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Last month’s MLA-bashing controversy, which surfaced here, at Invisible Adjunct, and at Chun the Unavoidable (among other locations), quickly came to circle around the question of “difficulty,” and in particular whether the perceived abstruseness of contemporary literary theory and criticism are warranted. Or, as John Holbo put it, “exactly when, and for what reasons, is literary criticism justified in being too hard for the average Chronicle of Higher Education journalist to read?”

This question has resurfaced for me in the last couple of days. I’ve begun reading, for unrelated purposes, Michael Bérubé‘s Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers, and last night ran across the following passage, quoted from Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s 1988 MLA Presidential Address:

This is one reason, perhaps, why research in other fields — economics, genetics, physics, and so forth — can be, without complaint or criticism, difficult for members of the general public to understand or indeed totally incomprehensible to them, but not research in literary studies. (I mentioned the sciences, of course, but the contrast holds as well for other humanities disciplines: archaeology, classics, philosophy, etc.) The difference is that literary studies, and especially English, is, for many people — including, it seems, many journalists — not a discipline at all. English is simply their own native language, which is understood by anyone who speaks, reads, and writes it; and the only thing that makes English professors special is that — being, perhaps, unable to do anything else — they have chosen to get paid full-time for doing what everybody else does part-time and could do full-time if they were not so busy holding down real jobs.

Not much has changed in 15 years, I’m afraid; questions about whether the “difficulty” of literary criticism is warranted seem to me still directly tied to questions about whether the field is warranted. What I’m curious about now is how those convictions, that studying literature is not a “real job,” become internalized within the profession, both across the curriculum — such as the all-too-common experience of the social-scientist dean who refuses to understand why the English department matters, other than as a locus for the teaching of writing — and even within the discipline itself. We’re an intensely self-questioning, self-doubting bunch; witness the periodic recurrence of articles asking (or suggesting responses when students ask) “why study English?” in venues such as Profession.

The issue seems to me to rest precisely in the “profession,” in the sense that what we as professors of literature do, both inside and outside the classroom, is a pursuit worthy of the investment of institutional time and resources, and thus a field whose difficulty, whose professionalization, is warranted. As Bérubé points out, arguments against professionalization surface on both the political right and left, and both outside and within the field:

Antiprofessionalism may actually be almost a standard, permanent feature of our discipline: not only because professionalism is considered ‘a threat to individual freedom, true merit, genuine authority’ (Fish 1985, 106) but also because literary professionals inhabit an institution formed in the culture of professionalism but unsure that its machinery for professional self-advancement is sufficiently balanced and justified by the services it provides to its clients, whoever these may be. (23-24)

Bérubé further cites Jonathan Culler’s Framing the Sign on the two models under which universities operate: “The first makes the university the transmitter of a cultural heritage, gives it the ideological function of reproducing culture and the social order. The second makes the university a site for the production of knowledge” (33). Bérubé finally combines these two models within the notion of canon revision, suggesting that the academic study of literature is most important in “its revision of its cultural heritage…. By means of this revision, one might argue, the academy seeks both to ‘transmit’ and ‘produce’ knowledge, to be a cultural archive that takes an active role in the creation of its exhibits” (28).

While this conclusion is absolutely apropos within the context of Bérubé’s argument (about Pynchon and Tolson and their respective places in the canon), it doesn’t finally satisfy my questions about the cultural anxieties that seem to surround “difficulty” and professionalization in literary studies. It seems to me that certain fields — the hard sciences and many of the social sciences, in particular — are widely assumed to operate under the second of Culler’s models, and are given no grief for doing so. Many of the humanities, however, and particularly departments of literature, are expected to operate under the first model, and what new knowledge such departments produce is assumed to be restricted to the discovery, preservation, and presentation of forgotten elements of that cultural heritage. Why is the exploration of new ways of reading — also known as literary theory — seen as less significant, and more obfuscatory, than new things to read? Is there a way out of this double-bind, in which the profession faces the failure to be taken seriously, on the one side, and ridicule for its difficulty, on the other?

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