Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shattered into a thousand pieces: Anglophone Literary Studies c2000

Rob Dixon's essay on Boundary Work and Australian Literary Studies--here--circles around Julie Thompson Klein's Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities (1996) which is an important work in interdisciplinary studies, and proposes the concept of boundary work and contains a very interesting chapter on the genealogy of interdisciplinarity in (North American) Literary Studies. Klein's genealogy is a relatively familiar one, especially with its account of the ruptions that, what Americans call, 'Theory' brought in its wake. But Klein's account halts around 1992 with Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn's edited collection Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (1992) providing the more up-to-date resource she draws upon.
So, for a more contemporary and Australian-inflected assessment, I've been drawn back to re-reading Australian Cultural Studies academic John Frow's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, a version of which was published as 'Text, Culture, Rhetoric: Some futures for English' in Critical Quarterly 43.1 (Spring 2001): 5-18.
Frow seems more pessimistic about Literary Studies than either Klein, or Rob Dixon for that matter. Yet Frow's disciplinary trajectory has long been entwined with the more sociological side of textual aesthetics - what he calls the social relations of textuality (a.k.a cultural studies). Some extended quotes then, below, and a kicker at the end when Frow turns back (if he ever turned away) towards aesthetics and close-reading, giving a model of boundary work that is like a musical loop that alters with each reflexive playing: a circling between text and frames, where any knowledge of what frames the meaning and uses of a text (the illocutionary force of writing and speech) must always come out of an encounter with its figurative and organisational specificity, and not just be read off from another text. Before this more positive ending, Frow begins with a sharply, critical diagnosis of the state of what he calls his home discipline: Literary Studies.

In its frequent complicity with a commercial apparatus for which it is an underpaid source of publicity, and in its acquiescence in the fetishisation of literary value, literary studies in the university has paid the price of certain lack of reflexivity, a certain lack of political conscience. For at the same time as Literature, with a capital L, flourishes in the great world, literary studies is in disarray as never before.

The great structuralist project - enunciated in the work of Tynjanov and Jakobson, of Makarovsky, of Barthes and Genette and Todorov - of a systematic poetics, a project whose lineage goes back to Aristotle, to medieval poetics and to Renaissance iconology, has disappeared without a trace; the notion that we could produce a cumulative body of knowledge grounded in agreed-upon principles and categories, in a continuing and coherent conversation, is like a remembered dream. The discipline of literary studies is now shattered into a thousand pieces, the most vivid emblem of which is perhaps the myriad entirely unrelated panel sessions at the annual meetings of the American Modern Langage Association.

The poststructuralist complication of the project for a systematic poetics failed - for complex political and conjunctural reasons - to work as its continuation, and in its wake the discipline of literary studies has been split between[:]
[1] a barely theorised 'ethical' criticism, the idiot scion of the classical and neoclassical pedagogies of ethical formation, which generates an endless stream of thematic commentary around the category of the (unified or disunified) 'self';

[2] a deconstructive criticism now enfeebled and demoralised since the disgracing of Paul de Man - an event, however, which perhaps only confirmed an exhaustion that had already firmly set in;

[3] a 'political' criticism whose routine practice is grounded in the category of identity and for which textuality is deemed to have an expressive or instrumental relation to race or gender or sexual preference;

[4] a historicist criticism, now more empiricist that Foucauldian, for which the literary archive has a merely documentary value;

[5] and a chattering belletrism - dominant in all the literary reviews with their obsession with Sylvia's diary and Kingsley's letters and Martin's autobiography - which has mush more to do with gossip than with the sytematic study of texts. In one sense the discipline of literary studies is flourishing as never before; in another, it has become lost in irrelevance. [7-8]

Allowing for ['the relative contingency of the reception and uptake of texts'] is crucial, because the effects of texts cannot be read off from their structure. All we can do with this kind of tension [between the textual and the public lives of texts], I think, is try to make it work productively, by seeking to move backwards and forwards between detailed textual analysis and analysis of the framing conditions under which texts are taken up into the complexities of public cultural space. And this is in part how I understand the project of contemporary cultural studies. [12]

A series of decisions about how and what to read is thus framed by this [series of overlapping regimes of value contingently present as a] regression of frames, and it is this series itself that then becomes an object of attention. But it does not yield itself to a sociological or literary-historical description: the framing conditions of textuality are not to be thought of as general and objectively transposable structures which can be apprehended in their own right; they are extrapolations from an act of reading, and they can be defined only a posteriori. Textuality and its conditions of possibility are mutually constitutive and can be reconstructed from each other in a kind of hermeneutic bootstrapping which precludes conclusion and the perspective of a total understanding. [13]

No comments: