Power is a perennial concern for literary studies and one that remains one of the most contested, debated, omnipresent, yet ungraspable of concepts. Over the last few years I’ve been thinking about the workings of power in the formulation of academic disciplines because of need to take stock of the multiple circuits of power in my work as an English professor in Japan. Circuits of power are contained in the very word English, are unstably magnified by the word ‘global’, thus I want to address the consequences of leaving this power unexamined, of leaving the discipline undisciplined.
If the philosopher Richard Rorty is correct, academic disciplines, like human selves, “have histories, but no essences” (66). Academic disciplines renew themselves “by rewriting their own histories” (Rorty 66), often in response to shifts in power dynamics within and without the academy. English studies is no exception; however, the scale of the power dynamics affecting the teaching and learning of English is perhaps without precedent. As the English language has grown to become the world’s first truly global lingua franca, English studies faces multiple challenges to its identity, objectives, and even to its very reason to be. What began as a project designed to instil Englishness in colonized and working class subjects then morphed into an episteme that justified middle class tastes and values. In the present moment, instrumentalized language study seems to be in the ascendant over literary study. But despite the rhetoric of a democratic field of study – all you need is proficiency in the language, and the global job market is yours for the taking – elements of class privilege as well as residual colonial discourses of ‘Anglophoneness’ continue to structure the discipline. Whether the focus is education in language or literature, residues of Anglo-American social consciousness, cultural values, and historical privilege sit uneasily with the supposedly pluralistic rhetorics of ‘global Englishes’ and ‘global Anglophone literature’. Can this hydra-headed discipline be disciplined? I suppose I’m really asking whether English is really a discipline, or whether we should consider some sort of disaggregation, along with larger questions over the ontology of academic disciplines.
But first, some discipline. Merriam-Webster defines discipline as 1) control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and punishing bad behavior; 2) a way of behaving that shows a willingness to obey rules or orders; and 3) behavior that is judged by how well it follows a set of rules or orders. Discipline also carries connotations of punishment, the more obsolete sense of instruction, a field of study, and in general the idea of “control gained by enforcing obedience or order, orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior, self control, a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity.” In academic terms, a discipline emerges, then codifies itself in a historical process that loses sight of its own historicity and conceives of itself synchronically, as a field of study that emerges essentially, in and of itself, pursuing the inner logics of precincts of knowledge it marks off as its own. The relationship between academic discipline and the broader sense of the term is found in rules, obedience, enforced both internally and externally. Thus it is that members of a discipline must carry in their heads, and manifest in their academic activity, research and teaching within mutually agreed on limits, or risk some form of punishment.
What is at stake in transgressing disciplinary limits? Who sets these limits? What are the limits? In our discipline, how do we recognize literary criticism? Why cannot stylistics, performed by a linguist with a deep knowledge of literature, be admitted as criticism? Why is interdisciplinarity so hard to do (to paraphrase Stanley Fish)? In my own experience, interdisciplinarity resulted in more dissatisfaction than intellectual breakthroughs. Departments often actively work against interdisciplinary study by restricting graduate seminars to their own students, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that students from other disciplines won’t be able to understand what’s going on. Cross-disciplinary dialog is hard: if Wittgenstein is correct, and I think he is, learning a discipline means learning the language-games of that discipline. Learning another discipline is therefore like learning a foreign language. But learning another language, whether in the disciplinary or morphological sense, is not simply a matter of matching two different sets of vocabulary; representation and signification don’t always add up. To turn to yet another philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, when one translates, one discovers alternatives, indeterminacies, and in Quine’s formation, inscrutability of reference. One can never be sure if the native speaker is referring to the whole rabbit, part of a rabbit, or rabbit metaphors. Straightforward translation is, in a sense, impossible. We have to rely on interpretation. This accords with the dictum of George Steiner from his great book After Babel: “a human being performs an act of translation, in the full sense of the word, when receiving a speech-message from any other human being. Time, distance, disparities in outlook or assumed reference, make this act more or less difficult” (48). So when we confront a ‘speech-message’ from another culture or academic discipline, we face a task of translation proportionate to our lack of knowledge of that culture.
