I do not intend for this weblog to become obsessed with the academy or an excuse for my recurrent attacks on academic criticism, although since I am trained as an academic critic and continue to monitor such criticism, I probably will occasionally comment on developments in this corner of what we might still want to call the literary world. The current posting is occasioned by 3 articles/essays that have appeared recently that do provide an opportunity to assess current attitudes toward literature in the academy.
The January 27 issue of the Christian Science Monitor contains an article, "Theory in Chaos," that purports to reveal that literary theory no longer has the appeal among academic critics it had a decade ago. While this may be true (pure theory has been out of fashion even longer than that), it does not follow that the academy is returning to the study of "literature itself." Certain political orientations (feminism, Marxism) unquestionably still obtain, but these approaches are themselves now put in the service of what is generically called "cultural studies," which increasingly dominates most up-to-speed English departments. Cultural studies approaches literature as just another form of expression (just another kind of "text") to be examined for its cultural and political implications. In other words, literary study in these departments is becoming merely a branch of sociology. The "traditionalists" referred to in the article are no closer to regaining control of the study of literature than they were in the salad days of high theory.
In the January 16 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Peter Brooks reviews Gerald Graff's Clueless in Academe. Even more than the title itself, Graff's subtitle says it all: "How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind." I actually have great respect for Gerald Graff, who has been willing to consider the state of higher education, and the place of literature more broadly, with honesty and in plain language. However, even though Graff at least implicitly concedes that the study of literature no longer plays a significant role in the academic curriculum, he doesn't show much concern for it once this has been granted. Instead, his commitment is still to the academy--or to the "life of the mind" more broadly--and he continues to look for ways to reconfigure the curriculum so that English professors, at least, continue to have a role to play. As Brooks points out, Graff now focuses on the teaching of English composition as a way to maintain some integrity in the English curriculum. (Previously he had emphasized the possibility of accenting the "conflicts" among different approaches to literature, but that has not worked out so well.)
In ths same issue of the TLS, Patrick Wormald, a Cambridge don, has an essay, "The Proper Study," that rehearses all of the familiar arguments for retaining the Humanities as a core part of the academic curriculum. Wormald's arguments are all cogent enough, but by now such a brief on behalf of the "elevating" and "humanizing" benefits of the study of the humanities, in this case specifically history, sounds like mere boilerplate. It is precisely this insistence that we get our history and our literature from attending "the university," in fact, that has bleached both endeavors of all visible color. Both Graff and Wormald take for granted that the life of the mind, an interest in history, a love of literature, are all synonymous with occupying a place, as student or as teacher, in the academy. Why should this be so? Inevitably, as has happened with literature, the priorities of academe take precedence over the substance of the "subjects" being taught, so that something like the current mess that is literary study becomes more or less inevitable.
Somehow or other, literature needs to be rescued from those in the academy who have almost tortured it to death. One reason I have become interested in the weblog phenomenon is that it might potentially become part of such an effort, along with the appearance of literary web journals and other literary sites that seek alternative ways of publishing creative and critical work (and perhaps with a move by mainstream literary magazines to revive general interest literary criticism). Literature--embodied in its writers and its readers--has nothing to lose but its soul.