Is Arguing for the Practical Utility of Literary Studies Ultimately Self-Defeating?

There’s a review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas up at Slate:

The Marketplace of Ideas is a diagnostic book, not a prescriptive one, and Menand’s proposals for how we might invigorate the academic production of knowledge are added as afterthoughts. He thinks we ought to shorten the length of study required for graduate students; the fact that it takes three years to get a law degree and close to a decade to get a humanities doctorate, he writes, is just another symptom of professors’ anxiety about the worth of their trade. We also ought to invite more applications from students who might not have self-selected as academic specialists. The notional aims of the academy—the lively and contentious production of new scholarship—would be better served by making academic boundaries more permeable rather than less.

But in the end, Menand’s proposals, smart and coherent though they are, seem less important than the case study provided by his career. He has managed to stay accountable at once to his colleagues in English departments and to his audience of general readers, and he has pulled this off without sacrificing either rigor or range. Menand is proof that an academic can be a great prose stylist, and that a journalist doesn’t have to be a dilettante—and that having a commitment to one community enriches one’s contribution to the other. He makes it hard to take seriously the rhetoric of crisis, and helps us get on with the important business of creating the problems of the future.

Reading it led me to look back at the excerpt from it published in Harvard Magazine last fall. I had a few ideas in response to it which I wrote about then. One of my remarks at that time was this, made in the context of the difficulty of defining a coherent curriculum when our discipline has become so undisciplined that there is really no way to justify doing one thing rather than another, and thus it becomes increasingly challenging to justify doing any of the things we do at all:

Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

I heard similar arguments being made again this week as we worked on setting up a “capstone” course for our honours students: in response to my observation that some proposed ingredients were designed to groom the students for graduate school in English (something about which I am currently filled with anxiety, thanks to the kinds of discussions underway here and here and here and here, not to mention these classics of the scarifying ‘just don’t go’ genre), I was reminded that good research and writing skills, as well as oral presentation skills, would benefit students in “law school or publishing or journalism or really any other jobs.” And don’t forget that we can teach them how to write a cv and a resume, and writing grant applications is not just for SSHRC but something you may have to do in many different contexts.

First of all, I totally agree. Research and writing and oral presentations are all excellent things to be good at, as are synthesizing a range of material and learning to build a strong evidence-based argument and proofreading and making a persuasive case for the value of a project you want other people to pay for and filling out forms and all the other transferable skills we know are part of what our students are learning and practising through their work in our classes.

That said, the more I think about it the more I wonder whether, in playing the game of “we’re useful too” we don’t actually end up rendering ourselves irrelevant by so happily setting aside the specificities of our work. Isn’t literary analysis (not to mention the extensive reading of, you know, literature, that it requires) a fairly roundabout route to those practical goals? If that’s what the students really want from us, we could save them a lot of time by not making them read so much Chaucer or Dickens or Joyce or Rushdie, that’s for sure. If we play the game that way, it seems to me we are bound to lose eventually. Yes, like writing, critical thinking requires content: “writing across the disciplines” makes sense because you need something to write about, and you can’t teach critical thinking unless you have something to think about either. But if you can learn to write anywhere, you can learn to think (and all the rest of it) anywhere too. Why English?

We need a pitch for ourselves that makes literature essential, but not in the self-replicating terms Menand rightly identifies as characteristic of professionalized literary studies (that is, by contributing to our profession according to existing norms and as judged by the profession itself, and the profession alone). We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy. We need to stand up, not for our methodology (doing so, after all, has meant warping that methodology to make it look as much as possible like some kind of science, or being so inscrutable that outsiders can’t tell what we’re doing anyway), but for the poems and novels and plays we take with us into the classroom every day. We need to be arguing, not that studying literature is just another way to do the same things every other discipline does (what university major won’t help you with critical thinking, research, writing, and presentation skills?), but that there are things–valuable things–about literature that you just can’t get any other way.

I’m thinking the way there is through aesthetics, on the one hand, and ethics on the other, and that the pitch should somehow involve a commitment to the importance of cultural memory and cultural critique, to character building and self-reflection, and to the needs as well as the ideals of civic society. If that sounds old-fashioned, I guess I don’t mind, though I’m not sure it needs to be.

