I am disappointed with my humanities education. Why would I say such a thing?
Well, this is something I really ended up thinking by reviewing my textbook for an introductory English Honours course I took last year. The first chapter is about the ways in which literary studies have been moving forward in recent years, and it's a depressing snapshot of exactly what constitutes literary studies nowadays. The book is "Literary and Cultural Theory" by Donald E. Hall.
First, I have to say that, just today, I was talking with a classmate of mine who is interested in cultural studies, and she had said that she would have loved me to have attended class on Monday (I skipped, thinking it was a holiday), because a certain presentation on psychoanalysis would have really made me "angry." I guess I have the reputation of anti-theory literary palaeontologist. Well, in my defense I admitted that I had recently been putting a lot of feminist criticism to use in my writing, because regardless of their political aims, their observations are often useful. This was a big step for me---picture the archetype of the cartoon villain's change of heart.
Looking at this textbook, even in the introduction, I'm filled with a renewed sense of unrest. Here are a few choice quotations:
In many ways, aesthetic analysis began as social analysis, with Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) working to define the social role of art and what effects drama and poetry should have on their audience (see Chapter 1). Thus at its inception, literary criticism had clear ties to sociopolitical critique, even though such ties were forgotten or even repudiated in later centuries.Mr Hall goes on to use Horace, Sidney, Pope, Coleridge and Arnold as people guilty of having "forgotten" their Plato and Aristotle. He concludes this paragraph by describing where such "forgetters" of Plato went wrong:
Of course, implicit social standards and political judgements are apparent throughout such writings... but their [said judgements'] importance was largely denied or downplayed by philosophers and theorists as aesthetic and critical "truth" was sought, with that "truth" often assumed to be a real, fixed, and discoverable entity.If only these people would read Plato more carefully, says Hall, they would realize that there's no such thing as absolute truth! It's too bad that the brilliant cultural theorist and anti-realist Plato has been so unfortunately misconstrued by notions of absolute and discoverable "truth."
Maybe my sarcasm is showing here, so I'll move on to his description of the shift of focus in literary studies, which he conveniently begins by divorcing cultural studies from the admittedly "extreme" isolation methods of New Criticism:
If literary texts were not transcendent entities wholly separate from society, if they were instead products of social forces and belief systems that demanded critique and change [notice how there's no middle ground here], then literary critics were able, and even expected, to probe beyond the formal limits of the text; many redefined themselves as social critics working openly to achieve certain political goals through the study of cultural forms.Here's where the heroic quest begins for the cultural theorist, Hall says, using adventurous stock phrases like "prob[ing] beyond," "achiev[ing]," and formalist approaches as "limit[ing]," "extraordinarily narrow" (earlier in the same chapter), "demand[ing] critique and change." Check out this especially optimistic sentiment:
New forms of literary and cultural analysis encourage innovative thinking and dense sociopolitical inquiry, as long as the text itself provides evidence that can be used to support generalizations and defend a well-articulated thesis.Pray, where is the text in this? Why, at work "defending" the "well-articulated thesis," of course! By "provid[ing] evidence," students can conveniently choose texts that allow "innovative thinking and dense sociopolitical inquiry." In the end, what matters isn't the text at all, but what is provided by the text as a means for sociopolitical inquiry, in the hopes of creating radical change! Boy, good thing mommy got me a library card when I was little, and I did good in English in high school, so I could take it in university and learn how to feed political activist movements!
One final gem from Hall:
The first key to successful literary and cultural analysis is enthusiasm for the project at hand... One of the most noteworthy aspects of the newest forms of literary criticism is that such enthusiasm is often generated by a profound sense of political commitment as well as an energizing sense of intellectual commitment.
My poor, poor English department! Why couldn't it have been the Sciences? Why couldn't some science student have stood up and said "Science is boring! I don't believe in science! What I really want to do is study the ways in which these textbooks attempt to create meaning but really only reflect the prejudices of the society in which they are created, or analyze the psyche of the individual who composed the textbook, or discover ways in which the textbook feeds my political agenda! After all, enthusiasm is the first key to success in academic research, right? And what I'm enthusiastic about is political activism! Che Guevara is SO COOL!"
Screw the tradition of humanities and their patriarchal ethnocentric presuppositions! Fight the system! The fight begins... in the English Department!