You’ll no doubt have noticed that so far in my talk of disciplining the discipline of English studies I’ve been flouting all sense of discipline by deploying the ideas and arguments of philosophers, largely of the analytic kind. So what was I saying about interdisciplinarity being so hard to do? Here I will turn to yet another philosopher – I couldn’t get far in a talk about discipline without mentioning Michel Foucault. The panopticon, of course, was key to Foucault’s argument about the pervasiveness of technologies of control. The centralized gaze offered by the prison panopticon, a structure at the center from which prisoners can be monitored at all times, is reproduced in the curricula, classes, courses, lectures, tests, assessments, peer reviews, and counter arguments produced by disciplinary authorities and repeated by students, and any attempt to traduce this process, or any failure to reproduce this system, only makes it stronger. Failures and delinquency, Foucault believed, are produced by disciplinary systems in order to show the value of their functions and procedures.
“How much farther can disciplinary language be stretched before the discipline fails to be a discipline?”
By employing analytical philosophy to speak through the discipline of English, boundaries were stretched to reveal their discursive ontology. How much farther can disciplinary language be stretched before the discipline fails to be a discipline? Is disciplinary definition dependent on translation and interpretation, rather than bodies of knowledge? When English literary studies reached a crisis of self-definition, it made cross disciplinary turns to analytical philosophy in order to settle questions raised by its adaptation of structuralism, which had revealed the lingering yet contingent language of romantic and post-romantic ideologies shaping the discipline. The questions remain far from settled, but the effects of this cross disciplinary search for disciplinary meaning linger. Roland Barthes famously argued that the author is dead, and that literary text was written through the figure of the writer, not by him or her: “It is language which speaks, not the author” (“Death” 1466). A literary work, moreover, is not a work, but a text, a process in which a reading subject enters into the play of signifiers. Language itself – or the ‘linguistic turn’ – thus became the center of the discipline of literary studies, and the limits of the discipline suddenly grew exponentially. One main effect was the inversion of a more classical or even modernist relationship between work and reader: reading is not consuming a literary work, it is an agency-granting production of meaning. As Foucault himself pointed out in his critique of the concept of authorship, the author as individual is an ideology of self, a historical creation produced at varying moments, and crucially for our topic, in varying fields of study. Literary criticism privileges the single author in order to affix prestige to the field of literature, thus in order to better read, understand and criticize the text, we have to read, understand, and criticize the historical, social, political, and cultural systems of its making. Here, via Foucault’s interdisciplinary blending of Nietzschean genealogy with New Historicist thinking, literary studies found itself looking beyond the text into the texts that produce texts, and the figure of the author as a text. Again, limits were traduced and transgressed textually.
With the discipline becoming the study of a reading subject in a seemingly endless field of text, its epistemology was defined by textuality. Everything was text, or if not exactly text, then context. But if that was the case, then what was the worth of literature? Was it too just a language game? If everything from poems to parties were texts, then how could English departments justify themselves? One way was to teach the theories that were unearthing the very foundations of literary study. In other words, teaching new languages. For some critics, this was taking things too far. If theory reduced canons, interpretation, and myriad other disputes to text, then theory really did unearth literary studies, to the point where “all that is left to study is ‘theory’ itself” (Guy and Small 6). Quine’s inscrutability of reference had blurred the object of study: when one said literature, was one referring to a work or a text? Theory thus brought English studies to an impasse well characterized by Josephine Guy and Ian Small: “without any agreement about what theory is supposed to explain . . . English studies is left with a set of critical tools, but no clear notion of what to apply them to. It has a means of producing knowledge (by virtue of the fact that it has a variety of contested theoretical paradigms) but paradoxically cannot lay claim to any specific body of knowledge” (6). The disciplinary implications are clear: “what can a discipline which produces no ‘authoritative’ knowledge actually teach; and how can what it claims to teach – a means for producing knowledge – be examined” (Guy and Small 6)?
Geoffrey Hartman begs to differ: over the latter half of the twentieth century, literary theorists “made our field more outgoing, more inclusive, more principled in its claims, more precise in its presentational methods, more heuristic in spirit and transnational in orientation” (42). They did so while rarely losing sight of the literary text, though there has been a tendency to expand the reading list while forgetting “that it is skilled reading that expands it” (42). Paul de Man essentially agreed, arguing that “resistance to theory is in fact a resistance to reading” (15), and when he claimed a historical continuity between New Criticism and theory, he was correcting the view that theory deals more with ideology, religion, ethics and other elements external to the text. As de Man elaborates, to read “is to respond to structures of language,” to “the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces” (5), meaning, in a sense, all formalisms require theory to make them work, thus it is actually theory’s attention to language that establishes the conditions for better readings of the textual interplay between internal and external significances.
