literary study and pleasure

There's been all kinds of commenting theatrics going on over at the Valve and Crooked Timber the past couple of days (aptly characterized by Sean McCann as a version of pro wrestling or bad TV) -- I'm not going to provide links to specific comments because if you have the fortitude to read any of them, then you probably also have the inability to resist reading the whole mess. GZombie has been almost the sole defender of literary studies as it is actually practiced -- as it actually resembles what I've seen in the English departments I've been a part of. I haven't jumped into the fray because it hasn't really been about content. One guy says something rude, then someone else puts him into a headlock. Two guys in the audience go wild and rush the stage. Or something like that.

Some of the claims being bandied about in those comment threads include statements like this:
  • there is a "crisis" in literary studies because (1) the guy on the street can't understand the published articles and they use specialized language; (2) because English lit profs don't "appreciate" or "love" literature in the way that the guy on the street (or the academic in another field) thinks they should or (3) because they've been messing with the Canon, and look how complicated things are now.
  • literary study shouldn't be part of the academy because (1) it doesn't train people for jobs; (2) it doesn't make people into Novelists and Poets; or (3) because it doesn't result in tangible new things as scientific inquiry does.
There's more, but that gives you an idea. Most of these are pretty familiar claims -- and pretty tired-seeming by now.

But as I've been thinking about why this little tempest has been stirred up in the ways that it has been over the past few days, it strikes me that pleasure (or "love") is at the core of many of these claims. I've already expressed my irritation with the way that people in all sorts of other fields think they can go around announcing that there's a "crisis" in literary studies, and that they know the way to fix it, when most of them are not currently nor were formerly part of a Literature or English department. Yes, scholars in literary study frequently draw on scholarship in other fields (such as history, art history, music, etc) , for which we are sometimes criticised -- but I have never read attacks on the overall structure, goals, and methods of any another field that are mounted in the ways that attacks on English are.

Why is this? In part, because (as gzombie has been tirelessly reminding the CT/Valve crowd) "literature" and "literary studies" are two different things. Just as rocks and geology are different. But I suspect there more people who feel passionately about some literary text or texts than there are people who feel passionately about particular stones.

I'm not against passion, or the love of literature. Far from it -- I, and every person I know who teaches literature, feel passionately about it. But -- and this is key -- the difference between those of us who practice literary studies and the people who are suggesting that our departments be disbanded is that we don't think that intellectual engagement or logical analysis destroys passion, love, or pleasure. Instead, we believe that learning about the contexts (aesthetic, formal, historical, social, cultural) of a work of art helps us understand its power. Learning to read closely, to attend to specific semantic nuances, rhetorical strategies, and artistic choices visible in a text, develops our skills as interpreters of all sorts of texts. Human beings live in a world largely accessible to us through language -- learning how language works in different sorts of texts helps us become better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers.

As gzombie said, literary study is not a vocational degree. And that is perplexing to administrators or researchers in other fields where the goals and outcomes seem more clear cut. The liberal arts degree in the modern university often fuctions as a site of resistance to or critique of the utilitarian vocational model that has proven its profitability. So, business majors say "what will you do with that" and English majors say "it doesn't matter because right now, I'm doing what I love: reading, writing, and thinking." I'm vastly oversimplifying, but I think that pleasure is threatening to some observers. I've never yet encountered a student who's told me "well, I really want to be an accounting major, but my parents are forcing me to study English." The great joy of teaching upper-level English courses is that students are there because they want to be. Sure, maybe they think they only love Shakespeare and don't want to read anything more recent; or maybe they think they don't like poetry and would prefer to read novels. We have distribution requirements for the degree that force students to expand their horizons, to push beyond their comfort zones. So they might not all be overjoyed to be reading every single text that is assigned. But in general, we share with our students a perspective about how we choose to spend our time and our money -- a belief that art is meaningful.

Unlike oil, coal, or other geologic resources, art and meaning are infinitely renewable. Literature is not a zero-sum game: if you love a text, and I love a different one -- that's fine. And in fact, that's good. In a world in which so many forces work to limit human expression, constrain human behavior, and destroy human lives, why bother feeling threatened by someone else finding beauty, pleasure, or intellectual satisfaction in a text that doesn't give you that same experience? I think the idea that there are thousands of students studying something that they love -- and that that something might be in fact many different things -- is somehow distressing to some observers. The idea that there are multiple meanings in a poem, or different possible forms of pleasure runs counter to the puritanical strain deep within American culture that descends from an interpretive tradition deeply suspicious of literary texts. The fundamentalist reader is one who wants a text (and usually only one text) to mean only one thing. A reader who wants and claims certainty. Yes, there is a difference between President Bush and Harold Bloom. But it is a difference only of degree and not kind.

Why do I teach literature? Because it opens up more pathways, rather than limiting them. Because it helps us understand human beings as they have been, as they wish they were, as they currently are, and as they might someday be. Because (as the title goes) I'm in favor of thinking. In a world that wants to limit thought, art is one space of resistance.