2 Readings from 1983 (Eagleton / Williams)–‘hair-raisingly radical and rather absurd’

Revisiting development of and reflections upon cultural studies, I’ve turned most recently to  “Crisis in English Studies” (published in 1983’s Writing and Society by Raymond Williams; originally from a 1981 lecture) and chapter one of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory titled “The Rise of English” (also from 1983). Clearly these notions of crisis articulated some thirty years ago are still appropriate ways of making sense of today’s literary and (inter)disciplinary landscape–so that we might talk in similar terms today of Crisis in Hispanic Studies, Crisis in French Studies and so on…

The major benefit of Eagleton’s chapter is–and the same can be said of Williams’s Marxism and Literature–is that is places the study of literature in a historical context, the development of literary study along with Romantic understandings of creative activity and as subject to alienations of leisure and culture which were themselves rooted in developments of industrial capitalism. In this context it is possible for Eagleton to state unequivocally that “Literature would rehearse the masses in the habits of pluralistic thought and feeling, persuading them to acknowledge that more than one viewpoint than theirs existed–namely, that of their masters. It would communicate to them the moral riches of bourgeois civilization, impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and, since reading is an essentially solitary, contemplative activity, curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action” (1983: 25). As have many others, Eagleton points to the limitations of Matthew Arnold’s legacy (from Culture and Anarchy 1869) and how it was modified (not enough?) by F.R. Leavis and I.A.Richards in Cambridge English: and Eagleton takes pains to paint a nuanced picture of this development and how it became the basis for the myopia of the American New Criticism (which carried the excesses of Cambridge English to their logical conclusion).

For this reader, however, the picture that emerges of Leavis is much more intriguing and dissonant than that of Richards or the New Criticism, which is to say that the tradition of close-reading he is synonymous with was not as closed of a practice in his eyes as it would later become in the hands of others, bent as he was as using literature as an opening onto the whole of society–this certainly meant something distinct to both Leavis and Eagleton, but is something which today’s literary specialists may still need to be reminded of if we consider the ongoing tensions surrounding cultural studies work and interdisciplinarity in general. Of Leavis’s Scrutiny (1932) project in particular, Eagleton writes: “The whole Scrutiny project was at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd” (34). I wonder–accepting the plausible limitiations of Leavis’s project–whether there nonetheless remains a lesson to be learned therein…

Williams’s “Crisis in English Studies” pushes for a complex understanding of methodological issues that still seems important to emphasize today: “Within both Marxism and structuralism there are diverse tendencies, and there is further diversity in other tendencies in part influenced by them. This has to be emphasized not only to prevent reductive labelling but for a more positive reason, that some of these tendencies are compatible with the existing dominant paradigm of literary studies while others are incompatible and have for some years been challenging the dominant paradigm—and thus its profession” (192). But it also asks what is–in my view–an equally important question regarding the composition of departments: “can radically different work still be carried on under a single heading or department when there is not just diversity of approach but more serious and fundamental differences about the object of knowledge (despite overlapping of the actual material of study)?”

I’m sure that scholars who have seen the academic battles of the 70s and 80s first hand have much more to offer on the current state of things, but it seems to me that this question posed by Williams in 1983 in regard to English Studies is just as applicable to today’s Hispanic Studies, French Studies, German Studies, Asian Studies… how do we account for diversity of approach/disciplinary heterogeneity in a general sense let alone serious conflicts regarding the purpose of education or cultural criticism? There is still much work to be done.

Early Cultural Studies Texts Worth Reading [suggestions encouraged]

Deciding to return to earlier cultural studies texts, I’ve gotten through Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy: aspects of working-class life, with special references to publications and entertainments (1957) which I do recommend, surely a classic that stands the test of time.

[An aside: also of note for popular music fans is the reference to a book ‘Death-Cab for Cutie’ — seemingly a made-up name included amongst many others in Hoggart’s discussion of the ‘sex and violence’ genre of popular reads at the time that was chosen by B. Gibbard and his recent band — I heard the band but never knew the origin, of course the internet easily confirms the connection).

Also almost done with Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1780-1950) (1958) which can be rather dry in comparison to Hoggart’s work (above), but I’d say a stand out section is the one devoted to T. S. Eliot and his notion of ‘culture’ as a whole way of life, which clearly signals the later evolution of Williams’s thoughts on the subject, and suggests an appropriation and reformulation (differing considerably from the original, of course) of Eliot’s concept (itself digested from Boasian Anthropology) in the ‘structures of feeling’ Williams wrote about. Not done with that one yet, but already I feel I’m going to have to read Eliot’s slim book Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (from 1948) that Williams references there.

I do have to move on to consider Scrutiny (F.R. Leavis’s project from 1932 onward), which Williams points to as anticipating cultural studies as well.

Any other suggestions of earlier cultural studies texts worth reconsidering?

Are the (spatial/digital) humanities more than historical? (and a link to spatial.scholarslab.org)

So more on the spatial/digital humanities–

I’ll start by noting that  friend getting a degree in digital humanities recently told me the following: although her program stresses the need to bridge A) literary (English?) scholars with B) computer science/technologists–that is have an A person work with a B person on a project, she is being trained to be the B person in the literary-science pairing when her base is actually that of an A person and when she would like to continue to be the A person. I interpret this to mean that in collaborative projects, she would like to say ‘wouldn’t it be neat if literary scholars could have x’ to the B person and then have the B and A person work together on making that happen, assuming that a certain amount of unpredictable evolution would occur in the process. Sounds good–and I would venture to guess that this may not be an uncommon approach to digital humanities.

The idea or model of interdisciplinary pairings, clusters and research communities–in short, people working together on projects is certainly Continue reading

The Cultural Studies Question in 2012: Literature, Specialization, Interdisciplinarity

There are three interconnected points that constitute this brief post’s point of departure.

One: the conflict between what are called literary and cultural studies approaches persists—that it continues to influence the seemingly discrete areas of peer-reviewed scholarship, postsecondary hiring decisions, departmental debates over curriculum shifts, proposals to reassert a disciplinary canon, and perhaps even discussions regarding the futures of existing academic departments.

Two: the antagonists and agonists (to use Miguel de Unamuno’s term) of this conflict—at times it is not even clear who is who—often do not agree on the meanings of these terms. ‘Literature’ and ‘cultural studies’ operate simultaneously at several scales of academic discourse, from the local (departmental) to the disciplinary community (at conferences) to the wider publishing realm (articles, books, web); and it is likely that consensus is lacking both within and across each of these contexts.

Three: where pockets of consensus regarding these terms may in fact exist there is relatively little awareness of what is at stake in continuing to distinguish between ‘literature’ and ‘cultural studies.’ This leads, first, to an internal schism among potential disciplinary allies and departmental colleagues, and it may lead also—where the rifts are strongest—to what is, in effect, a devaluation of the humanities.

It is likely that if you are reading this, you are Continue reading