Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies

In the past few years, I've noticed a surge of conversation about the growing irrelevance of literature in the academy. With many colleagues (such as Joshua Landy and Cécile Alduy) and students, I have found myself asking: do we need a reinvigorated argument for literary studies? How can we address the declining vitality of literature and criticism? Most of us remain convinced that in a culture besieged by signs, tropes, and fictions, what we do is as important as ever, if not more so.

But it's hard to look past an increasing insularity in our discipline. And I believe that even as we need to rethink our rationales for the purpose of literary studies, much of our discipline has retreated behind customs and conventions that make sense to us—and to no one else. In a series of brief notes, I will reflect here not on how the culture has changed around us—this is a fact that everyone recognizes, and Josh Landy (among others) has been discussing—but on how we vitiate our own work with self-imposed limits. These are informal, somewhat disorganized thoughts, and I welcome your comments.

What are the horizons of literary studies?

For the sake of argument, let's say that there are two kinds of projects in literary studies. (Naturally, there are, and should be, many more.) One kind describes something fundamental about how literature works intrinsically. Criticism and theory of this kind—think of Patricia Parker's Inescapable Romance or Craig Dworkin's Writing the Illegible—identifies genres, tendencies, and modes of representation. This sort of thing never goes out of fashion, because it renews the imperishable discipline of poetics. The other kind relates literature to the historical, intellectual, and empirical world it inhabits. In this category, I might point to two more books I admire, Mary Campbell's Wonder and Science and Nancy Ruttenburg's Democratic Personality. Years ago, we called these two kinds the "formalist" and "historicist" approaches, but over time those labels have worn off. They were impoverished anyway. I prefer to think of alternate horizons for literature: that is, the horizon found in literature itself—where the careful description and theorization of literary process is an end in itself—and the horizon found in the real world. These horizons are concentric, and a great deal of exciting work moves back and forth between the inner circle that circumscribes literature and the outer one that encloses the social, historical world. Still, one could sift through a mountain of recent scholarship, like the barber and the priest sorting Don Quixote's library, and in many cases observe one horizon or the other in play.

But if the circles are concentric, can they change places? Can we examine social, historical, and intellectual issues entirely within literature, as though the empirical horizon has been put inside the literary? I pose the question this way because in my main field, which is early modern English, Romance, and transatlantic literatures, it's not uncommon to find projects that treat some hyper-canonical author, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes, not as a participant in the wide-ranging discourses of the period but as a horizon itself. When I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, I called it the "in Shakespeare" problem.

Let's imagine that I'm conceiving a new book on sixteenth-century aesthetics, or political or scientific thought, or knowledge of the Americas. I can treat Shakespeare as one voice among many, including non-literary writers; this way, I can attend to what literature does that other discourses cannot. Or I can install my hyper-canonical figure as the project's horizon: political thought in Shakespeare. Somehow we've fashioned an industry in which scholars are rewarded for conceiving their work in this latter way. No one objects to the foreshortening of ambitions, or to the cynicism involved in pretending to consider real-world issues under the penumbra of a canonical figure. Many presses prefer to publish books that are explicitly grounded in (especially) Shakespeare. Inserting the authorial label in this fashion adds a few degrees of commercial viability to a book, but at the cost of something dangerous, namely the reversal of horizons, the outer now inside the inner. (I use Shakespeare only as an example, of course: it could be Rabelais, Goethe, Dostoevsky, or Joyce.)

Beyond literary studies, who cares about a real-world issue that is portrayed as finding its beginning and end in literature? What historian of philosophy or art accepts Cervantes as not only a thinker but a context for thought? As the literary disciplines continue to give out rewards for meeting one set of insular customs, the entire intellectual enterprise of literary studies drifts ever further from the rest of the humanities, let alone the academy in general.

If the issues—out of economics or religion or the history of ideas—are important enough, they deserve to be followed wherever they lead, not followed only to the edges of the most canonical works. (For that matter, how many books and articles that purport to examine some issue in Shakespeare would make a more nuanced and exciting argument by considering the same issue in Shakespeare's less canonical contemporaries? You can observe a lot in Robert Greene or George Peele.) To follow the "in Shakespeare" model of criticism is to make two kinds of mistake: a methodological one, in which the critic attempts by sleight of hand to seem to be addressing cultural topics of wide interest, without leaving the zone of canonical literary works—and ends up creating a project that in some fundamental way doesn't matter to anyone except a dwindling population of professional readers; and an ethical one, in which he or she evades the responsibility to take literature seriously, which means respecting its horizons.

Here's my first proposal: we must make a fresh case for literary studies, and it should be based on an expansive movement within and across horizons. You can connect literature to anything in the world, but you can't pretend that by looking only at literature, you are seeing the world.

Next: who are we writing for?

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