Experts debate the next chapter for literary studies

Workshop set up after concern at the low success rate for grants in the field. Matthew Reisz reports

October 9, 2008

Literary and cultural studies are the best bastion against cultural "barbarism", but the field suffers from being "obscure and incomprehensible" to the general public.

These are among the views that will be aired at an international, three-day "strategic workshop" next week, set up to consider the health and future of the discipline.

The workshop, due to be held at the University of London's Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies (IGRS) on 16-18 October, was organised by the European Science Foundation, after its Standing Committee on the Humanities grew concerned at the low level of applications for grants - and low success rates - from researchers working in the literary field.

Amid predictions of the death of literary and cultural studies, Robert Crawshaw, senior lecturer in French studies at Lancaster University, will argue that such a loss would be catastrophic, as they offer "the best - possibly the only - bastion against the combined barbarism of Hollywood and religious extremism".

The closed meeting will hear from Sibel Irzik of Sabanci University in Turkey, who is due to argue that literature offers "a kind of resistance to information's charm, to saturation by the media, and to cultural fast food of all kinds".

Victoria Reid, lecturer in French at the University of Glasgow, will argue: "Students of cultural studies become more sensitised to prejudices and agendas in what they read, hear and view. Their critical faculties are more developed."

According to Naomi Segal, director of the IGRS, the meeting provides an opportunity to launch a wide discussion on "exactly what we're doing as literary scholars, where the subject is going and how it relates to society's needs".

Although worried about the decline in modern languages within British schools and universities, Professor Segal said that research was "alive and well, and extremely varied".

"In a few months, I've seen research projects from 'literary' scholars on ageing, colonial war-graves, the psychology of skin, death, food, angels, aeroplanes, X-rays, anti-Semitism, tourism and phantom limbs," she said.

But others worry that literary and cultural studies risk digging their own grave by following this route.

Tim Beasley-Murray, lecturer in European thought and culture at University College London, said: "They have sought to show that the insights of literary studies can usefully be applied as tools elsewhere. A good example of this is cultural and film studies ... (But) if literary studies are defined as useful-for-something-else, it follows that they will soon no longer be needed in themselves ... ".

Another major concern is the question of audience. "There may be some 'trickle down' effect of our work on the general populace," said Francoise Meltzer, professor of comparative literature at the University of Chicago, "but literary studies are not of immediate interest (to put it mildly) to the majority ... Much of our production is viewed as obscure and incomprehensible ... Many literary theorists, for example, turn to journalism when they want to reach a wider audience."

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