Category Archives: Profession

MLA 2012: The Future of Early British Studies

A Marketplace of Ideas? The Future of Early British Literary Studies

Presiding: Robyn Malo, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette; Manushag Powell, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette

1. “Problems for the Future,” Helen Deutsch, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

2. “Curricular Requirements and the Problems of the Present,” Seth Lerer, Univ. of California, San Diego

3. “Solutions?” Emily Hodgson Anderson, Univ. of Southern California

The subject of this panel was the challenges and opportunities facing Early British Studies in the current climate. What kind of future does Early British Studies have in higher education?  How can we engage students?  The panelists considered these questions in various ways.

Helen Deutsch looked back in order to look forward, we might say.  She implicitly argued against the suspicion that Early British Studies have no relevance to what people care about now.  Her strategy was to demonstrate in fascinating detail the influence of Jonathan Swift over Edward Said.  She reminded us that Said had long planned a book on Swift; she suggested the profound connections between the kind of public intellectual that Said became and vigorous eighteenth-century models for such a position.

The next two panelists focused on student engagement with the period.  Seth Lerer discussed the challenges of teaching Early British Literature to a new generation of students.  He described a large lecture class he was teaching at San Diego, in which the majority of students spoke English as a second language and only one had brought the book.  The rest were reading the material on their iPads, laptops, and even iPhones.  Yet in spite of this set-up, the talk did not turn curmudgeonly.  These students were welcome on his lawn, and he took seriously the challenge of communicating with them.  He proposed that we include the history of technology in the way we teach Early British Literature, drawing connections between the move to the digital and the transition to the codex.  He argued that this kind of contextualized narrative would be consistent with the discipline itself, suggesting that one of the distinguishing characteristic of humanities disciplines was concern with its own history.  The sciences, he pointed out, supersede their history and thus have little interest in what came before.

Finally, Emily Anderson offered some thoughts about the problem of “relevance.”  She noted tensions in eighteenth-century courses between our impulse to historicize and the student desire to find themselves in the literature, collapsing those historical differences.  She pointed out that students often come to literature classes out of a desire to write their own story.  Her strategy, which she has found to be effective, has been to use this to her advantage and cultivate this impulse, but then also, we might say, to theorize the impulse itself.  For this she uses Tristram Shandy, though a difficult text for undergraduates, as a model, which is after all the story of someone writing himself into being. She has even started to offer students a creative option to the usual critical paper, although they also need to discuss their choices and strategies in a critical way.

Overall, a worthy and engaging panel, filled with great ideas about how to bring Early British Studies into the 21st Century.



What’s Going On at MLA

Ted Underwood has a very smart response to Stanley Fish’s recent article in the New York Times, in which the latter characterizes digital humanities as an “insurgent” successfully overturning postmodern theory.  Underwood takes Fish’s characterization to be flattering for digital humanists (although off base, for persuasive reasons); Rosemary Feal, however, astutely points to the article’s crankiness in her twitter summary: “I see you on my lawn, kids.”

Having read all the comments to Fish’s article so far, I think we could summarize them as follows: “why are these people talking about things we don’t understand and why aren’t they talking about literature, language, and learning like they are supposed to be doing?”

Oddly, however, the Presidential Forum, with 70 linked sessions, is on “Language, Literature, Learning.”  These sessions overlap with many other interests, including digital humanities, but nevertheless they all explore the very topic that commentators seem to find so lacking at MLA.  This central theme does not make its way at all into Fish’s trend round-up.  Perhaps it would make a very dull column to report that thousands of scholars will converge to renew their fascination with language, literature, and learning, sharing their research, insights, and commitment to higher education.

How do we more accurately communicate what is really going on and liberate ourselves from these (dated?) Oedipal narratives?

Today’s Eighteenth Century

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.

Works Cited

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: ). 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.

