Media Studies and Literary Studies

I was somewhat bemused to see the white paper recently released by the MLA, reporting to the Teagle Foundation on the goals and objectives of the undergraduate major in language and literature in the context of a liberal arts education. (From what I can tell, the report itself was actually released in December — as reported by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed — and posted on the MLA website or announced as available yesterday.) This paper argues strongly for the core values that have long rested at the heart of such an education (in particular, language proficiency as developed through and complemented by the careful reading of literature), while at the same time proposing to bring students into these majors by acknowledging and even including in the major the many other kinds of texts that comprise the contemporary cultural scene.

However, it’s clear that the center of gravity remains in a fairly dated definition of the literary in particular and of reading in general:

While we advocate incorporating into the major the study of a variety of texts, we insist that the most beneficial among these are literary works, which offer their readers a rich and challenging–and therefore rewarding–object of study. Our cybernetic world has brought us speed and ease of information retrieval; even where the screen has replaced paper, however, language still remains the main mode of communication. Those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment.

This is a move that has repeatedly been made by English departments, precisely the thing that gets them accused of a colonialist approach to interdisciplinary studies: incorporating the texts and methodologies studied in other fields, but only insofar as they shed light on the still narrowly defined category of the literary, and refusing to imagine that those other fields, methodologies, and texts might have their own histories and significances apart from the light that literary studies can shed on them. In part, this colonizing project is evidence of a field reacting against its apparent decline. One might see, for instance, Mark Bauerlein’s evaluation of the report, in which he sees “the realization that unless literature is defended, literary study will shrink with each media expansion. Long novels and complex poetry cannot compete on their own, not in a Web 2.0 universe. English and foreign-language professors are the guardians of them, and the MLA report is an inspiring example of that duty.” It’s fine, both Bauerlein and the MLA report seem to suggest, to use things like film to sex up the major enough to bring in the students, but once they’re in, they need to be taught what’s really important: print, and not just print, but literature. The understanding of reading presented here is as narrowly circumscribed as is the definition used by the NEA in its much-discussed reports, Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read — how can anyone be shocked that a small percentage of the population reads when reading is defined in such particular (and dare I say elitist) terms?

This kind of colonizing gesture is one of the reasons why a few of us on the executive council (or whatever it is we’re called) of the MLA’s discussion group on Media and Literature are scheming a change in that group’s title, making it simply “Media Studies.” If the MLA wants to read the texts that we read, in the ways that we read them, we’re happy to engage in that dialogue with them. But the organization, and the field of literary studies more broadly, needs to understand that media texts aren’t just the frosting on the literary cake; they are texts with their own histories and their own modes of study, and engagement with them requires literacies that include but are far from limited to a facility with language.

In short: the future of the literature major, it seems to me, is in media studies, in its interdisciplinarity, its openness, its acknowledgment both of the specific histories and literacies engaged and promoted by different media forms and of the multiplicity of ways those forms interact in an increasingly complex media culture. I encourage the MLA to think less about how media might be used to promote the primacy of literature than about how the notion of literature might be opened to interact with (rather than take over) the serious study of other kinds of cultural texts.


  1. I always cringe at those notions of the literary. It is elitist, I think.

    One thing I was thinking about as I read this was how when I give talks or conduct workshops on blogs, I almost always talk about blogs as a gateway to peer reviewed work. I know that’s an argument that can win as opposed to the argument I want to make, which is that blogs offer a rich reading experience in and of themselves, different, for certain, from journal articles, but still full of many of the nuances and complexities one finds in any text.

  2. There’s a colonization in another direction, too, of course, since in this paper English is claiming literacy for one of its particular projects. For decades (and still), literary studies has been at great pains to separate itself from rhetoric and composition/writing studies. But when it comes time to justify itself to itself, claiming that territory as its own — and consequently re-forming it as another site of the literary — becomes irresistible.

  3. “Those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the nimbleness and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment.” Interesting that slowness should be so readily equated with care and precision. Not a skill that wil get said students through (timed) essays or crammed termly reading lists. Overall, a sad insight into warped thinking that alert students should read carefully before opting for such courses…

  4. I’m clearly writing from another place here, as a committed media scholar with no formal disciplinary ties to literature or English, and I’m not trying to be confrontational. But I guess I’m not sure why Media Studies belongs within MLA, nor why film, TV and other electronic media are taught under the umbrella of literature today. There are obviously some intersections, just as there are connections between Literature and Art History, or History, or Computer Science. Perhaps a decade ago, literature departments were a natural foothold for film & media studies to gain entree to institutions that had yet to embrace them. But today we have generations of scholars trained in the study of media on their own terms, not as a stepchild to literature.

    All this is to say that if the MLA wants to prioritize literature, that makes sense to me. Just as it makes sense for media scholars to find disciplinary homes where media is a central, not peripheral, concern. So I must disagree with Kathleen – the future of the literature major should not be in media studies, as other media will always be regarded as subsidiary to literature within those traditions. What the future might bring is an inversion of the institutional commitments to these fields, where media studies programs become major anchors at institutions, and literature becomes a more marginal legacy field along the line of classics or philosophy.

