Difficulty, Professionalism, and Literary Studies

Last month’s MLA-bashing controversy, which surfaced here, at Invisible Adjunct, and at Chun the Unavoidable (among other locations), quickly came to circle around the question of “difficulty,” and in particular whether the perceived abstruseness of contemporary literary theory and criticism are warranted. Or, as John Holbo put it, “exactly when, and for what reasons, is literary criticism justified in being too hard for the average Chronicle of Higher Education journalist to read?”

This question has resurfaced for me in the last couple of days. I’ve begun reading, for unrelated purposes, Michael Bérubé‘s Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers, and last night ran across the following passage, quoted from Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s 1988 MLA Presidential Address:

This is one reason, perhaps, why research in other fields — economics, genetics, physics, and so forth — can be, without complaint or criticism, difficult for members of the general public to understand or indeed totally incomprehensible to them, but not research in literary studies. (I mentioned the sciences, of course, but the contrast holds as well for other humanities disciplines: archaeology, classics, philosophy, etc.) The difference is that literary studies, and especially English, is, for many people — including, it seems, many journalists — not a discipline at all. English is simply their own native language, which is understood by anyone who speaks, reads, and writes it; and the only thing that makes English professors special is that — being, perhaps, unable to do anything else — they have chosen to get paid full-time for doing what everybody else does part-time and could do full-time if they were not so busy holding down real jobs.

Not much has changed in 15 years, I’m afraid; questions about whether the “difficulty” of literary criticism is warranted seem to me still directly tied to questions about whether the field is warranted. What I’m curious about now is how those convictions, that studying literature is not a “real job,” become internalized within the profession, both across the curriculum — such as the all-too-common experience of the social-scientist dean who refuses to understand why the English department matters, other than as a locus for the teaching of writing — and even within the discipline itself. We’re an intensely self-questioning, self-doubting bunch; witness the periodic recurrence of articles asking (or suggesting responses when students ask) “why study English?” in venues such as Profession.

The issue seems to me to rest precisely in the “profession,” in the sense that what we as professors of literature do, both inside and outside the classroom, is a pursuit worthy of the investment of institutional time and resources, and thus a field whose difficulty, whose professionalization, is warranted. As Bérubé points out, arguments against professionalization surface on both the political right and left, and both outside and within the field:

Antiprofessionalism may actually be almost a standard, permanent feature of our discipline: not only because professionalism is considered ‘a threat to individual freedom, true merit, genuine authority’ (Fish 1985, 106) but also because literary professionals inhabit an institution formed in the culture of professionalism but unsure that its machinery for professional self-advancement is sufficiently balanced and justified by the services it provides to its clients, whoever these may be. (23-24)

Bérubé further cites Jonathan Culler’s Framing the Sign on the two models under which universities operate: “The first makes the university the transmitter of a cultural heritage, gives it the ideological function of reproducing culture and the social order. The second makes the university a site for the production of knowledge” (33). Bérubé finally combines these two models within the notion of canon revision, suggesting that the academic study of literature is most important in “its revision of its cultural heritage…. By means of this revision, one might argue, the academy seeks both to ‘transmit’ and ‘produce’ knowledge, to be a cultural archive that takes an active role in the creation of its exhibits” (28).

While this conclusion is absolutely apropos within the context of Bérubé’s argument (about Pynchon and Tolson and their respective places in the canon), it doesn’t finally satisfy my questions about the cultural anxieties that seem to surround “difficulty” and professionalization in literary studies. It seems to me that certain fields — the hard sciences and many of the social sciences, in particular — are widely assumed to operate under the second of Culler’s models, and are given no grief for doing so. Many of the humanities, however, and particularly departments of literature, are expected to operate under the first model, and what new knowledge such departments produce is assumed to be restricted to the discovery, preservation, and presentation of forgotten elements of that cultural heritage. Why is the exploration of new ways of reading — also known as literary theory — seen as less significant, and more obfuscatory, than new things to read? Is there a way out of this double-bind, in which the profession faces the failure to be taken seriously, on the one side, and ridicule for its difficulty, on the other?

