The Death of Literary Studies [Dan Collins]
Yesterday, Darleen wrote about the dust-up over graduate student putz Sean Parrish’s typically stupid assertions regarding what the academy is all about, and as others point out, if he’s right, then all literature departments ought to be made portions of social studies and political science departments. Approaching this subject, I feel like Jeff does whenever he feels compelled to make the same arguments regarding intentionality with respect to the endless dopey provocations of the left. But, since this creature is a product of Duke’s English Department, and since my background is in literature, I’m going to recapitulate an argument that I’ve been making for 20 years, now.
There was a time in literary studies in the not-too-distant past when it was still possible to speak of the “pleasure of the text,” and when the pleasure derived from the act of reading (and all the concommitant questions of deriving meaning) was considered important enough to justify the study of literature in and of itself. In fact, it’s likely that most people are still recruited to the study of literature in large part by their own experience of that pleasure. Somewhere along the line, though, the academy decided that that in itself was not sufficiently relevant. It became necessary to justify the project of literary criticism with respect to its efficacy as a motivator of social change.
This was a function, in Jeff’s terminology, of cadres of interpreters arrogating to themselves the determination of meaning, which they are entitled to do by virtue of moral superiority. Once meaning is detached from the idea of intentionality, it’s perfectly acceptable to bring to bear a critical methodology that bears little relation to the ideas and issues that the author himself might have regarded as informing the work at hand. So, for example, it’s not unusual for students just beginning to learn about formal criticism to be handed a copy of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, to discover that in fact all literature is, at least subconsciously, obsessed with class relations, and that works of literature are literary to the extent that they enunciate those relations well with respect to Marxism. To the extent that they do not, they are manifestations of false-consciousness or what the critics like to term “quietism.”
In order to advance up the ladder of sophistication, it becomes necessary therefore to substitute close reading and understanding of whatever arguments the author appears to think he or she is making through the text with epistemological precepts derived from afar. One of the first casualties of this relevance-mongering in literary academe is stylistics, the study of how authors achieve the effect of literariness. In fact, it is necessary to cultivate a jaundiced eye toward the motives of various writers who may be arguing in bad faith in order to prop up the status quo. So, we have the phenomenon of graduate students (such as, presumably, Mr. Parrish) teaching students who do not yet have a sufficient expertise to decode a text on its own terms, insofar as that can be done, the joys of resistant reading, in which the text (or, at any rate, the dreaded classic text) is seen as a kind of rhetorical bully whom one must bully back.
To return to my original point, where has the pleasure of the text gone? It’s been sublimated into pleasure at one’s own superior ability to wrest unauthorized meaning out of the text by passing it through an ideological meatgrinder. Congratulations! You’re now ready to deliver papers to at any number of conferences with clever titles about “firing the canon.” You jackass.