So is theory good or bad, useful or useless? A standoff ensued, and literary theory simply became part of the critic’s toolbox, and no theoretical or critical dispensation has ruled the disciplinary roost since theory’s heyday in the 1970s and 80s. Actually, what has happened is in a sense a return of business as usual. Gerald Graff maintains the project of “organizing literature” into “academic literary studies” has never been “thought through in all its ramifications” (2). English began with a fairly clear sense of its difficulties, theories, and academic justifications, then gradually lost sight of them. In the disciplinary dawn there were key disagreements and strains, largely between those of a philological bent and those who held that literary education should be a “transmission of humanism and cultural tradition in the Matthew Arnold sense” (Graff 3). A breakdown of the agree-to-disagree arrangement ushered in, or was ushered in by, the rush of literary theories that engendered disputes about the very foundations of ideas such as humanism, culture, and tradition, not to mention a range of other positions, assumptions, ideas, and ideologies – and about the very nature of literary criticism, and by extension, literary pedagogy. English departments expanded course offerings to cover all the bases, periods, genres, theories, and whatever else seemed pertinent, organizing themselves on “a principle of systematic non-relationship” (Graff 8), resulting in a smorgasbord of courses, approaches, and objectives. Faculty relate to each other essentially in two ways. One is on bureaucratic terms, as members of an administrative convenience called the ‘English Department,’ or whatever. The other is a sort of vague humanism. It doesn’t matter whether we teach American short stories, Elizabethan drama, or Nigerian novels, we assume there is some sort of good behind it all. English literary study is now, in Suman Gupta’s words, “a diverse and multidirectional sprawl” that is nevertheless “disposed as a disciplinary corpus” (131). Its reasons for being, its roots, are hidden by its institutionalized status as an academic unit in universities. Those roots, Gupta argues, lie in the discipline’s constructions of Englishness, even in the present moment when the discipline spreads around the globe. As Gupta observes: “The institutional space of English studies is arguably already globalized in ways which are yet to be fully registered; it needs to be historicized and accounted accordingly and without self-imposed or politically predetermined limits” (130).
There have been attempts to rein in the confusion. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye attempted to clarify what it is the English department is supposed to do, or rather, what it does not do, which is teach literature. Literature is the object of study, not the subject; that is criticism: “Art, like nature, has to be distinguished from the systematic study of it, which is criticism. It therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’; one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature” (11). And if literature cannot be learned, it cannot be taught: “Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught” (10). Gerald Graff has long argued that instead of atomizing English departments into courses which purport to represent the result or conclusion of critical and theoretical conflicts, a more intellectually honest approach would be to teach the conflicts. Instead of a course in which a feminist teaches Victorian novels from a feminist point of view, then a course where a postcolonialist teaches Victorian novels from a postcolonialist point of view, put the two together in one course, along with others, and have them involve students in the historical, conceptual, philosophical disputes that produce different readings. By structuring a course around the processional development of academic and disciplinary conflict, Graff’s conception borrows something from Barthes’ idea that reading is a process in which the student is invested in meaning making.
“by concentrating on theory, English loses sight of what theory was supposed to do, which is help people read better and more deeply”
Critics of Graff’s teach the conflicts idea argue that it inadvertently privileges only a small part of what English literary studies consists of – a canonical, Eurocentric clutch of theories. Moreover, by concentrating on theory, English loses sight of what theory was supposed to do, which is help people read better and more deeply. Reading, once again, becomes the focus of the discipline. But let’s stand back, as far back as we can go, at look again at this disciplinary history. One thing is missing, and that is the rest of the world. James F. English observes that the “future expansion of English studies will mostly occur outside the discipline’s traditional Anglophone and European base,” therefore “it is time for those of us at the presumptive center of things to begin paying more attention to the forms our discipline is taking at these sites of rapid expansion” (191). And when we look at the globe’s vast and varied collection of English students and departments, we see that theory, reading, interpretation, criticism all take a back seat to the real focus of the global discipline of English, which is learning English.