In his account of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill famously urges us away from too narrow a notion of the pleasures to be valued under his system:

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable: we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them.
Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior- confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

We should similarly urge our administrators away from too narrow an idea of the useful. Our motto could be, “Don’t be a pig.”

2 Comments to Is Arguing for the Practical Utility of Literary Studies Ultimately Self-Defeating?

  1. Peter Yan's Gravatar Peter Yan
    January 22, 2010 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Top 10 Defense of Literature

    In an ideal world the arts don't need any justification, an end in itself. But in a world of philistines and ideologues who wish to destroy art, we need the critic to defend literature. As John Stuart Mill says, Literature is not heard but overheard.

    It is mute and cannot say what it is, among other things the most intense use of words about the human condition.

  2. Peter Yan's Gravatar Peter Yan
    January 22, 2010 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Top 10 Defence of Literature

    A Defence of English Literature
    10. Literature is a genuine human creation, a language like math and music, which does not occur in nature. What is defined as culture is a) giving nature a human form (the sounds of nature are not the sounds of music) b) the best that has been thought and said.

    9. Political/Scientific reasons: Literature presents different visions of the world we want or don't want, a way to measure and choose politicians and policies when we vote. It even guides and inspires science, as the visions of literature are being realized, such as Icarus and hang-gliding, or computers that write and respond to vocal commands, even the cellular phone, an influence from sci-fi Star Trek. Also, politicians and governments do not sink to their lowest level of brutality, inflicting the greatest misery on the greatest number, until they rationalize it in words. See Hitler's Mein Kampf. Be able to read to know difference between ideas which are for or against life, and not accept them passively.

    8. Literature reminds us of our need for primary concerns which we share with animals, (especially our concerns for food and water, sex, clothing, shelter, and unimpeded movement), over secondary concerns which are our loyalties to a group/mob and beliefs like capitalism, religion, communism. Too often we go to war because we don't like how another group thinks.

    Many stories are also of a paradise lost and gained (e.g. story of Eden, Atlantis, the Garden of Hesperides) and we can't go anywhere unless nature is looked after as well, a strong message for the troubled environment we live in.

    7 One missed point Art is therapeutic. Watching Hollywood movies is the most obvious application of art to cheer us up. Most movies are adaptations of books. No books = no movies, as scripts themselves are written in a literary form, and are direct descendants of drama and theatre. Books and other arts (role-playing) provide a healthy catharsis and emotional release, as a healthy mind is the basis of all health.

    6. Reading stories force us to identify with the main character who often is very
    different from us. This ability to identify, to walk in someone else's shoes, helps us to identify with and learn tolerance for people who dress, think, speak, act and worship differently.

    5. Literature brings the past and future into the present through stories which tell us about ourselves-revealing the human condition. Literary stories happens. Stories of Narcissus (when we buy clothes), Orpheus (at rock concerts), David and Goliath (the underdog in sports), the Hare and Tortoise (complacency in jobs/class), Peter Pan (men who are forever boys), Cinderella (every Cosmo magazine).

    4. We learn more about a genuine life, love, and power in reading than we usually do in life, a relationship, or our work – unless you are very exceptional. Life is full of the destructive random acts of fate, broken relationships and families, and missed opportunities. Literature is a virtual reality in which the reader is the hero and encounters intense experiences which reality cannot provide.

    3. Literature comes in a finite form (only so many pages) which contains the infinite (unlimited commentary) — and can speak to many ages/cultures beyond it own age/culture.

    2. Literature educates and exercises your mind/imagination in the same way physical activity exercises your body. We can apply this learning, this educated imagination, in a variety of ways, just as we can apply our athletic skills in a variety of activities/sports.

    I. We can’t participate in society unless we learn to use our imagination. Every job, position, relationship is tinged by original sin and what makes the it bearable is the guiding ideal that only our imagination can perceive and we attempt to realize — even if the attempt is impossible (doctors attempt a perfect world of health, lawyers a world of justice, social workers a world without broken lives, teachers a world of wisdom.)

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