Blogging, Books, Constance Rourke, Edinburgh University, English Literature, Enlightenment, Freshers, Freshers' Week, Literary criticism, Literature, Marxism, Opinion, Politics, Scholarship, Technological Determinism
Last year Tychy marked Freshers’ Week at the University of Edinburgh by attempting to offer advice to new students, only to flee in dismay from the authority and leadership which this task demanded. This year, I shall try to tackle the questions of why and how the students who have lately arrived at the David Hume Tower to study “English Literature” should get stuck into the next four years.
English Literature – the reading and interpretation of literary texts – is not itself a subject, but rather a sort of theme park in which one gets to ride around on a lot of other disciplines: history, psychology, sociology, linguistics, and politics. This predominantly cultivates general skills rather than socially useful knowledge, and the literary graduate will most likely be a good writer, communicator, researcher, and, one dares to suggest, citizen. Yet this year’s intake of English Literature freshers are on the road to a huge refugee camp of unwanted humanities graduates, and a significant proportion of literary graduates will find that what they studied at university has little relevance to their future careers.
Some commentators define the opportunity to spend four years studying literature as the epitome of civilisation, but it is also a state-subsidised holiday and working people should regard it with suspicion. There are probably more efficient ways to mass-produce middle-class citizens – in this respect, English Literature offers bourgeois children a far woollier form of the discipline and purpose which young working people get from shooting ragheads in Afghanistan.
The utility of English Literature provokes wider questions about morality and technology in the digital age. I graduated with a First in English Literature, and I began a postgraduate degree in the same subject, only to suddenly lose heart in it. I wanted to undertake a re-evaluation of Constance Rourke’s maverick study American Humor – and observe how the American Renaissance was informed by the frontier’s “folk” culture – but I could not stoke up sufficient support for this adventure, and it was unclear who would be paying for all of my blue-sky, under-the-table thinking.
Despite the volumes of informed and erudite commentary which this website churns out, I consider myself to be an amateur literary critic, not least because I make no money from my writing. During my aborted postgraduate study, however, I was troubled by doubts that there now is – or even should be – such a thing as the professional scholar. Anybody with a laptop and a bit of enthusiasm for books can nightly “publish” literary criticism on a free WordPress or Blogspot website, whilst by day furthering their career on the tills at Tesco. Why do we still need the journals and conferences which uphold the house of literature? More to the point, why should the hapless British taxpayer bankroll them? The unelected viceroy of Britain, Peter Mandelson, has recently agreed that the nation will need to become a “wise spender,” and he is right to imply that the nation cannot afford to splash out on my book about Constance Rourke, which would have been read by only a handful of people.
University lecturers presently have to produce a certain amount of journal articles and books in order to satisfy the criteria of the “Research Exercise Framework,” by which the government ranks the productivity and social usefulness of academic departments. The Spiked pen Tara McCormak has thus attacked this system:
some research and theoretical analysis might be way ahead of its time; it can be unpopular and go against fashionable approaches to society. And who can say what analysis will be useful to a researcher in 20 years’ time or predict what might come to provide a valuable insight into something? There are things that humans should do and think about which cannot be measured and accounted for as if they are selling a product.
Social usefulness, however, remains a sort of gravity, and subjects such as nanotechnology will inevitably carry more weight than English Literature. Moreover, digital technology is increasingly rendering a lot of the house of literature obsolete. The prevailing response to digital modernity seems to be to fortify the ivory tower: it is truly incredible how, in the digital age, resources such as Project MUSE and JSTOR remain closed to the general public, and this insistence upon inaccessibility perhaps demonstrates how the scholarly community itself provides an obstacle to an Enlightened conception of literary criticism. The house of literature needs to establish a whole new infrastructure, and in doing so, they need to abandon the very idea of a professional scholar, and accept the scale and turmoil of a wider, freer public sphere.
For example, my study of Heman Melville’s Benito Cereno has, at the time of writing, been read about 120 times. Students around the planet type “Benito Cereno” into Google and, if they are lucky, they will eventually arrive at my website, although one imagines that more often than not they do not. Perhaps future manifestations of Google will work in my favour, but for the moment my study needs to be good enough to excite readers and generate links. Were my study published in the PMLA (come on, guys!), it would probably receive a hundred times more readers, but my study is concise, journalistic, it is designed to be read from a computer screen, it uses links rather than footnotes, and there is no need to wade through thirty pages of grandly-inconsequential PMLA prose. Although there are horrendous mountains ahead, I would like to address a wider and more general readership than that which accesses the PMLA. The hi-fiving and bitch-slapping of scholarly peer review presently takes place within journals such as the PMLA, although online forums would assist and advance these debates far better.
It is paradoxical that a useful role for English Literature will emerge only from forsaking any pretence at the subject’s social usefulness, or rather, the fallacy that it produces significant quantities of knowledge which can be bought and sold. We need a new digital house of literature, which inspires people to read books and to consider their relevance to citizenship, their insights into our past and future. One suspects that these advances will be simply determined by the technology, although they entail real worldly power struggles. The answer to the question “Why should we study English Literature?” remains compellingly straightforward – to be Enlightened! – but questions about how and where literature is studied demand some serious thought.
[Prof. Rick Rylance addresses some of these themes here.]