James English argues that English, with its expanding enrolments, is actually in pretty good shape. Particularly striking are the massive numbers of English majors enrolled in Chinese and Indian universities, which even when taken separately, dwarf the numbers of English majors in the traditional Anglophone homes of English. But beyond the Anglophone center, where language learning is either the primary or close-secondary approach, literary studies faces a number of issues. ‘Out here,’ English is generally taught in three modes.
1. In the vernacular, using translations.
2. By a native-English speaking applied linguist or second-language trained teacher who occasionally uses literature with high-intermediate or advanced students.
3. By a native-English speaking literary specialist, hired to teach courses under the sign of literature, and not language.
With a vernacular teacher, literary texts may be deployed as means to illustrate grammar or vocabulary, in addition to providing knowledge and context to lessons on literary form, genre, period, context, and history. With a native-English speaking teacher, the students are there to learn English. In case two, there is no ambiguity about goals and pedagogy. In case three, things are more complicated. Students may want advanced language instruction, but the teacher is not trained to provide it. Teachers may want to teach literature, but may find that the students are not primed to expect it. In these cases, literature itself becomes a site of contestation. In case two, literature seems – at least to the literary specialist – a devalued instrument, somehow misused and its essence or specialness as literature diluted. In case three, literature also seems devalued – perhaps more so – because the linguistic limitations of the students mean that it cannot be taught ‘properly,’ and the teacher will have to resort to language teaching (imperfectly, haphazardly), debasing text, teacher, and all that is precious about Literature. To which linguists and language teachers may reply, it’s not literature that’s being precious.
“despite advances in teaching and learning English as a foreign language (EFL), there has been little or none in teaching English literature to non-native speakers”
Many camps share some blame – or rather, they blame each other. The renowned applied linguist H.G. Widdowson observes “there have been a number of angry exchanges between scholars of these different persuasions and they have provided a rather distressing spectacle of mutual misunderstanding and distrust” (Stylistics 1). From the linguistics side of the English fence comes the charge that despite advances in teaching and learning English as a foreign language (EFL), there has been little or none in teaching English literature to non-native speakers. “Generally speaking,” says Widdowson, in an even-tempered critique of how English literature faculty do their thing, “the prevailing assumption has been that the approach to English literature teaching in a mother tongue context will be transferable, with some minor adjustments, to foreign parts, and will have no particular relationship with how the language is taught” (“Teaching” 180). From the literature camp comes the charge that because many EFL instructors are trained in applied linguistics, they actually do some sort of damage to the literariness of literary texts. Whatever the truth of these charges, I think it is fair to say that the shift in disciplinary emphasis to practical English changes the nature of literature in ways that have not been fully theorized or made practicable in terms that satisfy literary scholars and teachers for both language and literature classrooms. Indeed, while there is a body of research on the use of literature in EFL classrooms, there is very little by literature specialists. Literature faculty thus run the risk of being left out of the global reconfiguration of English studies.
Some in the Anglo-center may argue that there is no issue at all. Literature demands a high level of English, so before taking literature classes, students have to have sufficient language skills to keep up. This seems reasonable, until you start looking around the classroom. Whether you are teaching a composition class in Chicago or a Literature of the Elizabethan Period seminar in Osaka, the same questions arise: which English, to what level, and who decides? Moreover, the reality is that language and literature are blended. As Suman Gupta observes, around the world “English studies is constructed through programmes which bring together language, literature and cultural studies as a composite discipline” (133). That is, they have to be taught at the same time, often in the same classroom. This can be done fruitfully, but unfortunately it is not being done as well as it could be. Literary pedagogy needs input from literary scholars, but before they put their oar in, they need to learn a few things from EFL and linguistics. Conversely, EFL teachers need to learn a few things from literary types.
To literary scholars the implications of this may seem dire. Instrumentalizing Anglophone literary texts, turning them into tools for teaching vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, not only threatens the traditional objectives of the English department, it might even sound the final death-knell. But perhaps it is not the end of the world. We could start by heeding Roman Jakobson’s admonition that “[a] linguist deaf to the poetic function of language and literary scholar indifferent to linguistic problems and unconversant with linguistic methods are equally flagrant anachronisms” (qtd. in Brumfit and Carter 5). Literary scholars should realize that literary studies runs many risks by avoiding language. Linguistics and applied linguistics, for their part, while having contributed more to the place of literature in EFL, threaten to undervalue literature and the poetic effects of language.