    (OK, that came across as more confrontational as intended…)

  5. Thanks for the comment, Jason. I don’t entirely think you’re off base here — as soon as my blood stops boiling, I think, well, duh, why wouldn’t the MLA privilege language and literature as the core of a liberal education? But the problem that I’ve got is precisely the “umbrella” problem that you’re talking about: the organization, and the field it represents, has this appropriative desire to take in other kinds of texts and other methodologies without acknowledging their differences, and without truly accounting for the complex relationships they have with literature per se. On some perverse level I’d be fine with the MLA taking a harder-line Dana Gioia approach — we only value the study of full-length print-based texts of superior quality that produce an Arnoldian moral uplift — if they really stuck by it, and if the organization really understood itself as being focused on language and literature in that way — and, I suppose if they understood their work as being separate from but in at least a certain kind of dialogue around the edges with other modes of study of cultural texts and objects and interactions. Instead, the organization and the field it represents have long since made a kind of sideways shift into cultural studies, understanding somehow that the stuff cultural studies studies, and the way it studies, are more — relevant? compelling? — to the contemporary academy, but without fully accounting for the peculiarity of the cultural objects or methodologies involved, or being in full dialogue with the other fields and organizations that have been involved in the study of those objects or the use of those methodologies for decades. Hence, colonialism.

    So what I’m proposing in arguing that the discussion group change its name to “Media Studies” is two things — first, that if the MLA is interested in putting literary studies in dialogue with media studies, they’ve really got to do it, to acknowledge that media studies is a field with a history of its own, and that looking at media alongside literature doesn’t suffice; and second, to create a space in which they acknowledge that perhaps the kinds of reading performed by scholars of media studies might have much to contribute to scholars of literary studies, in the ways they define and understand their objects, and so forth.

    I’d also add that it would be lovely if media scholars were genuinely able to, as you say, “find disciplinary homes where media is a central, not peripheral concern,” but for many of us, that just hasn’t happened yet. Yes, SCMS added that M, but there are modes of mediated communication, production, and study that SCMS hasn’t fully come to grips with, at all. And the MLA has the opportunity to acknowledge that the borders of “literature” aren’t determined by print — that, in fact, textuality of the linguistic variety extends onto a range of platforms, and that the literature of the future is likely to appear on screens — but that fully dealing with those newer forms is going to require acknowledging and exploring the history of mediated communication in a deep way. Finding space within MLA for that exploration — like finding space within SCMS for textual media forms, for media that’s not time-based — might provide the space for a kind of interdisciplinary conversation that isn’t happening right now.

  6. Let me add another layer of complexity here to the points Jason and Kathleen raise. Part of me in the perverse way would like to see the MLA go the way, as Kathleen puts it, of Dana Gioia, insisting on the moral superiority of high quality print texts (prose and poetry) demanding that other textual mediums be brought under the service of these “high literary modes.” I think this would result in a sort of creative destruction where the MLA would go the way of classics relegated to a intellectual curiosity, studied by only a handful of faculty.

    I also think there are a set of skills which have been developed within the fields associated with the MLA (or at least partially developed) that are useful, indeed crucial to developing media studies. Now I suspect if the MLA went all conservative Mark Bauerlein-esque that many of the people doing the kind of work that intersects with media studies would migrate to a media studies discipline, again relegating MLA to a minor institutional force (perhaps this would take years, perhaps not, especially in institutions where Rhet/Comp has its own department). Ultimately I think this might be a good thing, but . . .

    I am not sure we can treat “Media Studies” as such a homogenous discourse, or at least one that can be understandable according to departmental and disciplinary models. For example, digital literature, clearly this belongs to the field of English studies. But there are a lot of things that fall under the rubric of media studies from film and television to social networks and digital journalism, more liminal cases which don’t so easily fit under/with MLA fields. In fact I think we are moving to a place where all of culture will have to be understood as mediated culture. Can we imagine one discipline where the faculty study digital journalism, social networks, ARGs, film, television, graphic novels, virtual worlds, political blogs . . .you get the idea. Perhaps we are talking about a more fundamental shift away from disciplinarity as a whole . . .

  7. I agree with much of what has been said here, and with much of the spirit of Kathleen’s reading of the report — especially regarding the dynamics of appropriation and disciplinary “colonization.” (Kathleen, I have been following your work with great interest, for some time, but haven’t posted here before now.) But let me add something, from what could certainly be taken as something of a progressive antimodernist or left-conservative position. I have to say that I cannot share the confidence I see expressed here, either about the future of literary studies moving to media studies (Kathleen), or about institutional commitments shifting from one to the other (Jason) — if only because it seems to me that in the overdeveloped world, the future of media studies itself, as a resource-intensive field of inquiry into disproportionately resource-intensive social behaviors, is inseparable from the future of U.S. consumerism, above all consumption of energy (some relevant, if typically superficial Slashdot debate can be found here: ).

    I think many of the better minds among more or less traditional literary scholars, these days, see the radical loss of trust in the technocratic order, in U.S. public culture today, as unprecedented. It’s only natural that that loss of trust is perceived as leaving an opening for “literature” again. Of course, the technocratic faction of literary studies itself receives this merely as a professional opportunity in the competitive arena. But that small-mindedness ought not to blind us, it seems to me, to the possibility that the world-historical pendulum has indeed reached its maximum angle.

  8. Here’s another media scholar saying that the whole conversation in MLA seems rather presumptuous. Sure, SCMS may have just added media to their name, but there are Communication Studies associations all over the world (and journals to go with them)–ICA and NCA in the United States–that have been dealing with questions of media for decades, not years. Media studies isn’t a field with a center like Lit has, but it has a rich interdisciplinary history that spans the humanities and social sciences: communication studies, journalism, history, anthropology, political science, economics, music, cultural studies, women’s studies, American Studies, art history, and the list goes on. Some work we’d now call “media studies” was marginal in its home field at the time it was done, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.. When scholars in literature suggest that the study or discussion media is a “new” thing, they can only mean new to them, since it is not new to the university, or even to literature departments for that matter, if one reads back several decades.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.