Notes & Comments June 1993
On the MLA’s book Redrawing the Boundaries.
JAMES W. TUTTLETON WRITES: It is now official. We have it on the authority of the Modern Language Association, the largest organization of professors of language and literature in the U.S., that there is no longer a discipline, a profession, a vocation of literary studies—at least not in the university. Literary study nowadays, it is said, presents a condition of “methodological instability, even anarchy,” in which even the concept of literature has been abandoned as defunct. No longer, we are told, can the field “be comprehended within a single, cohesive frame.” The New Orthodoxy is that there isn’t one.
This, at least, is the dominant view expressed in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, a handbook of the New Orthodoxy edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn and recently published by the MLA. This collection of articles by twenty-four of the more radical enemies of literature testifies to the ways in which many beautiful works of art have been reduced to cannon fodder in the service of the feminist, gay, black, Marxist, new historicist, reader-response, deconstructionist, psychoanalytic, ethnic, and postcolonial ideologies. Chapters on these approaches and other critical fashions—as well as on historical periods from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the postmodern period—make it fairly plain that the folks who run the MLA regard literature as what Lee Patterson, in Negotiating the Past, has called an “agency for authoritarian and conservative forces . . . devised in order to enforce hegemonic interests.”
Redrawing the Boundaries also makes it plain that, so far as critical methods go, the editors are not going to waste any time with older conventional approaches: the biography of the author, editorial methods used to establish the text of his poem, the positivist historicism that described the poem’s social context, the New Critical “close reading” by which the “meaning” of the poem was established, the comparative assessment of poems and poets by which aesthetic judgments of worth and value are attained, etc. Instead, this collection aims to convert to the New Orthodoxy those “many members of the profession (and especially those burdened with heavy teaching loads who work at some distance from major centers of research activity)” who cannot keep “abreast of significant developments even in their own areas of expertise.”
Well, what are the significant developments? As a sign that the times are a-changin’, we learn that the term “Renaissance” must go since it “privileges” an age no different from any other (ditto for “the American Renaissance”); the “Enlightenment” had little to do with reason and generated no light; and, “far from being escapist or unreal, Romantic formal idealism remains as real as it gets.” Modernism and postmodernism are also futile efforts at periodicity in literary history. Likewise, we learn that “the lyric has lost its centrality in seventeenth-century studies and been replaced by less elitist genres such as the drama.” (Egalitarian politics must prevail, even over literature produced in monarchical or royalist societies.) If the Cavalier poets—graceful but “misogynistic”—are read, they must be negated by “newly available countervoices in the form of women poets and diarists or puritan controversialists writing at the same time.” (No sexism permitted, unless it receives a subliterary refutation.)
Not only is the author dead, as a concept, so is individual genius. The collectivist is in.
Shakespeare, we learn, deserves no special distinction since he “functioned much the same way as others we call hack dramatists—who produced for his company a steady supply of material over which he exerted none of the rights of ownership.” (Not only is the author dead, as a concept, so is individual genius. The collectivist is in.) Milton, we discover, is “a crabbed, inflexible figure whose chief interest is to trap the reader into seeing the world as the author insists we must.” (But no writer is going to capture us!) And Melville’s Moby-Dick expresses “the politics of imperialism, with Ahab exploiting Third World labor to plunder the globe’s natural resources.” (So much for Ahab’s Promethean quarrel with God.) Although the clitoris is “the appropriate figure, in rhetorical theory, for the trope of synecdoche itself,” feminism is more than “the grim agenda of a bunch of man-hating women’s libbers.” (What it is is still rather murky.) The old Marxists, according to the New Marxists, are guilty of “foundationalism and essentialism” in assuming the unity of the working class. (So now anything can sail forward under the banner of Karl and Friedrich.) We learn that the gay contingent deplores the “damaging bias toward heterosocial or heterosexist assumptions” in literature, while the psychoanalytic critics tell us that it really doesn’t matter: “one must assume one’s castration” since, as Lacan suggests, using Dad’s language makes us all victims of patriarchal culture. (Unless, of course, we are forced to speak the language of our white conqueror, in which case a postcolonial protest, in any language, is authorized as preferable to anything from the well of pure English undefiled.)
Literature—and the formal study of it in the university—has long exhibited a wonderful variety of genres, themes, techniques, and interests. But what makes the New Orthodoxy of the MLA so dismaying is that its contempt for literature as such (there I go, essentializing again) is spread not by ignoramuses, which we have always had with us, but by university professors themselves, who are the new cultural philistines. And by insisting that there is no discipline here, no center of study, only competing discourses or “rhetorics,” they also subvert a graduate education meant to prepare the next generation of teachers.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 10, on page 3
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