|The Future of Literary Studies|
What kind of literature is appropriate to these times? Or criticism? Language abounds. Texts are everywhere. Ads and street signs, labels and licenses, contracts and tickets and packages and menus and building ledgers. Billboards, bulletins, baseline readings and moving marquees. The world is textually mediated in the most fundamental ways. But in the literature that we teach and the critical methods we endeavor to impart (note the shift to antiquated tone here) what provides instructive insight? How doth the marvelous burden of tradition bequeath its earnest gifts to the current generations for whom the bulk of literary legacy appears as useful as a wet foundling and someone else’s screaming toddler left in the back seat of the van when we stopped to pick up a bottle of milk and a six pack of something hideous at the quick-mart? Hardest thing, grasping that elusive present. Blind baby mole rats, we labor in the tunnels of habit chasing a 40-watt light-bulb future pipe-dream of utopian salvation charged with sacred and secular tasks. Shuddering legacies, like family madness in a gothic tale, lurk everywhere. Cloaked figures of our collective imagination, latent, potent, terrifying.
The humanities. Humanists. We work to preserve culture, to provide critical insight and purchase, mainly through ways of reading. Simple enough. But what ways of reading and reading of what? Turf battles of a generation ago, literary quotas and the debates about canons, shared references, common heritage, cross-cultural perspectives—their echoes trail away. Their legacy reads out in curriculum offerings and conference paper titles. Cultural literacy and deconstruction once went head to head like Mothra, Medusa, and Madonna in mismatched battles faked in the editing process. Now?
Intermedia. An old term. The very word conjures a lost world, a pop-infused late-avant-garde sensibility, keenly grinding its teeth against the edge of mass media culture to see What Might Happen. Coined in the 1960s by Dick Higgins, the word stands in stark curious contrast with its sibling rival for our current attention, hypermedia. The students come to see me, fluent in the new currency of editing techniques, advertising imagery. Their eyes are shining with erotic longing for what look like the best games in town. My colleagues, timid as old bears, want to know if they can send me a student who wants to put links in a paper. Voices lowered. Yes, there IS still something indiscreet about mentioning MEDIA in the context of the academy. Here in the sacred precincts we are, some of us, still pretending that we perform some anointed Arnoldian task of improvement, shot through with the moral fiber of group self-help and spiritual enlightenment against the artery hardening glut of infotainment. The less fun, more difficult, more disciplined the exercise the better it must be for you. Oat bran approach to learning and hairshirt scholarship. It didn’t hurt ME to be beaten.
The future of literary studies? Mediated. Reception, production, critical and theoretical apprehension—all will be through channels, across circuits. Frames of reference. In which “reference” is a repeated act of recyling, not a point of fixed authority recovered in a note that kills the hot trail of discovery. The dead end of citation, the terminal point of the endnote, the inert foot of the page, its typographic proportions punishingly cramped are already eclipsed, obsolesced.
But what of the cultural knowledge base. Odysseus? Isn’t he a mighty morphin power ranger kind of guy? Even Classic Comics carry too much burden of tradition, that overwhelming paratextual apparatus—text and image, relay and anchor, small and large type. Go for the animated gif version. Without nihilism, we lay awake at night, reading the message of the stars for a sign that language would come down, gentle rain, and w(h)et our textual appetite again. Or is that, “without television”?
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Imagine a kind of Sam’s Club of culture. What skills for survival are we going to provide? Acquire? The wilderness is too much with us late and soon. Whatever mattered Once Upon a Time, I ask, again, what is the literature equivalent to these times? The criticism? Vale utque et nomen en lumpen. Huh? Dead languages. What are you saying? (He handed me a book—his book—of the same title. Poetry has so many uses. Literary studies. But he was moving to Seattle so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we couldn’t fall in love. That was before the romance of email. But back to those languages.)Not so much dead as gone out. Toys without the necessary batteries. Non-sense is not an appeal to order, nor defined against it. No, conceived, rather outside the possibility of order. How do we recover languages-in-use.
The point? Not links. Not techno-pyro-artifice displays. Not the manipulated matrix of commercial culture. Not a simple enhancement of the art of reading nor, either, an expansion of the colonial impulses of conquering theory over the ever broadening terrain of popular culture. No. The future of literary studies?
Ways we’ll work and think: at the intersection of the visual and verbal, audio and video, the entity and the frame, the cut, concepts of flow. planes of discourse and reference, content and expression. Material sites of many modes of production. The artifactual condition of all knowledge. How was it made. Indexical apparatus to insight—the analysis of how it works. what is in play. Editing as a cultural pursuit. Criticism in the juxtaposition and play of images on and off the screen—slicing airwaves to take the temperature of the times. Pundit point of purchase displays. Cultural critic roadshow. Take your artifact onto the air for live analysis.
Remember that now quaint task, deconstruction. Taking apart the Truth. Once we worked to put the world together. Then to reveal its wholeness. The working of its many parts. After we unmasked the Master Narratives for the fictions that they were, addicting ourselves to illusions of other grandeur—like maybe critical theory was a radical act? Classic authors, once coordinate points on a stable map of reference we used for charting intellectual campaigns, now so many timid corks, hovering on the edge of discourse. The task ahead is enormous. Fortunately. Inexhaustible, actually.
