The Organized Effects of the Program (On McGurl's The Program Era)
Reclaiming Literature? (On Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History)

Performing Literature

Although Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature is clearly intended to be read primarily by graduate students or instructors just beginning their teaching careers, one can also read the book, against the grain of the author’s own rhetorical goals, perhaps, as a guide for the academic outlander to the curious practices of that disciplinary subculture responsible for what still passes as literary study. Those who retain an image of the English professor as a high-minded if pedantic guardian of the treasures of Literature will find provided here what amounts to the finishing touches on the recast image the profession has been working on for over 30 years. Just as high-minded but in a more earnest, socially-conscious way, even more firmly attached to scholastic attitudes and the conventions of academic discourse, the self-appointed curators of this recast image have nevertheless worked very hard to dissociate literary study from its former aspirations to establish works of literature as a kind of secular scripture, an authoritative source of time-tested wisdom and a superior sensibility. Unfortunately, in the process they also have succeeded, as Showalter’s book finally demonstrates, in dissociating it from literature as well.

The story of how “literature itself” came to be the focus of study in the English departments of American universities has been admirably told in Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature. Over the course of the 20th century the role of literature in academic study was transformed from being a source of philological analysis to being a “subject” in its own right, a source of distinctive knowledge to be pursued for its own value. But as Graff’s account shows, this change in status took place amidst great disagreement over ultimate purposes, even among those proposing it, and in many ways the metamorphosis was never really completed, as no real accord was ever reached about how the literature curriculum ought to be organized, how best to teach it, or even finally how to define “literature” in such a way that its disciplinary principles could be well understood and its boundaries well identified. As a result, American literary study has been characterized mostly by its instability, as one new wave of revolutionary thinking about the way it ought to be done has followed upon another, the only certainty being that the approach you now believe to be truly conclusive ten years from now will be moribund.

It has happened to the New Humanism, Marxism, the New Criticism, the Chicago School, Myth Criticism, Reader-Response Theory, Structuralism, Deconstruction, New Historicism (as happened also to the Old Historicism), multiculturalism in each of its variants, to the ideas of Freud, Sartre, Foucault, Bakhtin, Eco, Eagleton, Lacan, Jameson, Bloom, Fanon, Tompkins, Sedgwick, Said, Gilbert and Gubar, hooks, Burke, Auerbach, Kermode, de Man, Hartman, and Lentricchia. Not all of these movements, critics, and theories have been discredited or entirely discarded, of course, but none of the systems or elaborate critical structures erected in their names could still plausibly be considered the definitive method of literary study and criticism, the one method making all others, past and future, superfluous. To the extent that academic literary study has come to be perceived by the public, as well as by other academics, as frivolous, intellectually capricious at best, it is a consequence of this instability of approach built in at the very origins of the discipline’s historical identity, rather than any of the specific excesses that have been attributed to current practices and particular scholars.

The present lack of obvious purpose in the English department, more pronounced than during the height of the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s but no less a sign of the disorder inherent in the discipline from the start, is fully reflected in Showalter’s attempt in Teaching Literature to survey all of the options available to the college literature instructor. Ironically enough, Showalter’s obvious, even admirable, effort to include references to numerous possible approaches to the teaching of literature, and thus not to “privilege” any one approach in particular, only reveals more plainly the degree to which the organized study of literature in American universities finally neither involves nor requires any particular regard for literature at all, not even the sort of unstated “resentment” Harold Bloom ascribes to the contemporary literary academy. The clear implication of Showalter’s account of what teaching literature is good for, in fact, is that if the whole endeavor is good for anyone, it is the teacher him/herself, whose well-being and sense of professional accomplishment are the incessant focus of Teaching Literature.