6 thoughts on “Difficulty, Professionalism, and Literary Studies

  1. When the public asks the physics department (as the public will do), “What does your work do?” the physicists can point to a telescope, and the public says, “Oh, OK.” Other hard and soft sciences can point to petri dishes, maps, bones, explanations for cave drawings, etc.

    We don’t have a “thing” to point to, which means we have a greater responsibility to communicate to the public the usefulness of our work.

    The public doesn’t know it shouldn’t stop at the telescope–it needs to know that it should ask, “That telescope and those moon rocks and petrie dishes are nice, but should they really get more money than our public schools?” The public should be asking themselves where their values come from–why they like moon rocks and studies of rat fur. How their books and movies and advertisements contribute to those values–how they have done so in the past.

    The public should want to know HOW their world communicates to them. We can help them with this, but we can’t point to a “thing.” So we need to talk to them in language they can understand.

    So many people in our field do not understand that inflicting jargon on the masses only trivializes and marginalizes our discipline–it does not professionalize it.

    Sometimes technical language is necessary when speaking to specialists, but we don’t have the physicists’ luxury of only speaking to specialists. We must always explain what we do, because that is the only way we can DO what we do.

  2. I mostly agree with you, mariah, though I’m not sure the comparison to the physicists is entirely apropos. If a physicist is being honest when you ask him what he does, he’ll tell you that he’s working on the behavior of liquids in n-dimensional spaces, an area completely devoid of connection to our own physical and technical reality, an area of purely theoretical interest. Do we say to the physicist, though, unless you can explain to me why the behavior of liquids in n-dimensional spaces is of vital interest to my fourteen-year-old, your research is valueless? Generally, we assume that such obscure scientific work will somehow bear out, somewhere down the line, in results that actually affect the material world in which we live, or the way we understand that world.

    Isn’t the same true of presumably obscure writers in the humanities? Take Judith Butler as an example, just because she’s on my mind (for reasons I’ll mention momentarily): her work is equally complex, and one might argue that as written it’s equally divorced from the lived experience of the general public, as that research done into liquids in n-dimensional spaces. But it has its own value, within the profession, in the same way that theoretical physics does, and I believe that somewhere down the line — not directly in Butler’s work, but in the work of those who apply her work, or in the work of those who apply those initial applications — there are results that actually affect the ways that people “out there” understand the world we all live in.

    So why is it that we give Judith Butler a hard time for being obscurantist, but not a theoretical physicist?

    I got a lovely message from Michael Bérubé this morning, who pointed me to an article he published in the Chronicle (subscription required, alas), post-Sokal, in which he argues:

    Every discipline needs a place for the development of ideas that are (currently or permanently) unintelligible not only to the general public but also to most practitioners of the discipline.

    At the same time, every discipline that seeks public legitimation as an academic field also must have a place for the development of ideas that are comprehensible to any undergraduate or interested layperson. The question, of course, is how those two imperatives are calibrated discipline by discipline.

    His full argument is much more interesting than what I’ve made above (and it’s his reference to Butler, both in this article and on his own blog, that’s got her work on my mind). The point I take from it, though, is that — yes, I completely agree with you here — the discipline needs to be able to speak to “the public” (and indeed to multiple publics) in ways that are not just comprehensible but that make the vital importance of the work we do clear. On the other hand, we also need to be able to speak to one another in ways that, while I wish they would work a bit harder to avoid the willfully jargony, nonetheless use a particular language in a particular way, that might not be comprehensible to the public, but that is internally comprehensible, and that challenges us within the profession to think further, imagine differently, and look anew.

    Both of these things need to happen. But again, because the field presents itself in the public imaginary as being nothing more than reading and writing the language we all speak, there’s a resistance to the notion that any difficulty is warranted. And that’s where the misunderstandings and backlashes come in, I think — less in that we can’t speak to the public than in the general sense that we ought to be doing nothing else.

