Culture, Fiction, and the Humanities

(x-posted to The Valve)

Timothy Burke, at his blog Easily Distracted, wrote a post some time ago arguing for a Department of Everything Studies. Scott Eric Kaufman at Acephalous responded, and so did Smurov (at the Valve) in turn.

One of the key paragraphs from Burke’s eminently readable post is as follows:

I want to go in the opposite direction: I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I’d call it Cultural Studies, but I don’t want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what [John Holbo at the Valve] is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

I agree with Burke so much that I disagree with him. That may sound odd, but what I mean is that so far in the blogosphere (which is already a Department of Everything Studies) there has been a regrettable conflation of two distinct viewpoints. One the one hand, the blogosphere has enabled serious discussions about a new academic interdisciplinarity within the humanities, one capable of working with mixed media and synthesizing imaginative (e.g. literary) and analytical (e.g. philosophical) materials. On the other, people working in literary studies have in both surrendered to and indulged in the desire to downsize literary studies in favor of criticism of television shows, blockbuster films, comic books, pop songs, and other media. You can see both strains in what Burke has written.

If the humanities were to re-shape itself in order to accomodate the changing shape of culture, all of the analytical disciplines would combine — Philosophy, Political Science, English, Comparative Literature, History, Sociology, Anthropology, and the rest — while the creative disciplines would remain separate: Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, Musical Composition, and so on. Critics and scholars are not always good artists, and vice versa. The grounds for such a merger would be basically ideological. If we accept the idea that our beliefs about the world are essentially constructions, then it makes sense to give the study of those constructions the widest possible scope, such that they can range across politics, literature, philosophy, and so on. At Stanford, there is a Linguistics/Computer Science major entitled “Symbolic Systems.” Perhaps Symbolic Systems would be a good name for this new confluence of the human sciences.

If you do not accept the idea that the world is constructed by human beings, at least insofar as it is an object of concern for scholars in the humanities, then there is no point to a merger. The merger absolutely depends on the notion that works of fiction, and all other tropological acts of expression, are as “truthful” as a nation’s Constitution or a work of empiricist philosophy, and in the same way, less differences of rhetorical mode that do not parallel the usual fiction/non-fiction binary. Otherwise, Visual Studies professors can turn their attention to graphic novels (many already have), and Film or Media Studies or Communications professors can work on television shows and advertisements.

These discussions, the visible part of them, are the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface is the fact that writers like Charles Dickens or Alexander Pope are less significant than they once were, and the general social apathy towards these writers also affects the scholars who are paid to study and teach them. Your time is limited: you can either keep up with Battlestar Galactica, or you can remedy some embarrassing gap in your knowledge of your own field, but you can’t (beyond a certain point) do both, since both literary specializations and popular culture now imply enormous territories. We live in a time of highly accessible digital media, and the consequences for text are real; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t see so many earnest Everything Bloggers discontinuing their blogs in order to write dissertations — that is, resuming their relationships with paperbacks and hardcovers at the expense of cultural studies and the blogosphere.

Look at how this anxiety informs the post at Acephalous. Scott writes,

Consider the example of “noir.” In order to present an accurate account of noir as a cultural phenomenon, you might begin with the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but you’d be remiss if you ignored film noir, as it was not merely a contemporary phenomenon, but a complementary one. (Many of the early films being adaptations of the novels and/or written by the novelists.)

Obviously, film scholars do not feel the same way. A work like Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night draws on noir literature, just as it draws on other literary works and academic disciplines, but it is not a series of close readings of Hammett’s or Chandler’s prose. So we end up with English scholars who want to encroach on other disciplines without making the claim (first introduced in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition) that they must make first about the breadth of cultural signification, and the analogy between fiction and culture.

Here is where the specific references that buttress these calls become both issues and problems. In all the time I’ve been reading blogs, I have never, ever seen somebody use When Harry Met Sally or so-called “chick lit” as an example of the need for Everything Studies. Instead, we get a very recognizable set of reference points, among them Harry Potter, comic books/graphic novels, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see Burke’s post). As long as these discussions are saturated by obvious pointers to personal interests, the discussion will have an unpleasant tang of disguised arbitrariness and dilettantism. For bloggers, even for academic bloggers, this isn’t a problem. You and I will find readers who share our interests, and even readers who share our depth of interest in each thing. But in terms of the academic tradition of the humanities, it is simply inadmissable. There may be good reasons for a continuing lack of symmetry between academia and the blogosphere.

Finally, it is important to remember that just because Everything Studies isn’t given official departmental recognition by universities doesn’t mean it isn’t part of our culture right now. Sites like Television Without Pity or Pitchfork Media already do a great deal of cultural “work,” and they do so with a willingness to actually criticize when they write criticism. My own experience writing about auteurs like Joss Whedon is that the academic blogosphere is incapable of taking seriously the flaws in a given work of popular culture. My guess is that this has two causes: academics are used to suspending value judgements when producing readings of canonical texts, and they would consider it ridiculous to hold Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the same standard as they do Little Dorrit. (For example, because of the obligations imposed by writing for network television, as though Dickens wasn’t writing a serial under equally rigorous commercial and formal constraints.) Anything less generous makes us anxious about turning into cultural conservatives a la Harold Bloom. But, in the process, we condescend to what they propose to analyze, and pay the price: our analyses are novelties, interesting but marginal. A site like Television Without Pity has no problem criticizing episodes of Buffy, because it truly, without strain, considers the other episodes among the best that is thought and said.