They go to the disco, buy Jackie, watch a vid, catch a soap, go to the match, have a fuck, weep for Di, love k.d. lang ...

November 6, 1998

Valentine Cunningham laments the cultural drift of English

As English studies dip towards the millennial tape it is clear they are threatened by the prospect of absorption into "cultural studies". And not as a major partner, but as a kind of service industry within cultural studies, one seen as far less animating to the student mind than, say, film or the text of disco, football and shopping.

Nicely symptomatic of this drift for me is a misprint I noticed in a recent culture studies catalogue in which the author of the novel Possession was listed as A.S. Beat rather than the A.S. Byatt we thought wrote it. There is a tendency in the world of cultural studies to ditch the Byatts for, as it were, the Beats, The Beatles, indeed for almost any signifying practice seemingly more upbeat than so-called literary fiction.

Of course, in principle at least, English should smile on cultural studies, at least on any real studies of culture. For the study of literature that we know as English has been the study of culture, of cultural production and cultural practices. Attempts to write a history of English which denies this, as does Anthony Easthope's wildly amusing polemic Literature into Cultural Studies, are simply mongering untruths.

The university study of literature never succeeded in shedding the historicist heritage of the biblical and classical studies it grew out of. Every attempt to impose some formalist practice on English, from I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism through New Criticism to Structuralism, has failed utterly to ring-fence reading and interpretation from contamination by the external relations, so to say, of the literary. History, sociology, economics, morality, politics, the background, the context, just would not go away even under the heavy theoretical canons applied to them. English has been perennially inclusive, always involved in some sort of cross-border negotiation.

Which is why post-Marxisms, Foucauldianisms, cultural materialism, new historicism, queer studies, neo-biblical study psychoanalysis, all the ongoing interest in body and geography and law flourish among us. English departments have always been up for what's in the latest cultural historical/materials shopping trolley. Even at Oxford. They fitted in - as, say, Richard Hoggart once fitted in, and Raymond Williams, and Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha.

It is only natural that cultural studies is devoid of any critical tools that were not bred in English departments. Cultural studies is completely parasitic on English departments. Which has not stopped it trying to shrug off its parentage, to turn away from the thick detail of culture, the complex registers of selfhood, which are to be found in literature and are the proper object of literary study, of English.

The break has been done in the questionable name of accessibility and relevance, and in the name also of dubious rivalries between old-fogey institutions and zippier places of study, the new-new universisites. The result has been a disenriched and skewed sense of culture as merely modern, yoofie, fashionable, MTV-wise, consumerist - and thus woefully short of imaginative and explanatory power.

On this model of culture, gender, race and class go shopping. They go to the disco, buy Jackie (it is always Jackie), watch a vid, catch a soap, go to the match, have a ****, weep for Di, love k. d. lang. But that is about it. They do not mourn or die, love, vote, have children, pray, eat proper meals; they have short memories, do not care about the Holocaust, do not read old books. And so on. It is life, the self, the culture as one long Saturday Night Fever. Lad life, girl power. As sold by the glossies' moguls.

Literature puts the meat on all this, gives you this, only deeper, historicised, more feelingly. Literature puts the stuffing into cultural studies. All the old arguments for the value, personal and pedagogical, of English hold good. Literature provides the texts, the textures of memory, the imaginaire; it complexifies self and thought, registers otherness, teaches about self and other and how we got here.

Easthope tries to argue for the merits of popular fiction, and thus for the popular culture agenda of cultural studies, by comparing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan has nothing on Conrad for every kind of complexity. In fact Easthope offers a knock-down argument for the importance of books, old books, the canon.

It is certainly a rebuke to the breakaway movement of cultural studies. It is the kind of argument English is going to have to shout up if it is not to be drowned out by the big beat of its cultural studies competitor.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English literature at Oxford University .

* Does English studies have a future? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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