Look Back In Anger: The Death of Literary Studies

(x-posted to The Valve)

Amardeep Singh at The Valve drew my attention to this article by William Deresiewicz, writing for The Nation, and also to the outstanding response written by CR and posted to Ads Without Products and Long Sunday.

This is Deresiewicz:

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the “conflicts” still exist, but given the larger context in which they’re taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

CR responds:

The decline of the English major has corresponded with the decline of two complexly, but distinctly, related things. They are: the reign of theory and what we might call the politicized classroom. These two factors are complexly related, in my mind, because I’m mostly sure that the politics of theory, as practiced by English departments, wasn’t much of a politics at all, and certainly wasn’t a politics with any (easy) applicability in the real world. Further, the de-politicization of the classroom is something that I’d mostly attribute not simply to the failure of theory, but mostly to the changing atmosphere after 9/11, when conservative attacks on “liberal bias” were front and center in the news […] I am beginning to feel that students have felt the change in the atmosphere of the English department and have responded by finding other subjects in which to major.

Amardeep, in his post, links to a terrifically helpful report from 2001-2002 to ground his point that “theory” has not been responsible for the decline of the English major.

I am on my way to responding to a fascinating special issue of the Yale Journal of Criticism (Vol. 18, No. 2), edited by Michael Szalay and Valve contributor Sean McCann, entitled “Essays on the Sixties from Some Who Weren’t There,” and featuring Szalay and McCann’s own essay “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left.” So, in some ways, this post is a prelude. It is also a reflection on what it means to be apprenticing for a profession that Deresiewicz, an Associate Professor at Yale, thinks “is, however slowly, dying.” To put this in perspective, the job Deresiewicz currently holds is, for anybody in my position, more or less the pinnacle of their professional hopes ten years out.


Rather than letting “the decline of the English major” remain an abstraction, let me give some particulars of my own experience. When I was getting my B.A. in English, of my eight closest friends, five were either English or Comparative Literature majors; all had taken part in an intensive humanities program freshman year that included housing all the participants together. By senior year, there was absolutely no distinction between our academic work and the rest of our time. We were working on essays and theses about Henry James, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Samuel Beckett, and so on; we were writing our own manifestos, poems, and really long emails; we were drinking cheap vodka (or sometimes some new thing purchased with fledgling credit cards, like cinnamon schnapps) and watching Barfly, High Fidelity, or a student production of Dangerous Liaisons. I’d throw a party, my friend would sit cross-legged on the floor, soliloquizing about track 13 on Exile on Main Street and then disappearing home to write a story called “Rocket Queen.” A series of intensely heated arguments about Heidegger, conducted mostly at around three in the morning, led me to an independent study on Being and Time and my first real introduction to Continental philosophy and “theory.”

By 2002, one year after graduation, my girlfriend at the time had completed her M.A. in Slavic Literature at Stanford, with plans to write and direct for the stage; my other five friends had been accepted to graduate programs in English (Cornell, U. of Chicago), Comparative Literature (U. Penn), and Slavic Literature (UC Berkeley). I began graduate studies in English at UC Irvine in 2003.

Of those five people, one is still in graduate school doing literary studies; she is currently on the job market. My friend who majored in Slavic Literature, once he realized the kind of work he would be allowed to do (historicizing work on lesser-known Russian authors), switched to graduate work in computer science. The rest dropped out in order to attend law school.

When my roommate at Irvine, a new friend and a remarkable scholar, and yet another college friend switched from literature to law school in the space of a year, I remember telling my parents that the discipline had lost its edge. Nothing was “happening,” as we say, and young intellectuals were looking for other ways to have a social impact, or other careers to pursue while they worked on their own poems and novels.

In the four years since then, things have gotten much worse. This is particularly true in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger has continually sought to cut funding for higher education, but it is true everywhere in the United States. There are practical problems: increased fees and overhead costs, shrinking budgets for grants, less guaranteed teaching, fewer tenure-track jobs. This financial squeeze is one cause of a rash of damaging wars within literary studies, and academia more generally, that illustrate how desperate the situation has become.

For example, there is the spectacle of professors calling for the reform or elimination of tenure, using the same specious arguments that conservatives used during the first Bush Administration about tenured high school teachers; in essence, the idea is to treat teachers like salesmen working on commission. There are also media outlets like The New York Times calling for taxes on university endowments, then supplementing that with reminders that professors aren’t no better than anybody else, and shouldn’t be so uppity. At his blog Acephalous, Scott Kaufman took on the unenviable job of calling out K.C. Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College who created a sensation by fearlessly exposing “political correctness” among fellow professors at Duke.

About a year and a half ago, at the Valve, I wrote:

The ideological differences between Badiou and Michaels, or Zizek and Michaels, are not trivial. (Neither are the differences between Zizek and Badiou.) I am not suggesting that the well-rehearsed disagreements between Lacanians and historicists can be easily overcome. Nonetheless, my belief in the projects of universalism and equality leave me out of patience with the refusal to recognize common ground.

I am reminded of the chapter “The Great Petulance,” from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain: “What was it, then? What was in the air? A love of quarrels. Acute petulance. Nameless impatience. A universal penchant for nasty verbal exchanges and outbursts of rage” (673, trans. Woods). The great petulance follows the death of Mynheer Peeperkorn in Mann; for us, it has followed the death of the brilliant and charismatic figure of Derrida.

