Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What we do.

In a recent workshop on "The Discipline of Literary Studies," a professor of mine discussed with a group of us just exactly what it is that we do, why we do it, and how it ought to (not) be justified.

This (unfortunately only visiting-) professor had a number of insights about the state of and nature of our field. A few of the more compelling ones are:

He told us that a recent trend he's noticed in young literary scholars fresh out of graduate school (applying for jobs) is their attempt at distancing themselves from moral questions and, perhaps correspondingly, a renewed interest in earlier periods (the 18th century and earlier), whereas in previous years there had been a heavy emphasis on the 20th century. I believe this holds somewhat true in my department... there is a pretty heavy concentration of interest in the 18th and 19th centuries, but probably equally many people are studying the 20th, even late 20th century.

The most important things to come out of Germanistik in the last century are:

  1. The Frankfurt School
  2. System Theory (to a lesser degree)
  3. Holocaust/Memory Studies

He also believes that it is of singular importance that the different disciplines preserve the integrity of their theoretical framework and not venture too far into interdisciplinarity.

Instead of handwringing about the fate of our discipline, he suggests that discussion can produce "productive friction." Projecting our troubles onto other agencies undermines our autonomy as a social unit.

A groundbreaking field that will greatly impact literary studies in the future: neurobiology and neuropsychology. He likens cognitive science and neurobiology to the new psychoanalysis.

Without trying to summarize or synthesize the entire conversation, which went on for almost two hours and had no real conclusion, I'd like to make the following observations.
  1. I haven't discussed the nature and fate of our discipline in such detail with anyone. Ever.
  2. I haven't heard professors (or fellow students, often) discuss our field in such big-picture, sweeping terms.

I worry a great deal about the motivation of studying literature and whether or not I'm actually going to be making any kind of positive difference in the world with my work. I believe very strongly in the capability of ordinary people to make changes in the world and I worry fairly often that by climbing the Ivory Tower to read for a living I've taken myself out of any kind of useful position. Is this not something that other people think about? Am I the only scholar of my generation worrying about this? Surely not, but it's certainly not something we discuss very often.

This talk clearly touched a couple of people's nerves, in clearly different ways. One bristled visibly at our discussion of moralizing scholarship dealing with the Holocaust (a.k.a. "the period between 1939 and 1945") and one seemed to see the moral tack as one possible way of justifying our field. I don't know where I stand on the moral question. I want to immediately say that yes, I do believe that scholarship ought to distance itself from a moral standpoint and that yes, I do write critical works without bringing morals into it, but then again, I think I may be drawn to study the things I study specifically because of their moral weight and thrust.

And why don't our professors and advisors talk about this? Presumably because they've settled their own worries (if they ever had them). The professor leading this workshop said that we don't have to have a world-saving, life-saving motivation to justify our discipline. We can study for the sake of study. And, furthermore, we can study something just because we find it interesting. "And if it doesn't interest you, I can't do anything for you." So much for my critique of the word interesting, I suppose.


Andrea D said...

just found your blog. (hope you don't mind me reading around in it.) I've been thinking for about a year and a half now about this stuff Mr. Visiting Professor brought up, and would love to discuss it with you sometime.

EEJ said...

Hey Andrea... I'm happy to have someone reading it! Be warned that most of it is totally inane, but I'm hoping to work hard-ish on it this summer. It's something I want to do to keep my non-course-related interests ticking over... Comment all over the place if you want to! Welcome!