I wrote the following in a recent post and I feel now like I should have said more, or been clearer, so that's where I'll begin:
"One of the things that I struggle with . . . is that I ultimately do believe that there is something special about literature and I have little-to-no interest in doing the work of a historian by analyzing pop culture of the time or advertisements or whatever. . . . Not that I think it's a bad thing to do interdisciplinary research - my research is that, actually - but I really hate literary criticism that seems like it doesn't actually care about literature."
First things first: I am not at all saying in the above passage that there is not a place for cultural criticism, nor am I saying that there is something wrong with a new historicist approach that values "low culture" texts alongside high culture ones, or that values an attention to popular reading trends as opposed to the reading trends of an intellectual elite. What I'm saying in the above is that I am bothered by literary criticism - and this can be oriented in a variety of ways - that puts the literature in the background. This happens with many approaches. One approach that can encourage this is a new historicist approach, wherein the critic chooses to focus more attention on the popular media and historical sources of the time than on the Lit'rature. But this also happens with theoretically oriented criticism (come on, you've read books or articles where people have used the literature to advance a theory rather than engaging theory to understand the literary text, and yes, I do believe that there is a difference between the two) and it happens with biographically oriented criticism (wherein the Great Man - D.H. Lawrence, Priest of Love, as just one example - or Great Lady - Virginia Woolf, Bipolar Lesbian Victim of Sexual Abuse, as just one example - overshadows the text that supposedly is the point). I could probably list more genres of literary criticism that perpetrate the "I'm going to pay attention to everything but the literary text" thing, but the point is, I have a hard time with criticism, from whatever perspective, that is more interested in "something else" other than literary texts. Because here's the thing: if one is doing literary criticism, I really think that the primary thing that we should be discussing is literature. That probably makes me ridiculously old-fashioned. Fine. I'm old-fashioned. But I don't think I'm wrong.
Part of the reason that I've been thinking fairly deeply about these issues is, of course, self-centered: I'm trying to figure out how to write the sort of book I enjoy reading. But I think these things are nagging at me for bigger reasons, too. Some questions that have been nagging at me throughout my recent reading and writing:
- What happens when people who are interested in issues or texts that are marginal to the mainstream canon focus their attention away from literature in their research? The canon is still political, and it strikes me that if marginalized literatures don't get the same amount/kind of attention as do historically canonical literatures, than we are left with separate but equal canons - we've not really revised or opened up the Canon at all. In fact, we reify the canonical (primarily dead, white, male canon as the "real" canon) and then we associate anyone outside of that canon with tendencies that are marginal to being "worth" canonical status.
- What happens to a discipline - or, to be fair, really a subdiscipline within English Studies, literary studies - when its practitioners fail to see that subdiscipline as having an obligation to produce new knowledge about literature? Is it really so shocking that people question the value of literary studies - notoriously in the annual newspaper articles that pick out wild titles from the MLA program - when it doesn't seem that practitioners in the field are analyzing and coming to greater understanding of literary texts? If we don't demonstrate the centrality of literature as an object of study, why should we think that anybody else will think literature is valuable?
- How do the first two points intersect and contribute to "the crisis in the humanities" and to generally anti-intellectual cultural discourses?
While all of this may seem very field-specific, reading this post over at Historiann's made me think that it really isn't. I wonder about the ways in which contemporary approaches to scholarship - within my field, yes, but also across humanities disciplines - results in keeping certain groups marginal, subordinate, and generally out of academic and public discourse. Further, I wonder if these trends in scholarship ultimately contribute to a public sense that what we do is insignificant, lacking in seriousness, or without value. I wonder, too, how much various approaches have to do with attempting to respond to the demands of a marketplace for scholarship that is severely constrained - is it possible that the effects of the horrible job market and the contraction in academic publishing are to enforce limits on the kind of scholarship that make their way into public view?
I don't really have answers to any of the above, but I think that there are serious implications to the methodologies that we choose - not just for the way that we think individually but also for our disciplines and for the profession more generally. And yes, it is bad to think about all of that because it makes what I'm trying to do seem really overwhelming sometimes, but I also kind of have to think about that because otherwise why would I bother doing this project at all? Because, seriously, it's really hard and I could totally just write a couple of articles and call it a day and nobody where I work would care and I wouldn't have to think about the consequences of scholarship in quite the same way.
Now. Enough of all of that thinking. I need to do some straightening up around the house because, slightly behind schedule but still happening, it is VPW (Vagina Power Weekend, in case you forgot), an annual tradition since 2007. This year J. will be joining A. and I for her first ever Vagina Power. It promises to be awesome.