The book’s concern to raise the level of the college English instructor’s self-esteem is sounded in its very first chapter, “The Anxiety of Teaching,” in which Showalter anatomizes the various causes of such anxiety and explicitly offers her succeeding chapters as the sort of informed advice that can alleviate them if sincerely considered. Some of her advice is perfectly sound, to be sure—as is the more general contention that teaching induces its own distinctive kinds of anxieties—and that which touches on such unavoidable, perhaps more quotidian issues of class preparation and grading could of course be useful to those readers unable to acquire such information through more immediate means. Showalter is entirely correct in maintaining that much of the ordinary work of college teaching is systematically ignored in English graduate study, and is not much discussed by a younger instructor’s potential mentors among the faculty either, and thus any pedagogical guide that addresses this problem is undoubtedly to be welcomed. But this worthy intention is altogether undercut in a book that otherwise encourages its readers to view literature as essentially an adjunct to the act of teaching itself, as the platform from which the literature professor performs the salutary (and self-assigned) service only he/she (for reasons however vague and indefinite) is able to render.

“Performance,” as a matter of fact, is an important concept in Teaching Literature, as it would almost have to be in a depiction of the work of the literature professor that emphasizes so minimally an appreciation of the intrinsic merits of the subject purportedly being professed. Performance doesn’t necessarily involve simply the theatricality with which the professor chooses to present works of literature (Showalter explicitly disdains what she identifies as “teacher-centered” methods of instruction), but extends as well to the transformation of the classroom, indeed, of the literature course itself, into a kind of performance art whereby literature becomes the inspiration for the instructor’s own ingenuity in attracting students’ interest, but otherwise fades into the background as the more pressing requirements of the classroom drama necessarily take precedence. For example, Showalter describes her own method of imposing suitable order and form on courses in the novel, by which she gives such courses their own narrative structure, complete with “Beginnings,” Middles,” and “Endings.” Further:

            In my fiction classes, I try to incorporate elements of narrative into the teaching process, and also make students aware of how these elements operate to define experience as a story. I compare lecturing to narration in the novel, demonstrate ways to vary and violate it, and encourage students to think of how it might be done. (Once to show how you could rupture or break the narrative frame of the classroom, I had a graduate student interrupt the lecture by loudly announcing he had a pizza to deliver to a student. Readers will recognize the homage to Fast Times at Ridgmont High. But every semester provides its own spontaneous frame-breakers, from a squirrel running around the auditorium to fire drills to students streaking.)

 Something like this mirroring device seems to be what Showalter has in mind when claiming that “the most effective members of our profession are those whose literary theory is consistent with their teaching theory and practice.” In other words, one’s “theory” of the significance literature bears ought not merely to inform one’s scholarly work, or the choice of text to assign and study in the classroom (both of which already go a long way toward creating a distinct context in which the ultimate significance of literature is to be understood), but also ought to provide the mold into which one’s very classroom practice is to be poured. At first this highly artificial approach seems somewhat at variance with Showalter’s further statement in the same discussion of “Personae: The Teaching Self” that “although a persona can protect you against the intimacy and threat of self-revelation in the classroom, it can also prevent you from achieving the real exchange of ideas that makes teaching memorable” as well as from revealing the literature instructor’s “true self.” But finally these seemingly contradictory impulses—toward pedagogical contrivance and toward authentic self-expression—are bound together, part of the same goal of using the literature classroom for what Teaching Literature really affirms as the most compelling rationale for the activity named in its title: the valorization of the good intentions of the literature professor, provided the appropriate assurances of concern for the welfare of students can be made with credible conviction at the same time.

To those who believe that the tarnishing of the image of literary study is due mainly to the hyperpoliticization of literary scholarship over the past 15 years, I would argue instead that literature’s observable loss of luster comes as much from this more general evolution of literary study into the vehicle for the professor’s own self-aggrandizement, the current dominance of politically-minded scholarship being its most prominent manifestation for now. What the future developments of this tendency might bring about is anybody’s guess, but in my view that it certainly will mutate into some other method of the moment is beyond question. Whether the study of literature for its own sake, free of the enshrouding accumulations of which the self-projection advocated in Showalter’s book is only the most recent, will find its way back to the curriculum of the English department—or any other academic discipline that might arise in wake of its ultimate demise due to its lack of utility to the corporate university—is equally open to speculation, but if the history of literary study over the past century is any kind of reliable touchstone, such a renewal of purpose could only prove temporary.

