Terry Eagleton now appears to find the state of literary study to be as dreadful as he claims the late Edward Said found it to be. Given that both Eagleton and Said played major roles in bringing academic criticism to the dire straits in which it now has trouble maneuvering, it is on the one hand difficult to have much sympathy with Eagleton's own current displeasure. However, one might on the other hand see the later frustration of both Eagleton and Said as a welcome sign they had come to see their own contributions to the politicization of literary study to be a terrible mistake.
Yet, that Eagleton finally doesn't really get it is revealed to me, at least, in this seemingly innocuous comment about Said: "Said's concern was justice, not identity. He was more interested in emancipating the dispossessed than in celebrating the body or floating the signifier. As a major architect of modern cultural theory, he was profoundly out of sympathy with most of its cerebral convolutions, which he correctly saw as for the most part a symptom of political displacement and despair."
This is all well and good and, for that matter, I believe that Said (Eagleton as well) was indeed concerned with justice and with "emancipating the dispossessed." But why in the world would either of these men have thought that a good way of achieving these ends was to become literature professors in British and American universities? To the extent that both of them (Said more than Eagleton) actually took their concerns into the real world and acted on them in properly political ways, I admire them. To the extent they used their sinecures in academe to pollute literary study with political dogmatism, I find their actions pernicious in the extreme.
In championing Said's "humanism," Eagleton asserts that "What he is after. . .is what one might call a reconstructed or self-critical humanism--one that retains its belief in human value and in the great artistic works that embody it, but which has shed the elitism and exclusivism with which literary humanism is currently bound up. We would still read Dante and Proust, but we would also extend the very meaning of humanism in order to 'excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility.'" What I myself finally don't get about this project is why reading Dante and Proust would ultimately have anything to do with the desire to "excavate the silences," etc. What it does suggest is that it really is impossible to "teach" literature as an academic subject without in the end resorting to literature as a secondary means to "teach" something else entirely, whether it be humanism, postmodernism, gender studies, or all the other possible "approaches" one could take to not reading literature.
I would really not even have commented on Eagleton's brief essay-review if I hadn't also at about the same time read two very thoughtful and intelligent posts on academic weblogs dealing with the very subject of what's wrong with academic literary study. Erin O'Connor, who maintains the weblog Critical Mass, recently discussed her reasons for leaving her tenured position for a job teaching at an independent high school. Her reasons are all most honorable, and she should be commended for her decision. But this was the passage in her post that struck me as most revealing: "[Others who have made the same decision say] they are able to do the sort of intensive, personalized teaching they dreamed of doing as college teachers, but could not do in a higher ed setting; all say they feel more intellectually alive than they did in academe; and all say, too, that they have a much greater sense of purpose and of professional satisfaction than they did in academe. They are palpably happy, and the differences they are making in kids' lives are real and meaningful."
Even those academic scholars who don't have an allegiance to a particular agenda probably feel as O'Connor does about what their job is really all about. It's about making a difference in "kids' lives," about (ideally) "intensive, personalized teaching." I certainly wouldn't say I have an objection to any of this, but for O'Connor teaching literature is first about the teaching, not about the literature.
In an equally sensible reply to O'Connor, Tim Burke, in attempting to formulate solutions to the problems from which O'Connor is fleeing, writes that "Graduate pedagogy needs to shift its emphases dramatically to meaningfully prepare candidates for the actual jobs they ought to be doing as professors, to getting doctoral students into the classroom earlier and more effectively, to learning how to communicate with multiple publics, to thinking more widely about disciplines and research."
Again, this proposal is all about making academe a more congenial place for the teacher, and again I don't object to it per se, but I do note that neither in O'Connor's nor Burke's post, nor in Eagleton's essay, is there much consideration of the role literature itself plays in literary study. This disjunction seems to be so commonplace, so much taken for granted by "literary" academics, that it makes the academy seem an even more disembodied, insular place than it actually is. (And it truly is disembodied and insular.)
I don't have a proposal of my own for changing the situation. The prerogatives of academic life are always going to take precedence over a mere interest in or concern with the intricacies of literature. Teaching literature is not the same thing as writing it or even reading it. It may even not require that the teacher actually like or respect it. All of which suggests, perhaps, that literature would be better off if the teachers stayed away from it. At the moment, it certainly isn't benefiting from their ministrations.