“Stop Doing Cultural Studies!” – A Reply and a Challenge by Toni Bowers

I don’t see an inescapable or defining conflict between studying “literature” and studying “culture,” or any reason to be paralyzed by the difficulty of defining and controlling those terms. Any “flight from disciplinarity” that may be brought about by the “totalizing” method of “cultural studies” is not, I think, necessarily part-and-parcel of every version of that method current among literary scholars.[1] Nor does it seem to me necessary that bringing cultural studies into classrooms and published work must edge out close attention to language, as if interpretation were a zero-sum game. Sometimes, to be sure, close-reading – the currency in which literary scholars trade, our means of adducing evidence, and the most valuable critical-thinking tool we can offer to our students —  gets short shrift. But ineffective scholarship and teaching are not necessarily results of any single thing we can call “cultural studies,” and even if it were possible to “Stop cultural studies!,” ineffective scholarship and teaching would remain. The fact that it is possible to “do cultural studies” poorly is not an argument for the wholesale rejection of the method, which is really many methods and which cannot even be dismissed without imposing on “it” a reductive definition.

I express dissatisfaction with the declaration that “We must stop doing cultural studies” not because I feel compelled to defend cultural studies, nor because I think “it” needs defending. There are other aspects of the matter that I find more important. What most forcefully strikes me about Warner and Siskin’s “Stop Cultural Studies!” manifesto is the stance taken by the manifesto’s speakers toward their subject and, ultimately, their audience. It’s Siskin-and-Warner’s self-presentation as standard-bearers holding the fort against a dangerous menace that I find most interesting.  (At the conference, they became even more romantic figures than they had been in the Profession article: virtuous turn-coats who once unreflectively may have abetted the menace but who have now seen the error of their ways.) With that stance in mind, it matters that the clarion call repeatedly intoned at the ASECS conference — “We must stop doing cultural studies” — featured as hot-button words not only “cultural studies,” but also, more suggestively, “stop,” “we,” and the moral imperative of “must” and “should.”  “We” erroneously do this and that, the audience was repeatedly told; “we” really ought to “stop” behaving this way.

If it’s legitimate to speak about what “must” or “should” be the subject of scholarly research and writing – a pretty large “if,” I admit — I suggest that we might better ask a different question. Should two accomplished and privileged scholars devote themselves to shutting down the work of others – indeed, of casting a preemptive verdict on future scholarly work? “We must stop cultural studies” is not, after all, the same as a reasoned critique. It may be that Warner and Siskin will be able to demonstrate what they are claiming: that “culture” means too much, and therefore means very little, and that the term should be abandoned. That might be an interesting argument, with interesting (though by no means already obvious) implications for scholarship. But to declare in advance of that demonstration that “we must stop doing cultural studies” is, at best, a mystifying move; some might call it imperialistic.

When asked about this implicit imperialism at the ASECS conference, Warner and Siskin defended “Stop cultural studies!” by minimizing it as a merely rhetorical utterance. The call is overstated deliberately, they explained, for effect; it’s a moment of conscious showmanship designed to get attention, and ought not to be taken too seriously per se. But convincing scholarly arguments rarely reduce to sound-bites, or are well supported by rhetorical effects unable to withstand analysis. We can “do things with words,” as Austin taught us long ago;[2] but we cannot pretend that a sentence constructed primarily for its effect is thereby emptied of meaning. Warner and Siskin should own up to the real demand behind what they themselves swiftly recharacterized as a mere attention-grabbing declaration built to be sidestepped, and to the approach both to their subject and to their listeners/readers that “stop cultural studies!” enacts.

Warner and Siskin acknowledge, with winning forthrightness, that they have no alternative method to suggest; they are explicitly not offering any method that they find better. And, they went on to say at last March’s ASECS conference, that’s perfectly all right; after all, Newton didn’t have an alternative theory of the cosmos worked out when he mounted his critique of received notions. To which I respond, with all due respect and from a position not necessarily opposed in all features to Warner-and-Siskin’s, that none of us isNewton.  Hubris often has its own humorous side, furthermore, and hubristic language carries its own effect. It is not only inappropriate but perhaps slightly silly for any scholar categorically to pronounce on what others ought not to assume, think, or practice. “Stop!” is not an argument. And when it masquerades as one, I (for one) don’t want to be included in Warner and Siskin’s “we.”   

And about that “we.” “We must stop doing cultural studies,” Siskin and Warner declare. Okay, one might respond, taking literally their use of the first-person plural: feel free to stop. Both Warner and Siskin have already done some wonderful work in cultural studies; they should of course take new directions now, if they wish to do so. Despite their claims to the “totalization” of the method they deplore, in fact no one is forcing Warner and Siskin to “do cultural studies.”  I suggest that the “we” in “we must stop doing cultural studies,” while it might usefully point to an intellectual turn in Warner’s and Siskin’s careers, has no claim to extend farther than that. “We” — that is, they – can stop doing cultural studies. But they have not been granted the right to tell others what to do merely by virtue of assuming a commanding posture and speaking in the first-person plural. Once it is no longer mystified by a silently expansive “We,” the moralistic and imperial quality of the slogan — “Stop cultural studies!” — is plain. It’s not only that Warner and Siskin are saying “we must stop doing cultural studies;” they’re also saying, “you must stop doing cultural studies.”  I resist that unstated message, at least in its present form.

There is something oddly innocent, I think, a kind of magical thinking, in the procedure Siskin and Warner adopt. It is as if they believed it possible really to stop others thinking (and researching, and writing, and teaching) in certain ways merely because they say so, or because they believe it’s for the best. The gesture strikes me as reminiscent of other efforts to deny the constitutive past. Remember “after theory?” Remember the “new biography” and the “new historicism,” both, by some accounts, unprecedented, underived, and unattached? The fact is that new ways of thinking never come without debts to the old, and existent ways of thinking never fully disappear. It is possible to think in new ways, but the new never breaks entirely with its past, exceeding all resemblance. Likewise, the serious study of literature – the discipline in which both Siskin and Warner work, and in fact the same discipline in which every one of the speakers who debated their remarks at ASECS work[3] — has long had room for sets of assumptions and interpretive practice that don’t mesh comfortably with one another, yet do not cancel one another out, or remain mutually uninfiltrated. How, precisely, might the call to “Stop cultural studies!” take these facts on board?

Professors Warner and Siskin have challenged others to “Stop doing cultural studies!” I’d like to offer to Professors Warner and Siskin a challenge in return. Will Siskin and Warner now spell out in detail their specific arguments against “cultural studies” – arguments, not slogans?  And can they do so without the problematic stance I have aligned with “Stop” and “We,” and without the moralistic “Must”?  Warner and Siskin might object that without such terms their manifesto would no longer look like a manifesto. It wouldn’t summarize a platform, or issue a command, or decree a policy, or put anyone on notice, or demand attention. It wouldn’t be catchy. It wouldn’t be short. It wouldn’t come from a height, or dictate right and wrong, or clearly separate believers from nonbelievers, the righteous from the unrighteous. And by the time they got that far, I think Warner and Siskin might join me in wondering how much would really be lost were they to stake up my challenge.

[1] The quotations are from Cliff Siskin’s and Bill Warner’s presentations at the 2011 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, March, 2011. For “literary scholars,” see n. 2.

[2] J.L.  Austin,  How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1962).

[3] What about that disciplinary sameness, even considering the very different kinds of institutions represented here? Why is everyone participating in the present conversation affiliated with an English department?  I’m grateful to John Bender, who first drew my attention to that fact.

The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.


Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.

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.

advocating for the humanities, British-style

As a follow-up to Laura’s post, I wanted to pass along some links to responses from British scholars and academics to the proposed cuts in Humanities funding, first from Gavin Robinson’s history blog Investigations of a Dog, then from economist Will Davies’ Potlatch.  I could try to synthesize their very disparate analyses, but I think the most important convergence between the two is their emphasis on the importance of historical knowledge as a mode of critical reasoning.

In Davies’ terms, this amounts to a picture of social and economic relations that in their historical complexity cannot and should not be reduced to present-day market valuations, because any “form of justice [should be understood as] extremely path dependent and fragile. Different spheres of inequality [understood as rival elites and the values maintaining them] must be allowed to emerge organically, and then be kept strategically separate.” Davies’ concerns about Britain’s emulation of American neo-liberalism perhaps makes him a little too sanguine about the effects of these ideologies in the American context, but I think it’s necessary to conceive of academic values as he does, as working alongside marketplace values in a necessarily pluralistic ideological environment.

For Robinson, the conflicts between the humanities and the marketplace are perhaps more prosaic, but well worth keeping in the forefront:

It seems obvious to me that independent critical thought, textual analysis and the ability to construct and destroy arguments are all very important skills, not just for individuals but for society as a whole. It’s equally obvious why politicians, businessmen and journalists might be hostile to those skills. When humanities departments ask for funding, they’re effectively saying “please give us your money so we can teach people to see through your lies”. That’s going to be a hard sell, and probably explains why defenders of the humanities tend to use vague euphemisms rather than putting it so bluntly. The paradox is that the humanities have to cover up their main selling point so as not to appear threatening to the people with money and power, but that makes it easy to represent the humanities as useless.