Ultimately Teaching Literature inadvertently demonstrates that literature functions poorly as a subject of academic inquiry, not because it lends itself to no plausible method of focusing this sort of inquiry but because it lends itself to so many possible methods. That works of literature themselves invite readings that find their own particular centers of interpretive gravity, angles of approach that are almost infinitely variable and determined by the individual reader’s own presumptions, is so obviously true that it seems in retrospect somewhat peculiar that such an unavoidable consequence of academic literary study would have been ignored by those who persevered in the struggle to install literary study as a recognized academic discipline. Alongside so many other disciplines with true discipline—that have a single center of gravity, or at the very least do not encourage a proliferation of interpretation for its own sake—literary study was always fated to appear to circle around its purported subject without ever conveying the impression that its essential work helped to get us closer to an informed understanding of the subject—or even that it has anything that could be called essential work to do. Even the initial dispensation prevailing in literary study, whereby works of literature were considered primarily for their claims to possessing literary qualities (judged to be good things to have) and the ultimate justification of which was to clarify our ideas about the very category of the literary, produced “knowledge” of frankly dubious value all too easily dismissed by an academy that esteems instead processes more objective and results more exact that literary critics-even when transformed into “scholars”-are generally able to provide.

Literary scholars have not failed at conforming to this model through want of trying, however. Various attempts to make literary study and scholarship more “scientific,” either in spirit or in fact, have been made, from the more doctrinaire applications of New Criticism to the virtual conversion of literary scholarship into a branch of social science found in the move to cultural studies to the data mining that characterizes “digital humanities.” And while on the one hand this is just the predictable consequence of trying to bring academic “rigor” to the study of literature, on the other the more extreme of these approaches (including the extreme laissez-faire approach encouraged by Elaine Showalter) manifests an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the inherent and more immediate benefits that works of literature have to offer, benefits that presumably draw most readers to them to begin with—namely aesthetic delight, the pleasures of a compelling reading experience, particularly those pleasures that can be the result of meeting the challenges posed by complex or innovative works, of actually expanding one’s capacity to enjoy satisfying reading experiences. It is precisely that imaginative writing that does elicit this kind of response most readers would identify as “literature,” and such a pragmatic definition of the term is probably as useful a way to distinguish what these imaginative works have in common as can be devised.

This may seem markedly similar to the definition Showalter endorses, literature as “what gets taught.” But actually it here I am in the starkest disagreement with Showalter’s own theory. It is a measure of how far the assimilation of literature to the academy has gone—some might say how thoroughly trivialized it has become—that apparently for many people it is unexceptional to so readily conflate works of literature (what gets read) with their place in the classroom, their potential for being taught. Furthermore, while this close association of the literary and the academic might seem to lead to a perception of literary study as largely an elite activity (as at an earlier period it probably was so perceived), Showalter explicitly renounces elitism by welcoming to the literature syllabus any fiction, poetry, or drama, “whether by Wordsworth or Maya Angelou. . .Jane Austen or Stephen King. . . .” (She also approves of film, television, and other “cultural materials,” although considers their use to be separate from “teaching literature” proper.) Ultimately, Showalter’s come one, come all attitude to determining the borders of literary study only confirms the effective purgation of all meaning from the very concept of literature among the current coterie of literature scholars and teachers.

Yet I for one finally cannot muster any great enthusiasm for the idea of reclaiming literary study on behalf of something similar to the more focused, literature-centric conception I have myself advanced. To believe that works of literature are valuable first and foremost for those qualities that sharpen the individual reader’s critical faculties and enhance that reader’s aesthetic sensibilities is not to conclude that these are values that can easily be conveyed through formal classroom study. In fact, to believe that what literature is good for is to provoke this kind of encounter between one reader and the latent if still unexplored possibilities of the imagination and of human language, a fundamentally subjective and personal achievement on the reader’s part, is probably to conclude that the study of literature in a classroom setting can only be a distraction from fostering such an encounter. Indeed, the perhaps inevitable result of bringing literature to the classroom at all is exactly the indulgent, aimless fragmentation depicted in Teaching Literature.

The best way out of the dilemma paradoxically created by academic critics hoping to elevate the status of literature in American culture would be for a new generation of literary critics to bypass the academy altogether and seek out some fresh and more reliable direction by which to guide readers to their own recognition of literature’s abiding merits, which as ought surely to be evident by now, most productively occurs only outside the college classroom.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)