  3. Thanks for responding, K. I didn’t realize I had so much to say about this until you brought it up.

    I completely agree when you say, “Generally, we assume that…obscure scientific work will somehow bear out, somewhere down the line, in results that actually affect the material world in which we live, or the way we understand that world.”

    As you say, people don’t assume the same ultimate usefulness about our more theoretical, less intelligible work, and I agree with you that’s not fair. But I do think that it’s OUR job to address that, and we ain’t doing it.

    The fact is, Ms. N-dimensional-liquid-behavior scientist gets the benefit of the doubt because some other physicist is making a telescope with their physics. Good for her–she has that luxury. Nobody in our discipline has a cool toy or cure for cancer or Inuit society that can be featured on Nova. That means we need to do some work to earn that benefit of the doubt if we want to public to keep funding our departments.

    We do have useful things to share, dammit. We can show the public things that are making its daughters bulimic, show them reasons why the doctor might have missed that tumor in your lung X-ray, reasons why that SUV you think you want might not really be what you want, and lots of other things. But we’re not doing a good job of that.

    I completely disagree w/ Barbara Herrnstein Smith when she says that people assume they could all do what we do if they had the time. I think she reveals an embarrassing academic insecurity when she assumes that. Look, folks, the world thinks you’re plenty smart! Really, it does! Like your mom said, If Rush Limbaugh or anyone else tells you otherwise, they’re just jealous. Honestly, has anyone in our field ever met a person–face to face–who _really_ thought that what we do was easy, was something anyone could do?

    The problem is not that they think they can do what we do–the problem is that they don’t know why we bother. Our consumerist, product-oriented, use-oriented society wants there to be a “point” to everything, preferably one you can sell or put on TV.

    I like Berube’s assessment very much, and I agree about the disciplines needing to calibrate their imperatives in different proportions. I will always want Butler and Derrida and others to have room to do their work, audiences for the technical language they must use to properly convey what they mean.

    I don’t, however, see academic advisors cautioning their grad students that such style must not be imitated but must be earned by supremely complex and rigorous thought. I have seen many an editorial letter go out to articles that have been accepted at the journal I work for, in which the editors almost beg the scholar to tone down the inflated language. Not one such author ever does. I’m not sure they know how at this point–they never got the practice.

    I guess I don’t see that all the make-fun articles attacking our obscurantism and silly paper titles are the world expecting us to do _nothing_ but talk to them, in words their 14-year-olds can understand. I read the articles as the public saying, “You talk to yourselves 90% of the time, and if you want my funding and if you want me to encourage my kids to major in your field, I need to hear more about what you really do. You yell at me a lot, but you don’t really try to make me understand.”

    I guess I want us to be less defensive and more open to recalibration.

  4. Never did. But he’s an interesting guy, and quite the major figure in science-fiction studies.

    Now I’m very curious what you’re reading…

  5. I’m reading a short piece of his that doesn’t address the issues above but that is, in my opinion, a good example of a useful, public-accessible idea conveyed in public-accessible prose. It’s not particularly complex or anything–it’s an observation more than anything else–but it’s relevant and, I think, interesting to intelligent people outside the academy. (E-mail me if you want to know more specifics. It’s not a big secret.)

    I wish more intelligent people in nonacademic positions had studied enough of our discipline to be able to read their world critically and interpret it, as he does here.

    I wish more intelligent acadmics were confident enough in their work and their ideas to write as clearly and engagingly as he does here.

    I wish such pieces could run in publications like Entertainment Weekly and People. OK, many of the readers wouldn’t necessarily be able to follow it, but a surprising number would, and you could put celebrity photos next to it to lure them in.

    That’s the only reason I bring him up. I can’t speak for his other work. I only know that reading this piece reminded me of our discussion, so I thought I’d make a wish list.

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