Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest entry by Rebecca Colesworthy, Literary Cultures

A tenured professor and college administrator for whose work I have great respect recently told me that “a few years ago everybody was interested in the literary.” Such, she suggested, was no longer the case. Nowadays “objects” and “things” are all the rage. Her intention in remarking the declining preoccupation with “the literary” across the humanities was benevolent. Well aware that my current academic post is not tenure-track, she was trying to help me to determine how best to frame and, indeed, how to “sell” my work when applying for jobs in the future.

Still, she is not alone in marking such a sea change. In a recent issue of PMLA, the queer theorist and modernist studies scholar Heather Love observed a widespread shift from interest in “the discursive” to interest in “the affective.” It would be wrong to suggest that the turn to affect (or the “affective turn,” to cite the title of a 2007 anthology) is either tantamount or reducible to the turn to the object. Nevertheless, it seems fair to suggest that they do coincide in ways both temporal and conceptual. (Note the title of Draper’s own topics in gender politics course, “Objects of Affection.”) As someone who works on notions of “the gift” and “generosity” in particular and notions of “the social” in general – the subtitle of The Affective Turn is Theorizing the Social – I would promptly count myself among those invested in conceptualizing both affect and things. But what is one to do when the primary “things” on which one works are literary?

This question is in part a pragmatic one. How does one pursue a career in literary studies and encourage one’s students to do the same when “the literary” is no longer a hot commodity? In using such economic rhetoric I do not mean to suggest that the turn away from discursive analysis is motivated by interest rather than intellectual and (in some cases) political concerns, but simply to acknowledge the fact that academia is a business even if it is – thankfully – not only that.

Yet this question also has conceptual and even political valences for me.

In my course this semester, Introduction to Literary Cultures I, my students and I read and discuss theorists from a range of disciplines who figure culture as a “literary” phenomenon. What exactly this means and the ramifications of such a presupposition vary from one theorist to the next. Certainly we might question the extent to which “our” culture could be called “literary,” whether that term is taken to connote a certain Arnoldian notion of high culture or a more generalized Derridean notion of “textuality.” Admittedly, there is something counterintuitive about the claim that contemporary life is not “textual,” saturated as it is with text messages, tweets, facebook updates, and blog entries like this one. Yet in my view the abundance of information and communication and the technologies that enable them hardly fosters textual engagement of either the critical or the belletristic variety.

In teaching, I cannot help but feel a certain disjunction between the linguistically oriented theories we read and discuss and the world outside the classroom. My response to this disjunction varies. I wonder, isn’t such a disjunction the very point of the classroom, a space that Ellen Rooney provocatively terms a “semi-private room”? Shouldn’t it and the space and time it affords for reflection on such outmoded objects as literature be preserved?

But I also remain convinced that the literary and the discursive remain relevant – and not only because I and many of my students work on literature. I could say a lot about this. For example, the Lacanian in me worries that the turn away from the literary is a foreboding sign of the times, a symptom of the widespread repression of the signifier – in all its imperfection – in an era ruled (as Michel Foucault would also have it) by a misbegotten wish for total knowledge. Setting such rarefied terminology aside, we might also ask in a much more general way: what are the potential costs of this turn away from the literary (and the textual, the discursive, the linguistic, and so on)?

In re-reading Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s 1986 essay “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes” for class this week, I was reminded of what a powerful tool literary criticism can be in enabling us to expose the ways in which the literary has been marshaled in the service of maintaining injustice and inequality. Gates writes: “The growth of canonical national literatures was coterminous with the shared assumption of intellectuals that race was a ‘thing,’ an ineffaceable quantity, which irresistibly determined the shape and contour of human feeling as surely as it did the shape and contour of human anatomy” (3). Race, Gates persuasively argues, is not a “thing,” but a “trope” (5). Even if we wouldn’t ascribe the same authority to national literatures today we might still ask how the literary is put to use for various political and economic ends. What tropes are treated as if they were things? How do we distinguish between tropes and things? At what cost do we confuse them?

At stake in these questions is not only a project of critique and demystification, but also our confrontation with the limits of what “we” – that is to say, literary critics – do. Thus while I would want to insist on the importance of distinguishing between the textual and the material for myriad reasons, I would also suggest that the task of what Gayatri Spivak called “reading the world” twenty years ago is far from finished.

So, what is a literary critic to do? I hope, a lot.

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