So the problem faced by humanities scholars nowadays is not so much the uselessness of what they study, but the fact that their authentic use automatically puts one at odds with both the governmental and business interests that dominate the operations of the modern-day research university.

Davies is concerned, as I am, that this season’s political attacks on the university amount to a concerted political assault on the Enlightenment.  But to what extent does the modern research university reflect the values of Enlightenment?


Advocating for the Humanities

Readers of “The Long Eighteenth” might want to visit this new site on humanities advocacy:

“4Humanities is a site created by the international community of digital humanities scholars and educators to assist in advocacy for the humanities.

“4Humanities is both a platform and a resource.   As a platform, 4Humanities will stage the efforts of humanities advocates to reach out to the public.  We are a combination newspaper, magazine, channel, blog, wiki, and social network.  We solicit well-reasoned or creative demonstrations, examples, testimonials, arguments, opinion pieces, open letters, press releases, print posters, video “advertisements,” write-in campaigns, social-media campaigns, short films, and other innovative forms of humanities advocacy, along with accessibly-written scholarly works grounding the whole in research or reflection about the state of the humanities.

“As a resource, 4Humanities will provide humanities advocates with a stockpile of digital tools, collaboration methods, royalty-free designs and images, best practices, new-media expertise, and customizable newsfeeds of issues and events relevant to the state of the humanities in any local or national context.  Whether humanities advocates choose to conduct their publicity on 4Humanities itself or instead through their own newsletter, Web site, blog, and so on, we want to help with the best that digital-humanities experts have to offer.”

How Professors Think

Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment studies the process of evaluating and awarding grants in multi-disciplinary committees.  In this well-written and relentlessly object study (in the sense that Lamont has no ax to grind as far as I can tell and treats her subjects with respect), the author mainly I think is offering a counterpoint to Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that academic awards constitute a system of self-reproduction.  Instead, Lamont finds that even though evaluators certainly see the application through particular lenses, they nevertheless in general make a sincere effort to discover quality.  This process, however, takes place contextually through a series of negotiations in which a variety of factors shape decisions.  But while Lamont argues that the fate of each proposal is shaped by some amount of luck and that certain factors such as gender, location, and prestige of the applicant’s institution can work either for them or against them, faith in the fairness of the system is crucial to its operation.

One point that struck me was the importance of prestige, which shouldn’t be a surprise although it’s interesting to “overhear” committee deliberations that accept prestige markers so wholeheartedly.  While committees seemed to make efforts to distribute awards across a variety of institutions when it came to borderline cases, a prestigious institution and letters from prestigious scholars seemed to make a pretty big difference.  Part of the reason for this seemed to be the desire of committee members to impress each other as they engaged in deliberations.  At the same time, Lamont points out, this does not necessarily make the whole process a “fix” since employment by a prestigious institution and approval by a prestigious scholar can be genuine evidence of accomplishment.  Further, it is only one factor among many.

Lamont makes one point of particular relevance to literary scholars:  in multi-disciplinary competitions applicants from our field fare poorly.  (Historians, by contrast, do very well.)  She does not attribute this to a general disrespect for literary study but instead to a “crisis of legitimation.”  She characterizes literary scholarship as a field in decline, evidenced in part by its decrease in the production of PhDs.  (This was interesting to read, of course, since so much of the discussion around MLA has been about overproduction.  Just to be clear, though, she takes the decline as an indicator of the state of the field and does not necessarily recommend changing it.)   I have often assumed that most fields have key points of disagreement, but this turns out to be less true than one would think, according to Lamont.  Literary scholars who serve as judges remain in her observation deeply divided over both theory and multiculturalism.  Since the field doesn’t seem to have a central, agree-upon standard of quality, applications for funding are less likely to be successful.