English literature teachers might assert that language is very much at the heart of what they do. From a series of articles answering the question “Why Major in Literature – What Do We Tell Our Students?” in the May 2002 PMLA, responses like “[w]e introduce students to the complexities of language as made evident in metaphors and other tropes” (Crosby 493) are typical. However, it is fair to say that the average English professor would do anything rather than teach English.
The irony is that literature has long been a part of language instruction, and vice versa. The world’s first professor of English, John Tompson, was what we would now call an EFL (or perhaps an ESL) teacher. He taught English to his German students at Gottingen University from his 1737 anthology English Miscellanies, which as the subtitle says, is a collection of various pieces of divinity, morals, politicks, philosophy and history, as likewise of some choice poems, all collected out of the most approved authors, etc. Some of the earliest English language textbooks and manuals were similarly literary in their content. A.P.R. Howatt relates in his A History of English Language Teaching how a burgeoning late eighteenth century interest in the lyricism and passion of Shakespeare and other English dramatists inspired Germans to study English (64-65). The pedagogical relationship between language and literature then was notional: reading literature somehow helped a student learn the language; often language itself wasn’t the goal, reading the literature was. These notions haven’t changed very much in the intervening centuries. Here is Haun Saussy from a 2005 article titled “Language and Literature – a Pedagogical Continuum?”: if language competency means “the all-around ability to do things and communicate in a language” then it should considered in relation to an older goal for language study: becoming able to read the standard-setting works of literature in a language. A little-discussed role of literary works throughout history has been their adoption as benchmarks of ability: you know that you know Latin when you’re able to read Vergil . . . you know that you know French when you can get through Candide or Madame Bovary on your own. (114)
As admirable and attractive a goal as this may be, it is not one that has mass appeal to students in this increasingly post-literate age. Getting through a novel as complex as Madame Bovary conjures up, for too many of our students, everything implied in that phrasal verb ‘getting through’: a slog, a monumental effort, a drag. And what is the payoff? There are easier ways to learn the language, and the global English-language industrial complex knows this, offering instead of literature classes in everything from basic travel English to cross-cultural business negotiation. Universities, wary of being seen as irrelevant ivory towers, have responded by pledging to equip their students to surf the global English tsunami. From its suburban Tokyo campus, Tama University’s all-English School of Global Studies “prepares individuals to take action on the world stage and solve problems of a global nature” (School). To accomplish this, prospective applicants must first “possess the foundational skill for English communication”, because they must be “motivated to think independently and take on challenges, and have the determination to see their goals through to the end” (School) implying that these behaviors are dependent on the use of English. My own institution, Nihon University, modestly claims that “[t]hrough the study of English and American literature and English linguistics, students can gain a rich knowledge of humanity,” and that “when you head out into society, the knowledge you have gained from the English department will grant you infinite possibilities when you make the international stage” (Department; my translation). Nihon University, at least, believes there is a place for literary study; however, its value has to be sold in solidly practical terms. Universities find themselves having to make these claims because when graduates do make the international stage, they find not exactly infinite possibilities, rather that “[t]he new capitalism is dominated by forms of work in which the use of oral communication . . . and interpersonal communication . . . is an integral part of almost every worker’s function,” therefore, “[i]n the fast-shrinking world of today where the spoken word reigns supreme, the ‘speaking’ skill will have to assume a prominent role in English language education” (Nihalani 35). A key outcome of this attitude towards globalization is instrumentalized language education in which the language itself is seen primarily as a tool for communication than a medium of expression or representation. So, while everyone is studying English, it is practical, real world English. Who needs literature? It seems at best a distraction, at worst a time-waster. After all, why teach something like a novel to students whose foreign-language ability barely allows them to make a simple sentence? Why teach Romantic poetry to students who enroll in English language departments not to better understand Romantic or any other kind of poetry, but to improve their English? Should the goals of literature professors be to teach language in their literature classes, or literature in language classes? Can they do both effectively? Wouldn’t a really effective English professor have to have equal expertise in both literature and applied linguistics?
