The Future of Departments of English/Literature

Cross-posted from The Valve

In general, many social and individual trends are toward trans-nationalism (i.e., globalization, globalism, global integration) of all sorts. Again, we see this perhaps most strikingly and hopefully in the activity and related activity of the World Social Forum. Meanwhile Europe has integrated in the European Union and continues to do so, as Victor Hugo called for as a member of the French Legislative Assembly over a century ahead of time. South America is making huge strides in continental integration and toward possibly a South American Union. Meanwhile, the United States (officially) is increasingly isolated in its frequent unilateral and intransigent role in the United Nations – not to mention internally, and in the continent, the hemisphere, and elsewhere.

Corporate power, state power – corporate state power remains the dominant force(s) shaping much of the conditions of life in the world. The huge undemocratic features of this rule of force are the greatest threat to liberty, well being, and by now even species survival. The democratic rights that have been won by popular struggles and that have been forced upon corporate-state power are the greatest protectors of liberty and well-being and the greatest hope for their desperately needed expansion. Literature functions sometimes to protect, enable, and advance the corporate-state status quo, which is largely anti-democratic (anti-democracy) rule, and literature sometimes functions to protect, enable, and advance enlightenment ideals and human rights, as some scholars have shown. Literature has a great responsibility to the latter, which should be cultivated, pursued, as it has been to some extraordinarily insufficient degree. Call it the liberation tradition of literature.

Edward Said writes in Culture and Imperialism that “the focus in the destabilizing and investigative attitudes of those whose work actively opposes states and borders is on how a work of art, for instance, begins _as_ a work, begins _from_ a political, social, cultural situation, begins _to do_ certain things and not others….”

“Contamination is the wrong word to use here, but some notion of literature and indeed all culture as hybrid…and encumbered, or entangled and overlapping with what used to be regarded as extraneous elements—this strikes me as _the_ essential idea for the revolutionary realities today, in which the contests of the secular world so provocatively inform the texts we both read and write” (317).

“I keep coming back—simplistically and idealistically—to the notion of opposing and alleviating coercive domination, transforming the present by trying rationally and analytically to lift some of its burdens, situating the works of various literatures with reference to one another and to their historical modes of being. What I am saying is that in the configurations and by virtue of the transfigurations taking place around us, readers and writers are now in fact secular intellectuals with the archival, expressive, elaborative, and moral responsibilities of that role” (319).

The future shape of the study of “English” – of literature written in English (and, why not?, translated into English) will likely and should be shaped by the ever growing international daily use of English, and by international artistic creation in English, and by the exporting of American art, especially perhaps popular songs and movies but also novels and other books in translation, and untranslated. Also by the importation of many works, typically translated but sometimes not in the case of Spanish especially, and other languages.

In other words, English language literature study must globalize because the English language is globalized and globalizing further, and because our human situation both social and individual has globalized and is doing so increasingly – not least “the full human condition” that literature best addresses, illumines.

I don’t know to what extent, if any, trans-Atlantic “English” study accounts for the other languages of non-English literatures that have always been found within the United States and Britain, but I suppose trans-Atlantic English study could serve in some ways as a micro-analogue for the rapidly expanding macro-reality that is global English language literature, art, and culture.

As for curriculum issues, it seems to me that one practical problem with badly needed reform (needed already decades and decades ago) is that much of the scholarly side of the conventional English department is actually a History department in disguise. The conventional English department is actually basically a niche History department, with of course national English language literature, it’s elements and milieu, as the object of historical focus. In my view, that needed but overly large aspect of English departments should be shrunk, so that something else in particular can grow – be shrunk humanely, respectfully, thoughtfully, by natural attrition if necessary, not forced resignations, or perhaps mainly by encouraging professors to themselves apply more of their historical expertise to the contemporaneous situation (which would also serve to excite students more about important distant historical aspects. Of course a department that pretends to encourage that and doesn’t make moves to structurally realign itself is kidding everyone involved, at best.) The conventional English department has a rather status quo structure at a time when a far more progressive function has never been more badly needed.

What should be “grown” within departments, it seems to me, is much that is badly neglected by English (and other) departments, as I’ve noted in passing and in some detail in my recent posts at this site – liberation literature, to put a handle on it, that goes well beyond what is typically studied, taught, and created. Otherwise, in my view, the vitality of English Departments will continue to be severely compromised, as has been the case, again, for many decades, in fact, always. There’s a reason MFA programs are booming and attract no small percentage of the brightest students. There’s an urgent contemporaneity and vital freedom available there. (Whether or not such opportunity is remotely taken advantage of is another question. MfA programs have their own serious, related, problems, in my view.) So there has been a huge MFA surge. I’ve always felt there could be and should be a similarly sizable scholarly/creative resurgence in the vein I’ve suggested, which is sort of mildly happening university-wide (even in face of backlash), but much more and at much greater degree could be done, needs to be done, ought to be done, in my view.

English language literature departments, literature and writing departments in general (and the other humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences, etc) should develop in congruence with the possibilities and the needs of people socially and individually, in specific locales and the world over. Ascertaining, keeping up with, and helping to create the possibilities, current realities, and needs are crucial and very much in line with what seems to me to be the too-often (often unwittingly, and often ideologically) neglected liberation tradition of literature—a “tradition” that is more of a tendency, not necessarily an overall or wholesale tendency, but one that crops up in bits and pieces here and there, and is integrally, closely, or in concept aligned with other libratory individual and social acts and movements, organizations and various other such tendencies too in other fields and realms of life.

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