A Stirring Call to Theoretization

My head hurts. Or is it my stomach. Or is it some finely-tuned moral or cognitive or aesthetic sense situated somewhere between the two – somewhere mid-gullet, perhaps, or resting on the back of the third rib. Whatever it is, it comes of reading this. What is it that’s so irritating about this…

The Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s led some of us to believe that the end of the canon, the end of seemingly objective appraisals of “aesthetic complexity” through close readings, the end of the representation of the culture of white males as culture per se, meant that some major battles in the politics of representation had been won. Some scholars however, suspected that the battle had simply shifted elsewhere and so while the critiques of the canon held strong, while courses on queer theory, visual culture, visual anthropology, feminist theory, literary theory began to nudge the survey courses, the single-author studies and the prosody classes aside, the discipline itself lost currency faster than the dollar.

Oh, god, I don’t know. It’s the scare quotes on ‘aesthetic complexity,’ for one thing, as if that’s a stupid or pathetic idea. Well fine. Sod complexity. Up with simplicity. Paint everything one colour, play one note, say one word. Obviously doing anything else is a plot of white males. And then it’s the pathetic lost-in-the-fogness of thinking of this kind of thing as a ‘battle’ – it’s the stupidity of thinking that that’s meaningful politics and something to boast of. (That is a very boastful paragraph, if you look at it carefully. You’d think she’d just got back from the Spanish Civil War with her arm in a sling. Please.) It’s the idiot self-hugging over all those ‘theory’ courses. It’s the crap writing. It’s the whole damn package.

The Birmingham School in England in the 1970’s probably brought an end to English as we know it by proposing that the study of a small selection of texts written in English by a small group of mostly male white writers served to legitimate certain class interests in the university and elsewhere.

Really! Did it! Just like that! A few people in one place say one thing at one moment, and that’s all it takes? English (understood as an interest in Anglophone literature) has been brought to an end! How about that. Here’s me still liking things like ‘The Prelude’ and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Henry IV part 2’ – don’t I feel silly.

The work that emerged from the Birmingham School and that came to be called cultural studies has combined with postcolonial studies, black studies, queer studies, ethnic studies and women and gender studies to create the humanities as we know it and to spawn the constellation of debates and arguments about empire, subjectivity, hegemony, resistance, subversion, imagination and representation that currently occupy contemporary academics and that briefly but powerfully impact the lives and consciousnesses of the students who pass through humanities class rooms and others who interact in a public sphere with versions of these conversations.

Ohhh, is that what happened. Cool. So ‘English’ has taken over first all of the humanities (which would surprise some historians and philsophers of my acquaintance, among other people) and then the rest of the public sphere – by spawning debates about ’empire, subjectivity, hegemony, resistance, subversion, imagination and representation.’ Really. You know, I wouldn’t have guessed that. I really wouldn’t. Because, see, when I want to think about empire, the first place I think of to look is not, oddly enough, the English department, not even what used to be the English department but is now called the Theory Studies department. See, I tend to think there are other scholars who know more about the subject, so I read their books, instead of the books of Study Theories scholars. Hidebound of me, but there it is.

The beauty of English as a discipline in the last decade has been how flexible the field became, how receptive to new scholarship, how hospitable to queer theory, feminist studies, the study of race and ethnicity, political economy, philosophy and so on. “English” is in fact the anachronistic name we give to a far more protean field of interests and animating concerns; and the fights that we now have over English, over its relationship to the interdisciplinary forms it has given rise to, are really the aftershocks of an event that is well past.

Flexible. Hmm. Yeah, that’s one word for it. But another word (or pair of words) would be mission creep. Or not so much mission creep as mission spread all over the place like watery syrup. Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they get it that nobody wants to learn about political economy or philsophy from people in the (former) English department? Why is it that people in English-turned-Theory think they’re omnicompetent? Why is that? I’ve been wondering for years, and I’m no closer to an understanding than I ever was.

I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism. While we may all continue doing what we do — reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies — once we call it something other than “English,” (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.) it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general…

The fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies – ain’t that great? Original, too. Man, I wonder what it would be like to take a course from Judith Halberstam. I’m not tempted to find out, though.

In the process of changing from women’s studies to critical gender studies, these programs have rearticulated their theoretical projects and shifted the emphasis away from reclamations of lost pasts and affirmation of neglected perspectives and towards the consideration of transnational feminisms, gender and globalization, gender and sexuality in relation to race and so on…These interdisciplinary programs emerged as the result of shifts in the discipline that English could not accommodate and, in my opinion, they should be able to replace the traditional English department in the future by recognizing the impossibility of studying literature separate from other forms of cultural production and by exposing the counter-intuitive logic of building Humanities divisions around departments dedicated to the study of the literature and culture of the British Isles…Spivak argues that comparative literature and area studies, like certain forms of anthropology, constitute a colonial legacy in terms of the circulation of knowledge and that in order to confront and replace such a legacy, we have to reconstitute the form and the content of knowledge production.

Argh. Those last quotes come less than halfway through the article. It’s all quotable, and it’s long – so I’m going to have to stop! But how depressing. Note how bad the writing is, just for one thing. Note the boilerplate, note the endless empty listing of approved words, note the self-congratulation throughout. Note all that, and then be glad you’re not stuck in one of those departments. Life has its rewards.

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