Englit must transform itself

April 16, 1999

Professors ofEnglish literature must become devotees of cultural studies, argues Anthony Eastope

Cultural studies has not had a good press. Literary journalists in particular tend to be antagonistic. They have usually been taught on the banks of the Isis or the Cam, sheltered from exposure to any study of culture besides good old-fashioned Englit. So they think liking a film or a pop song is straightforward and need not be taught because anyone can do it.

In 1999 English literature must transform itself into cultural studies. Transform itself, faster than it already is doing across the Anglophone world. The cult of Englit is now a relic kept safe in only the oldest, most respectable academies.

Englit - orthodox, canonical Englit; the great English authors monumentalised in their great works - was not established properly until the 1930s. It is founded on a belief that the great work contains some lasting feature that makes it what it is.

Defenders of great literature say it is a work of "imagination", while other writing is not. As a student, I read Coleridge on imagination, trying to find out what the word meant. I now realise it means the author's "personal life", which has got into the literary text. How does the author's real, lived experience cross the divide into a written work, as literature? And if it has got inside the work, is it really life any more?

Other candidates to define the permanent essence of great literature also face difficulties: "defamiliarisation" (Russian formalism), "foregrounding" (Prague School), "complexity" (American new criticism), "self-reflexivity" (various). However it is defined, no one has ever been able to show conclusively that literature secretes a special feature that is always the same. For some, this theory of the "magic ingredient" seems to be the only way to defend the value of literature studies.

This notion of value assumes that unless values are absolute there are no values at all. Surely we all know that values are historical. Without us, literature is silent. In order to speak, it has to be brought alive in the present, and this "present" changes all the time. Whatever Hamlet meant around 1603 it meant something different for Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Freud, us. And it will mean something different in the future. We should welcome this because these ever-shifting readings are a terrific argument for why we should still study literature - but not as literature any more.

Raymond Williams founded cultural studies when he published Culture and Society in 1958). The book has a clear political purpose. Against the self-acclaimed privilege of Englit Williams makes the democratic assertion that we must study "the development of a whole society", including radio, film, television, pop music. To understand a text in its context, he turned to social and historical studies.

Cultural studies has come a long way since then. But it is still this tension between text and context that helps decide what are the most promising developments in the discipline. On the fringes of cultural studies, some might still think football fanzines are the whole of culture.They are not. The mainstream of cultural studies lies in reading older "canonical" texts alongside popular culture - on equal terms, in relation to theories of the sign, history, gender, post-colonialism, psychoanalysis and other useful forms of interpretation.

The study of Englit was always very English. Helen Gardner said it showed "the virtues inherent in 'The British way of life'". We, the British, or more precisely, the English, are going through rapid modernisation. As part of this process Englit should turn itself into cultural studies. As a form of study, cultural studies is more objective, better informed, than the old author-based impressionism.

Anthony Eastope is professor of cultural studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Will English literature departments soon be swallowed up by cultural studies departments? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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