Many marvels come into my mind—the riches of Peignot’s Amusemens Philologiques, the dreams of Hypnerotomachia in the ruined fragments of an imagined classicism, the Woynich manuscript and the fabulous events narrated by Hélène Smith and recounted by Theodore Flournoy about her trips to the planet Mars and ancient India to find, in her trance, lost and alien scripts. I am like that creature, tranced and fixated by intense images. Wanting to say: Look! Look at this stuff! Charles Bernstein passionately argued that just as the products of mass culture might deserve more difficult readings so, also, the apparently difficult artifacts of imaginative culture are less difficult than they would seem. Jerry McGann found out this week that Gertrude Stein went over easily. They had no problem with it. As my students loved Paul Virilio, having struggled with William Ivins, Jacques Derrida, and Erwin Panofsky. Why? The unpredictable condition of culture. Reception is in proportion to attitude. The flow of language, not the forms of structured argument, present a kind of ready-to-wear adaptability to reading. Right? Wrong? Left? Middle of some road? Both/and. That worried construction, so accommodating, as Matt Kirschenbaum pointed out to us this week, in discussing the critical discussions of digital technology. No longer is it useful to equivocate about our passions.
I don’t want to make sense, but sentience. Forget the corpus of knowledge. Replace it with a lover’s erotic interest in exploration, charged, ludic, intense ways of knowing a material embodied condition of awareness. Towards no end. No totality. No closure. Always beginning again. Grateful. Eager. Wisdom is the experience that returns our innocence to us. Renewed. Better than truth.
The mediated condition of all knowledge makes us aware of the need for attention to production. Of course. And provenance. And the technologies of reproduction. Publishing. Distribution. Dissemination. Reception. Audience and theory. The lovely smorgasbord of theory in which everything looks much better than it tastes, offers its panoply of possibilities as if they are all finger foods to be sampled lightly and adopted with an “I’ll take this,” whimsical legerte. As if critical positions were outfits to be tried on and accessorized with works and titles. Now is the winter of our—don’t say it! The classroom is actually a site of struggle, a peculiar exercise. But attempting to capture the attention of the young we use forms and formats now so unfamiliar we even have to train to endure their long periods of immobility, understimulated conditions, un-special effects. You mean like just READ? Aloud? Ok, then try reading an image, an ad even, familiar sports figure posing to advertise his own line of Personal Products. They say, he’s debonair, suave. You say, Why? How? Really? Through what means? To what ends? In whose interest? All the same questions. But they go dull, sullen, as if asked to analyze their pudding before eating at the end of a meal. What made them think that thinking would take the pleasure away? Unfun-feminism. No more dates. Hairy legs and pits, the inevitable result of insight, no doubt, is ungainly flesh and an unhealthy disposition to sweat and heave loudly while swallowing. Yuck. No one really wants to be at the table with an INTELLECTUAL. Spoilers all—there are two NON-pleasures for your choosing. The one is reading and the other’s writing. Arnoldian uplift and radical conscience. Ah, now the family madness outs. Bad blood. As if inevitable.
The future of literary studies? Inventive. Creative. Active. Engaged. Participatory. Recouped from the editing room floor. Cut and rearranged segments and features and docu-commentaries. How will we know the new information structures when we see them? Marching across the misty swamps of memory and into the hearts and minds of living room audiences everywhere? What a wonderful life, imagining that we might actually be involved in something more than Writing the Unreadable for an Audience of Esoteric Encounters of the Worst Kind. The divine sublime, ecstatic, witty, entertaining and briefed in the press room before going live? Entertainment metaphors? We have to live in the gap between the ennui of tv and the dullness of suburban scenes, and find a language that bridges the obscene horrors of the unspoken Real and the distracting self-absorption of Our Own Profession.
They want to write for the screen. Monitor. Television. Theater. We want them to write for us. Why? Us/them and other binarisms predispose an attitude of defensiveness, opposition, lines drawn in proverbial sands. Banish them, the hybrid documents of future pasts are already forming in our breasts, latent instruments of textual performance, likely to burst forth, breathing their first with robust infant cries in fungible formats. And on their baby rattles, the words emblazoned: “Texts were never transcendent. Always mediated.” We know that. But we recover that knowledge piecemeal. The fish doesn’t have a clue about that water. Not, at least, till Viktor Shlovsky defamiliarizes it. Ostranonie. The making strange. Calling attention to the mechanisms, means, modes, methods, manner and manners of production. Not what but HOW something means. Not closed into finality, but opened into processes, readings, productions. All the ideological birds shall come home to roost on the telephone lines. Communicative apparatus, our sole support. Stop treating production like a menial with dirty hands. Textual studies lab with a press, a computer, a set of rubber stamps and metal type and latex gloves, high tools for a lovely art and able artifice—coming into being is the condition of the text. And of criticism.
The entangled condition of meaning. Paraphrase and restructure Mikhail Bakhtin: “The word can be perceived purely as an object (something that is, in its essence, a thing). It is perceived as such in the majority of linguistic disciplines. In such a word-object even meaning becomes a thing. There can be no dialogic approach to such a word of the kind immanent to any deep and actual understanding. Understanding, so conceived, is inevitably abstract: it is completely separated from the living, ideological power of the word to mean—from its truth or falsity, its significance or insignificance, beauty or ugliness. Such a reified word-thing cannot be understood by attempts to penetrate its meaning dialogically: there can be no conversing with such a word.”1
We know this, you protest. We know all this. But what were we to do after deconstruction? After postmodernism? In and through the cultural studies (cult studs) portals. Much of the future is a matter of language. Not that we have to speak in the vernacular all the time—but SOME of the time? And register the complex range of linguistic possibilities. Channel surf the literary. Cultural sampling. Core borings. Test cases. Case studies. Writing for an audience. With each other. From a wide array of sources and with the most unexpected of audience participation. The future of literary studies? Media studies. material, artifactual, performative, productive, eclectic, attentive, charged. Shot through with poetical imagination. Critical imagination.
1. M.M.Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, Michael Holquist ed., (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 353.
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|