One easy way to steer clear of all these bothersome questions is to steer clear of literature. And why not? Really, would it matter if literature disappeared as an object of study? After all, in one of English literature’s most powerful statements in favor of literary culture, E.M. Forster’s 1911 novel Howards End, the protagonists – the Schlegel sisters, who stand for cultural learning and the liberated imagination – did not get their literary education at a university. In fact, they didn’t even go to university. The novel makes it clear they learned everything they needed through clever conversation with their London circle of writers, artists, and intellectuals. A colleague once remarked to me that maybe English literature as a discipline is really just a bunch of highly educated people teaching stuff we like, and justifying it by slipping it under the ‘academic’ cover of systematic criticism and theory, and the legitimation provided by having a Ph.D. from a fancy university. We both scoffed and said, no, there’s more to it than that. But we couldn’t articulate what the ‘more’ was, so we moved on to easier topics, like how to raise children. But then, I thought, so what if that is all our ‘discipline’ is? Is ‘stuff we like’ an indictment of a lack of academic and intellectual rigor, or just a coyly casual way of indicating a wholly different kind of academic and intellectual pursuit?
Alas, the wind does seem to be blowing against literature and literary studies, as it does against the humanities as a whole. Literary studies, for its part, must work ever harder to justify its existence, to make its educational claims heard. But what are those claims? My answer takes the form of a historically contingent conversion narrative about students in the present. Contingency also determines the definition of literature itself; as such I dodge the question along with Roland Barthes and assert that literature is what gets taught – in a sense, it really is stuff we like. How can this be justified? No geologist would be caught dead filling her syllabus with just the bits of geology she preferred. But geology and literary study are different animals; the reasons and value of a geology degree remain relatively clear and definable; for literary study they have become so murky that reasons and value must be made realizable through a process of exposure. While a handful of students have grown up with literature and want to study it more deeply, and/or write it themselves, very few are active readers, and very few have had much in the way of literature education prior to university. They choose English departments in order to improve their English, not to read Shakespeare. But, alas, literature classes cannot be avoided, and students find themselves having to read at least a little of something. And some – not all, not even most – even those undisposed to reading literature of any kind find themselves, if not converted, then newly appreciative of it. That conversion narrative, specifically the process of conversion from non-reader into quasi- or full-fledged reader, is our raison d’etre. But I want to emphasize that this is not a Damascene conversion – not a sudden vision or revelation. It is of human origin, entailing the very human realization that the laborious process of reading (and, in Japan, translation) and responding can be a more pleasurable process of textual study. Thus it is not a process of conversion to a literary elect, and does not presuppose that Literature is the One True Faith, or one of anything. It is understanding how a process of textual understanding can be a source of pleasure.
Reading literature – or listening to it (perhaps a radio play), or watching it (on stage or screen) – is a source of pleasure. Studying literature, or to repeat Frye’s injunction, studying criticism is an academic subject that should take as its primary aim the analysis of how pleasure inheres in reading. As Catherine Belsey argues, “[t]he issue for criticism is a textual one: what feature or features of a form of telling that initially caught the attention of some part of the public on the basis that it pleased them is responsible for the pleasure it gave and perhaps continues to give” (7). Belsey argues for the centrality of pleasure in literature as a focus for criticism; mine shifts pleasure to the process of learning as it happens in the classroom, and as it unfolds in the course of a student’s education.
“But pleasure in the classroom? Surely pleasure is too frivolous, too undisciplined an object of academic study?”
But pleasure in the classroom? Surely pleasure is too frivolous, too undisciplined an object of academic study? To which Belsey responds, “[i]f the joys of reading corresponded only to joy narrated, or the depiction of delight, the answer might be yes” (3). And as Belsey points out, the “durability of the Troy story shows [that] enjoyment does not in practice depend on a good outcome” (3). According to some of my students, one of the most enjoyable courses they took from me was Tragedy – a whole term’s worth of death, war, pain, suffering, injustice, and of course, fear and pity (I made them read Aristotle too). As the durability of tragedy shows, pleasure in the literature classroom is not about making our students happy, or leading them to a Panglossian acceptance of the world as it is. We bring it in because it is one of the great mysteries of life. Why are we attracted to the tragic, the evil, the bad, and to suffering? Why do we choose to experience fear and pity? Is Aristotle right in claiming that the result, the catharsis of emotion, compensates for the discomfort we feel as we watch Oedipus Rex or Hamlet? I think there is more to it, but as I am not a psychologist. But I do not hesitate to put to my students exactly what I have just put to you. In other words, in a sort of meta-pedagogy, I tell my students that our goal will not only be to experience textual pleasure, but to actively, and disinterestedly, analyze the nature, the purpose, and the mysteries of our pleasure. This puts the classroom squarely in the student’s present, and inasmuch her education is meant to prepare her for the future, it should also stimulate, enlighten, and enliven immanently.
