Judith Halberstam thinks the Department of English needs to go:
I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism. While we may all continue doing what we do — reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies — once we call it something other than “English,” (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.) it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general, or within administrative plans for down-sizing; it will also, I propose, be better equipped to meet the inevitable demands (which already began to surface after the last election) for an end to liberal bias on college campuses and so on.
I heartily endorse this idea. By all means, let Halberstam and her confreres establish a new Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations. This would allow them to do what they most dearly wish to do--distance themselves from the study of mere literature--and would further allow whatever renegade elements there are within the exisiting English deparment who still find themselves interested in the "merely literary" either to reclaim "English" as the name for what they study or perhaps to join in on the makeover fun and establish a Department of Literary Study, in which what actually goes on is the study of literature. The latter could perhaps be done by incorporating extant creative writing programs, and such a department would probably continue to offer traditional composition and linguistics courses. (Surely administrators would not want to entrust such courses to a department that otherwise focuses on "the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies." This very phrasing suggests that professors in the new department would not be the logical choice to teach courses the goal of which is to teach students to write.)
I believe that such a bifurcation of English would turn out to be a swell deal for us renegades. Given a choice between the PDPWCM department and its ersatz sociology and a Literary Study department honestly devoted to studying literature, I predict that many undergraduate students would turn to the latter. After all, most English majors have traditionally been drawn to the discipline simply because they like to read. If departments of English and comparative literature are currently suffering "massive declines in enrollment," as Halberstam herself allows they are, I'd suggest that one of the reasons is that what students find when they get there--and what they would continue to find in the PDPWCM department--is a pedantic, turgid, supercilious, and utterly joyless approach to reading. Should the new department of Literary Study reemphasize some of the pleasures of reading, and some of the delight of discovery in the study of literature, it would do just fine in a competition to avoid "down-sizing."
Michael Berube doesn't much care for Halberstam's proposal, for reasons that aren't very clear. "[No] kind of renaming or reorganizing is going to make English a coherent, tidy discipline," he writes. "It would be hard enough to make it coherent if it were devoted solely to literature. . ." Berube doesn't seem to understand: Halberstam is advocating that those very tendencies in academic criticism that make English as it now stands incoherent be transferred to the PDPWCM department. The English department left behind would be entirely coherent, despite Berube's doubts. Without those scholars more interested in "cultural production" and "hegemonies" than in works of fiction or poetry or drama, other scholars and critics who think studying such works as forms of literary art is a perfectly nice thing to do would be left alone to get on with the task. Berube continues: "literature, as even the most hidebound traditionalists ought to admit one of these days, is a terribly amorphous thing that touches on every conceivable facet of the known world—and, as if this weren’t enough, many facets of worlds yet unknown as well. . . ." I'm not a hidebound traditionalist--in my version of a Department of Literary Study, periodization and other manifestations of curricular slicing would be absent; professors would be free to teach what they want to teach, as long as the ultimate goal was to understand the literary qualities of literature--but in my experience literature is a perfectly morphous subject. Individual works of literature certainly do explore "every conceivable facet of the known world," but the study of literature concentrates on delineating the way they do this, not on using literature as an excuse to pronounce on such "facets" oneself.
What Halberstam and Berube share, ultimately, is a plain impatience with if not disdain for trifling old literature. Halberstam sneers at the notion of "aesthetic complexity," notes approvingly the way "queer theory, visual culture, visual anthropology, feminist theory, literary theory began to nudge the survey courses, the single-author studies and the prosody classes aside," recommends that the study of Victorian literature be replaced with "studies of 'Empire and Culture,' romanticism with “the poetries of industrialization.” Berube wants to preserve close reading as "our distinct product line," as "what we sell people" (so much for resisting the corporatization of academe), but reduces such readings to "skills in advanced literacy," something that promotes students' "own symbolic economy." Besides, "you don’t have to confine yourself to literary works, either. You can go right ahead and do close readings of any kind of 'text' whatsoever, in the most expansive sense of that most expansive word." Berube forgets that "close reading" was developed specifically as a method of reading literary works, which required close reading because they don't give up their intended meanings so easily, are not storage centers of "meaning" at all but occasions for a reading experience of a distinctive kind. His appropriation of "close reading" is really just a theft of the term for purposes to which true close reading is simply not applicable. (But of course the New Critics have become the collective bogeymen of contemporary literary study, returning now and then from their repressed state to scare the children. They and their appalling practices must be warded off.)
Really and truly, the best thing that could happen to literature would be, once the Department of Patterns and Disturbances of Patterns Within Cultural Manifestations (or some equally dreary equivalent) was actually created, for it to disappear from academic curricula altogether. After eighty years of experimenting with the study of literature as an academic subject, those carrying it out (myself included) have made a complete hash of it. Literature itself is held in contempt not just by the majority of ordinary people but by those professing to teach it. "Literature Professor" has become a near-synonym of "lunatic." That literary study would come to such an end was probably inevitable, since the primary imperative of academe--to create "new" knowledge--is finally inimical to something so difficult to dress up in fashionable critical clothes as serious works of fiction or poetry. Once it was perceived that "aesthetic complexity" was a spent force (at least as the means for producing new monographs and journal articles), approaches to literature that essentially abandoned its consideration as an art form were practically certain to follow. If Judith Halberstam is proposing that, in this context, everyone should acknowledge that the experiment failed, she's performing a useful service. Give literature back to the amateurs.
(Thanks to Scott Esposito for providing both of these links.)