I now believe that the kind of reconciliation I hoped for in that post will not arrive, at least not without significant clashes coming first. It’s the nature of the blogosphere to invite articulate conflict, of course, but even so I’ve watched one conversation after another in which I participated, and which I thought were cordial dialogues about academia, quickly become bitter disputes. (I should add that in the time since that post, it has become clear that Slavoj Zizek can’t replace Derrida. His fatuous and repetitive lists of political “ironies,” e.g. that Whole Foods is just another capitalist organ, have begun to alienate even his most devoted followers.)

As things stand, there are basically four schools of thought about literary studies:

(1) Critical thinking and writing skills. Some academics believe that the primary value of literary studies is in teaching marketable writing skills, along with “critical thinking,” which is basically the ability to separate yourself from received ideas and representations, and fits with old Jeffersonian ideas about a democratic citizenry. These people are usually the most eager to sink literary studies into broader writing and rhetoric programs, and they like to try to reach students by using multimedia and the Internet (e.g. applying critical thinking skills to a YouTube video). Politically, they advocate a sort of deliberative centrism that in the United States reads as “Democratic.”

The biggest problem with this is that all humanities scholars are qualified to teach writing and critical thinking; these general skills have no special relationship to literary studies.

(2) Historicism. Considering historicism as a whole school of thought, one that has gathered momentum now independent of Michel Foucault and even Stephen Greenblatt, the project is a Marxist project that seeks to explain the material foundations for ideological products (i.e. literary works). There is some lingering regard here for the literary in and of itself, insofar as these literary critics believe that literature represents and preserves ideology in ways other artifacts do not.

This approach blurs the lines between history and literary studies, but the deeper problem is one of sensibility: this particular version of Marxism condescends to its subjects. Because historicism suppresses the counterfactual element in literature — imaginative leaps in excess of historical givens, and frequently opposed to them — it comes off as both pedestrian and pessimistic.

If this seems excessively harsh, consider how many historicist works center on claims about a) popular scientific errors of the time, b) wishful utopianism or progressivism, c) wishful literary solutions to real and perhaps insoluble problems, or d) secret sympathies between a narrative and the prevailing social hierarchy.

(3) The mandarins. This group represents the strange alliance between scholars who have disappeared into the labyrinth of theoretical debate, and scholars who have made aesthetics, in some “purified” form, their justification and refuge. It encompasses both spiraling Zizekian or Derridean ironies as well as Harold Bloom’s gasps of awe. This group mainly consists of academics who already have tenure, or other people in relatively privileged situations, and gets some support (at least on the blogs) from people outside academia who like to think of literature and philosophy as lofty, removed realms. Stanley Fish’s “Think Again” columns fall very much in this category.

(4) The militants. A group that no longer exists, and so will have to be invented. In Saint Paul, Alain Badiou writes in the prologue that “there is currently a widespread search for a new militant figure [on the order of Paul]—even if it takes the form of denying its possibility—called upon to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of this century, which can be said to have been that of the party militant” (2).

I’m amused by Badiou’s notion of a widespread search: it brings to mind comic book scenarios of searching for a hero or a cure, and perhaps also the image of bloodhounds sniffing out a forest. In truth, no such search is really underway. The very idea is horrifying to professors most invested in teaching critical thinking, who see their job as teaching resistance to militancy and dogmatism. It is equally annoying to many other academics who believe that literature and philosophy are not the proper arenas for militancy, either because culture is ineffectual at producing radical change, or because it is a distant Olympus of intellectual pleasure.

What does it mean to speak of militancy within literary studies? It means passionate commitment to a way of living in the world, one that feels itself to be somewhat at odds with its own time. I love what CR has to say about the rise of self-censorship and phony irony during political discussions with students, but I am also certain that the answer is not just making extreme political statements. The vitality of contemporary popular music is based in part on its association with ways of living life: hedonism, excess, self-expression, community. The glamour that attaches to writing fiction and poetry gains similarly from our notion of that life: among recent critical successes, one might look at Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which is joyously concerned with the communities of bohemians and would-be artists in Mexico. This delight in the absolutism of living through art is equally there in Annie Dillard’s ascetic experiments in sharpened consciousness, and in Jonathan Lethem’s version of nerdy urban hip. When I think back on my engagement with literature and art in college, it was an essential part of a whole life I was living at that time. It is not merely that no major theoretical school has emerged since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, as Deresiewicz writes — it is also that one can trace the decline of that work’s meaningfulness in Butler’s persistent effort afterwards to detach her queer studies from the lived experiences of alternative lifestyles, alternative communities, and drag. It is really any wonder that our private conversations come to linger more on the films of Pedro Almodovar or on camp films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, where drag is not merely the subject, but is also allowed to be present? Yet that arc repeats itself everywhere in the profession.

In short, militancy is another word for idealism, both in the sense of hopefulness, and in the sense of living according to ideas, taken broadly to include all forms of intentional representation. It sounds very adolescent, surely, and yet there is something strange in Deresiewicz’s complaint that “the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.” This isn’t true at all; the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by the condescending notions of adults about what makes something feel relevant to younger persons, as well as by our own preference for “sexy” topics, identity myths, and multimedia. In fact, the alienated attitude our students adopt derives from the distance we ourselves keep from the literature in question. Furthermore, education always defines itself in relation to youth: without its ardor and skepticism, there would be no Socratic dialogues, no Emile, nor any other treasure of pedagogy.


What the profession is experiencing now is less an absolute decline than it is a drop-off following an unprecedented boom in the 1960s; historically speaking, the 1960s were an anomalous period of extraordinary interest in literary studies. In my next post, I will examine how then-popular ideas about culture, identity, and experience created this boom, the backlash against those ideas, and why that backlash has finally led to the presently underwhelming state of literary studies and Continental philosophy.