The first week of SCT is now over and it has been really rather good. It was to be expected that the level or presenters is high, but what has came as a pleasant surprise is the likewise excellent overall quality of participants. It is very easy to have a spirited and at the same time very informed and competent discussion on a wide range of different topics with fellow students – as well as professors, for that matter. Not only does everyone seem to really know their stuff – they are also intellectually curious about things that do not necessarily fall into the confines of their own research or academic field of expertise. Most of the people seem to share quite a wide theoretical background, comprising of usual suspects what I would have imagined being a sort of canon of literary theory and cultural studies – but where I have had so far been somewhat disappointed in the US when meeting graduate students in humanities. In addition to that, pretty much everyone seems to have their own theoretical bent in terms of in-depth expertise on a particular subject or field – which of course leads to a lot of interesting discussions and new discoveries.
Today we had a public lecture by Simon During on an interesting and certainly controversial subject why would we need literary criticism. As I have mentioned before, this seems to be a kind of shared anxiety in humanities but especially pertinent to literary theory departments in the United States right now. As Simon During described it, it is really not so much of a question of legitimizing the existence of English departments to the administrative wing of academy and to the outside world, rather than a question of identity and sense of purpose internally. In that regard, I suppose the US and UK share a somewhat similar predicament. Literary theory (or English Department, as it is often referred to in the American academy) has experienced a long and constant erosion of its field of expertise with all the different emergent disciplines, such as cultural and media studies, anthropology, history in its cultural and social flavors, political studies and so forth, chipping away on what traditionally used to be its home turf. There are several contingent reasons that have led to this situation, but I won’t get into them right now.
So the question really becomes – what is specific to literary criticism that makes it a worthwhile effort to support for the outside world and a reason to dedicate your own life and professional career to as a scholar? Of course, it does provide one with a certain kind of critical framework for engaging with the world, but so do several other diciplines. What, if anything, would we lose if we simply let it go and split people who currently work in English departments between those of history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, rhetorics, ethics, political science, economy, philosophy and so on? This was the crux of the question that got the big auditorium filled with grad students and professors of humanities fumbling around for about an hour worth of Q&A session after the lecture. Because I think that Simon During was right – it does not appear that people engaged in the field really know the answer, even for themselves. Or perhaps especially for themselves, as it is not very hard to come up with some kind of a rather silly-sounding utilitarian justifications or kind of a nihilistic point of l’art pour l’art á la Stanley Fish.
I actually quite liked Simon During’s take on the issue. His point (or actually, my take on his point) was that literature provides us with a unique angle to human experience, the kind of subjective mode of being-in-world that, for instance, history or anthropology or even psychology can never offer because of their inherent totalizing claim to certain objectivity; and literary studies (or criticism, or English departments) allow us to make sense of that mode of representation. They allow us to meaningfully ask questions such as “how exactly does literature do that” or “how do we experience the things we do” on an unashamedly personal way. In that sense, a book like “Les Bienveillantes” or a movie like “La vita è bella” can offer us a perspective on holocaust like no historical account can. By doing that, literature also provides us with a potentially powerful means of social and political critique – as it would seem to me that any good piece of literature necessarily thrieves on some kind of a tension against the prevailing mode of social existence – if it didn’t, it would be simply something like The People Magazine or Vanity Fair. I guess that’s the sense in which Frederick Jameson was right – all literature (at least what’s worth reading) is inherently political.
And while I think it wouldn’t be wise to reduce all literature to this single function (which is besides something that again several other disciplines do as well if not better), it is nonetheless true that literature, and literary criticism along with that, does give us a distinctive, personal and subjective way to engage with the world that nothing else can match. At least nothing else that I can think of.