificity of today’s eighteenth century. Reading as literary critics means re-reading with ever greater insight and nuance, developing and refining the skills of close reading and attending to much more than the adventure story that the scientist remembers having read as a child. Reading also means doing so in concert with related texts, no matter how that relation might be defined, through the lens of today’s eighteenth century. Together, these models of reading allow for an illumination of how, for example, the afterlife of Robinson Crusoe as a recurring myth of Western individualism and colonialism in fact overshadows the uneasy and uneven global order through which Robinson navigates.
Setting aside their provocation, Warner and Siskin make a helpful point that the “culture” of “cultural studies” is an under-theorized term that, in practice, stands as “the Teflon category. We fret over it—everyone complaining at one time or another that it doesn’t quite do the job—but the complaints don’t stick because it’s so easy to use. We simply don’t know what we would do without it” (Warner and Siskin, 104). Extending their logic, “culture” in “cultural studies” can be a catch-all term that almost mystically has the evidentiary status of a truth claim, though the specificity of that status may not be fully articulated; as a result, it is important to reconsider how the term “culture” functions in eighteenth-century literary studies. How, for example, does the word “culture” suggest, but perhaps not fully explore, particular domains of knowledge and experience? How are these related to – or in tension with – literary practices? What happens, moreover, when agents and actors are imagined in specific relation to claims about culture? The point of these questions is not to dispense with cultural studies per se, in large part because of the radical work that it has provided, pedagogically, intellectually, and institutionally. The literary criticism characterized here has brought with it innovations in how we study literature and who matters enough to have a voice, whether this is in the eighteenth-century archive or on the faculty and in the student body of the modern university. Cultural studies has the potential to open up institutions to forms of difference that can deepen our thought and practices. Literary criticism that perceives and articulates these forms of difference can show more nuanced relationships and yield ever more powerful and pertinent analyses.
To stop cultural studies, then, is to yield to obsolescence, an idea that, of course, took root in the eighteenth century along with its twin, novelty. Both of these likewise opened a Pandora’s box of criticism qua criticism that arguably has produced this putative impasse in the first place (Latour, 232). So while it may be novel to argue for obsolescence from within the field at the same moment that higher education and intellectual work are being challenged from without, the more productive route is to consider the eighteenth century as an archive that promises a way forward. This is an understanding of the Enlightenment as a theoretical-historical concept that simultaneously calls for radical change as well as harbors appeals to the ideals of humanism. Today’s eighteenth-century archive is, as Derrida acknowledges, “at once institutive and conservative,” it catalogues anew and it preserves (Derrida, 9). Today’s eighteenth century builds upon and extends the cultural studies model with its multiplicity of voices, texts, and concerns, known through and by the material conditions of their production and interpretation. Today’s eighteenth century also encourages scholars to see beyond the traditional markers of the field, whether those divisions are defined chronologically or regionally. These efforts –whether regarding, say, sensory perception, poetry, or politics– draw from the expansiveness of earlier iterations of cultural studies and share, at the core, a commitment to mimesis, the object of literary interpretation. Thus the knowledge making of literary critics is not exclusively about the discovery of new texts and new things, or merely re-enacting an epistemology that vacillates between novelty and obsolescence. The work of literary critics is more accurately, if difficultly, concerned with unraveling these histories of representation, pushing ourselves to think hard about what is represented when, how, and by whom — arguably, the central tenets of a cultural studies approach–even when the answers to and satisfaction with those questions change over time.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.
Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-48. Print.
Norris, Christopher. “Pope among the Formalists: Textual Politics and ‘The Rape of the Lock.’” Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry. Ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1987. 134-61. Print.
Nussbaum, Felicity and Laura Brown, eds. The New 18th Century: Theory, Politics, Literature. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. Print.
Porter, Catherine. From the President, “(Re)Defining Productivity,” Reprinted from the Winter 2009 MLA Newsletter. Weblog entry. Accessed 24 April 2011.
Rosenthal, Laura J. “The Perils and Pleasures of Legitimacy.” Paper presented at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference, January 8, 2011. Revised and expanded as “Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities.” Weblog entry. The Long 18th. January 27, 2011. April 1, 2011. (URL:https://long18th.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/pirate-studies-and-the-end-of-the-humanities/ ). A fuller version is forthcoming in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.
Siskin, Clifford and William B. Warner, eds. This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010. Print.
Sudan, Rajan, ed. “Rethinking New Formalism,” special issue of Philological Quarterly 86:3 (Summer 2007). Print.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. Second edition. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961. Print.
Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.