I’m wrapping up my ASECS posts with this phrase, because it seemed to me to be an important subtext for a lot of the discussions I was having throughout the conference. In fact, the phrase popped out during a very nice dinner I had with Laura R. and some others, and it was still floating in my head when I heard the panel mentioned earlier by Carrie S., “How long was the eighteenth century?”
Let me explain the connection: while we were having the usual “where the hell is the profession headed?” discussion Friday night, I talked about my frustration with the disconnect between senior scholars and the conditions everyone else is working in. This was not news to anyone at the table, and everybody there had found ways to adapt their work to the new conditions: curricular work in digital humanities or performance and reception studies; interventions in assessment or accreditation efforts on-campus; initiatives in undergraduate research, and so forth. So in that sense I am not at all worried about where the profession, or our specialization, is going.
My point, however, was that questions like Hans Gumbrecht’s “what is the future of literary studies?” (meaning, does literary studies even have a future?) are no longer “theoretical” questions about future innovations. In other words, I am not simply talking about the usual mid-career anxieties of the tenured about missing out on the cool new stuff that others are doing. Instead, questions about the future of literary studies have a different kind of urgency in the face of the “permatemped” conditions of the corporate university discussed by people like Marc Bousquet. Can specialized studies in a humanities sub-field like the eighteenth century survive in any recognizable way in institutions like ours, which represent the spectrum of public higher education? And do senior scholars, by virtue of their privileged positions in more elite institutions, have an obligation to address audiences beyond their fellow specialists, and begin to take a stand on the steady de-professionalization of humanities teaching at their own universities and beyond?
My point was that some of the recent dismissals of cultural studies I’ve seen from more senior scholars seem to blame cultural studies, and not the very real economic and political forces identified by Bousquet, for the declining institutional role of humanities teaching and liberal arts education at most non-elite institutions. So I think that any discussion of the future of literary studies, theoretical or otherwise, must acknowledge the very real and concrete concerns about how we might sustain and reproduce this field for future generations of scholars. What kinds of jobs will those scholars have? What kinds of research and teaching will they be expected to do? What will their students look like, or be expected to do? And I don’t expect the answers to these questions to resemble answers for previous generations of scholars, including myself. And I get concerned when I see the most distinguished scholars of my own field nostalgic for a time when literary studies did not need to justify itself, when what the Humanities most urgently needs are intelligent and persuasive advocates to address its multiple publics and defend its practices, in all their diversity. Under changing conditions, what is tacit cannot be defended, let alone reproduced, without some acknowledgment of what has changed. So who will play this role of advocating for the humanities, when the future arrives?