The art of darkness

December 17, 1999

Humanities departments are now characterised by 'catastrophic disorganisation and disillusionment', outgoing MLA president Edward Said tells Tim Cornwell

The Modern Language Association gathers this season in Chicago, once again diverted to the wintry but liberal north under an ordinance barring the association from meeting in any city where sodomy remains a crime - most cities in the south of the United States. Seven hundred and ninety-three sessions and about 8,500 people, even in an off year. The jobs crisis has eased, the culture wars are gone. Underpaid, ill-employed graduate students have the feeling that their plight is being addressed, and the number of advertised academic jobs is finally rising. The MLA programme for Chicago gives a snapshot of literary scholars embracing all kinds of theories while boldly extending the frontiers of their field.

The MLA's president for 2000, the University of Toronto's Linda Hutcheon, embraces this diversity. "In the 1980s everybody seemed a deconstructionist, everyone was a feminist five years before that. All of these things have found a place. I see a real value in the expansion of the curriculum," she says. "We are heading towards a stage where nothing is dominant and everything is open to consideration."

There is, however, a note of self-doubt this winter, voiced, curiously, by the outgoing president. Edward Said, the scholar who critiqued traditional western teaching as an instrument of colonial thought, now complains that his students do not read the works of the 18th-century Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. Said has spent his year at the top of the MLA lamenting not just the obscure vocabulary of academic writing, but that English departments are so wrapped up in theory that they no longer teach students literature.

In an interview with The THES, he complains of a "catastrophic disorganisation and disillusionment" within humanities departments and of a perception that "we are in receivershipI we can't agree on anythingI there's a widespread feeling that it is no longer clear what it is that English departments are supposed to be doing". Said, professor of English at Columbia University, plans to talk at Chicago on the massive change in the basis for literary studies: "there are so many (types of studies) that one can't bank on the same approaches and confidence of the past". The positive aspect, he says, is the "new floating context" for humanism, a collective memory that has expanded vastly to include Chinese, Islamic and Indian humanisms.

The down side is that the status of the humanities is so precarious. "In my own department, I find it very odd that very few courses address literature. It used to be required that a student would take courses on literature from Beowulf through to Virginia Woolf. We still have a sequence but it is no longer required. We have a lot of courses on Jacques Derrida, post-colonial studies, gay studies, ethnic studies, Afro-American studiesI" There is a central pushing-out, he says, from a presumed core of literary texts that no longer has pride of place. Last year, Said gave a course on Swift at Columbia because he thought you should not get a degree in English without reading Swift. When he asked who had read the satirist's writings, five out of 25 students raised their hands, and they had read only Gulliver's Travels.

In The New York Review of Books last month, Columbia University's Andrew Delbanco described a sense of malaise in literary studies, detecting a tone in current writing on the subject "somewhere between a coroner's report and an elegy". Everyone knows, he wrote, that "if you want to locate the laughing-stock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English department". Noting the decline of English PhDs from their 1970s peak, Delbanco said that literature as a field still showed "plenty of intelligence and passion", but that "its constituency and resources are shrinking while the subject is expanding". While sub-fields such as feminism, gay and lesbian, and post-colonial studies are illuminating closed aspects of literature, "much of the theory is tendentious or obscure".

Poking holes in the MLA is a habitual sport of journalists, but it is not confined to them. The journal Philosophy and Literature has used an annual bad writing contest to skewer incomprehensible critical writing. "Foucauldian discourse. Cultural relativism. Hegemonic construction. Postmodernism," ran a recent article in The Dallas Morning News. "These terms can be about as clear to the average reader as a physics exercise in quantum mechanics."

Masao Miyoshi, professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, has a slightly different take on humanities' troubles. In a contemporary department, he says, feminists vie with ethnic groups, disciplinary scholars hold cultural studies in contempt, novelists look down on creative writers, and so forth. Delbanco suggests that revival will follow only when English professors "recommit themselves to slaking the human craving for contact with works of art".

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