One of Belsey’s best points is that pleasure should not simply be noted and celebrated, it must also be illuminated. But this too requires discipline: we must avoid the slippage between pleasure and aesthetic value. The latter concerns often Kantian categories of judgments of taste. These can be illuminating, but they are not the same thing as pleasure. They also imply hierarchies, which imply someone else’s ideas of what we should be reading – ideas often based on one group’s notions of its own moral or racial or some other illusory sense of superiority. Hierarchies also give rise to the tautological argument that fiction that counts as art gives pleasure, fiction that is not art cannot give pleasure, or, at least, the correct sort of pleasure, which is aesthetic pleasure. We can cut through this morass by focusing on, as Belsey argues, the singular pleasure of fictionality: what draws us to it in the first place?
Whether teaching literature via teaching how to criticize it, or teaching language using literary texts, or intersecting these two foci to create a mutual pedagogy, two aspects of pleasure must be kept in play, plaisir and jouissance. Roland Barthes defines plaisir as a comfortable mode of reading, one that “contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it.” Jouissance, on the other hand, “discomforts” and “unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, [and] brings to a crisis his relation with language” (Pleasure 20). Plaisir and jouissance should not, Belsey maintains, designate a hierarchy of pleasure, though as she points it is clear that Barthes is partial to the latter because its hints at unsettling profundities. I would argue that most literature teachers, and even serious readers, too would privilege the latter, and agree that the bulk of literary study should be in this register. Why? Blanket statements are risky, but I think these are generally correct. Because literature is always about tensions, conflicts, and doubts, stories simply cannot proceed without some sort of problem. They may end with a restoration of order, but it tends to be a wounded order in which resignation mixes with happiness, ambiguity with resolution, and death with life. Problems, ineffability, and the possibility of solutions are the lifeblood of academic investigation; they are also the lifeblood of games, puzzles, riddles, and mysteries, all of which are forms of story. Humans, it seems, share the inclination to discover truth, settle ambiguities, overcome misunderstanding, and feel prepared for the next journey into the unknown. People like to have their curiosity piqued, even if only mildly. Higher education operates on the ideal of taking curiosity well beyond habitual bounds, though it too often fails at this. Nevertheless, universities place this challenge before students, believing that unsettling students and having them respond to being unsettled accords with the tension between self and society, or human being and citizen. But universities hold these beliefs in a vacuum, and it seems are too ready to surrender. And why not capitulate? Young people enroll at universities for a variety of reasons, but it is fair to say that most have little interest in rigorous academic study, not because they are stupid, but because they know university has become middle class finishing school – this is certainly true of Japan – where intellectual challenge, while front and center in the promises of university mission statements, rarely becomes part of a graduate’s mental equipment. Conformity, physical energy, and capability comprise the valued attributes of graduates because these are valued by the corporations and regimes that will employ and govern them. Four years of experimenting with strange ways of thinking, representation, and expression – and this is really only for the handful of students in the humanities and social sciences; it doesn’t apply to the vast majority of students enrolled in more vocational ‘academic’ fields – tend to be all for naught.
But it would be wrong to give up hope. For literature teachers, a moral investment in the possible good of literature is indispensible, even if it is tempered by scepticism. The possible good may be manifold, but I hope I have been successful in arguing that I don’t believe that literary pedagogy should set out to define it. Teaching literature will also not make our students better people. That used to be goal of teaching literature, but when we realized that certain tyrants and mass-murderers were deeply read, that goal became highly suspect. Literary education will also not correct the supposed decaying effects of mass urban industrial or postindustrial societies – another hazy, gentlemanly goal, this one dating from the 1930s. That said, for all of their discrediting, residues of these goals continue to motivate the study of literature. Even through the 1960s and 70s when literary studies became highly politicized, and into the 80s when literary theory shifted attention to more philosophical inquiries about the relationships between signification and ideology, the idea that literature was good for you never really disappeared. Why it is good, on the other hand, is a question that remains unsettled – as it should be, because conversion is personal as well as academic, and can be the work of a thoughtfully disciplined discipline.
Myles Chilton gave this Keynote Address at The Asian Conference on Literature and Librarianship 2015 in Kobe, Japan
For a fully referenced version of this article please email email@example.com
Photography by Thaddeus Pope, IAFOR Media.