Of course, we have heard a lot lately about the troubled nature of our field.  Usually this comes from two different directions: on the one hand, many call attention to the employment crisis, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, new burdens being placed on faculty, and decreasing undergraduate enrollments.  On the other hand, traditionalists object to the collapse of a particular cannon, interdisciplinarity, and identity politics.  Lamont’s study, though, offers something of a fresh perspective.  Without focusing on the economic issues or entering the canon wars, she sees a crisis of legitimation that seems to be damaging in a different, less-discussed context.


MLA Roundup #3: Why Teach Literature Anyway?

445. Why Teach Literature Anyway?

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 201-B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the Division on the Teaching of Literature

Presiding: John Paul Riquelme, Boston Univ.

1. “Literature as Public Humanities,” Wai Chee Dimock, Yale Univ.

2. “Reading versus Life?” Jonathan Culler, Cornell Univ.

3. “Reading Critically and the Recovery from the Stupid Years,” Jean Elizabeth Howard, Columbia Univ.

I imagine these papers will be published, but I thought this excellent panel, in which three speakers discussed “why,” deserved some rounding up as well.

Wai Chee Dimock answered the panel’s titular question by exploring the kinds of teaching that go on outside of the classroom, giving the examples of programs that offer literary study as an alternative to incarceration and also her own Facebook project on rethinking world literature.  She wanted to broaden the definition of teaching literature from things that happen in the classroom to things that happen outside of it, showing how research and teaching in our discipline have an impact in the world.

Jonathan Culler proposed that those who have written about the value of teaching literature fall roughly into two camps: one group appeals to “critical skills,” while the other appeals to literature’s usefulness for life.  But the “literature as useful for life” argument, he pointed out, doesn’t actually make the case for teaching literature.  To experience the positive effects of literature (extended empathy; bracketing self-interest; resocialization) one needs to read it, but not necessarily take a class in it. The “critical skills” advocates appeal to analysis: students can be taught to read against the grain and to expose implicit ideologies. Culler noted, however, that students often resist this form of teaching; they don’t want to tear apart works they love.  An informal survey to find out how students might answer the “why” question from their end revealed that only a tiny percentage answered in ways that their professors might have hoped. Culler asked a lot of interesting questions: how are these two ways of seeing literature related? Divergent? Opposed? He concluded by suggesting that the distinctiveness of literature is not easily assimilated into either lessons for life OR the exposure of ideological investments.

Finally, Jean Howard gave an inspiring talk about the value of “slow reading.”  Essentially, she argued that the Bush years were a time when the dominant culture celebrated stupidity.  Our work involves teaching student to read critically, welcoming complexity and helping to recover from those stupid years.  For Howard, the skill of critical reading has an important political payoff.  She defended the exposure of ideological investments, but also argued that instructors should not push their own points of view on students, as doing so would be the opposite of teaching critical reading. Slow reading must be learned, she argued, thus answering Culler’s critique of the “literature as tool for life” arguments, for students need guidance to develop this kind of close attention. Critical “slow reading” teaches students to question the face value of a text and its truth claims.  While the text being read is ultimately less important to Howard than the way one reads it, literature departments, she pointed out, teach critical reading better than anyone else.

I hope I’ve done justice from notes and memory here to these very worthwhile talks. Each raised important points.  I was struck, however, by the way each of them read the question “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” in a slightly different way.  An article in the Chronicle claimed that none of them had an answer for the question, but I think it would be more accurate to say that each of them answered a different version of it.  Perhaps Dimock answered the question:  “How does teaching literature, capaciously defined, benefit society?”  The classroom did not figure into this particular talk (although she certainly wasn’t arguing against the possibility that classroom teaching is socially useful).  Culler answered the question: “Why do I teaching literature and what do I want my students to get out of it?”  Howard asked, I think,: “How does my teaching benefit my students and shape their role as citizens, and thus benefit the world in which they participate?”

I think the Chronicle reporter was disappointed because none of them actually answered the questions heard perhaps more frequently outside of MLA meetings: “Why should my tax dollars go to professors teaching literature at my local state school/community college?  Why should literature classes be a priority (or funded at all) in the face of so many other needs and so many more practical and/or relevant options?  Why should I/my kid take a literature course?”  That is, the speakers tended to focus on why they (and perhaps by extension “we”) teach literature rather than on why, from a social point of view, literature should be taught. (It seems to me that the title, lacking a subject, could be read either way.)  I appreciated the important ways that they answered the question, but I hope we can find opportunities to talk about this second possible meaning of the question as well.