people have no idea what we do

Remember this thread from last summer?

Maybe what we need is one of those standard responses for when people start throwing around the “Literary studies is too political! It’s too theory-laden. It’s out of touch with what the people want!” crap in the same way that Clancy did with the lame “Where are all the women bloggers?” meme.

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6 thoughts on “people have no idea what we do

  1. Ok, I’m gonna be a bitch, but hey, it’s my name.
    I think the “women bloggers” question and the “literary studies” question are the EXACT SAME QUESTION. At bottom, that is, they are questions about:
    1. Civil discourse–“bitchy women/women who won’t compromise on abortion/politicized or hard-to-understand scholarship” alienates the “masses.” We should all speak like Reasoned Gentlemen in order to appeal to a broader public. (Note that a key prop to this argument is the paradoxical idea that the masses are (1) kind of stupid; (2) all read CT and/or the old boy policy wonks and/or Harold Bloom, or whoever. Also see #3, below.)
    2. Abstractions–yes, yes, of course you have *personal* investment in this subject. But that very fact prevents you, really my dear, from seeing it As It Should Be Seen. There’s a big picture here, and you’re missing it b/c you’re so involved in minutae like MLA panels on fringe subjects, or blogging about tampons.
    3. Power/elitism–yes, English is the BIGGEST DISCIPLINE IN THE HUMANITIES, number-wise (is it the biggest discipline, full stop? Not sure, though the job crisis suggests that may be the case). Yes, there are more women than men (also, blogging, arguably–Drum cited a recent survey showing more men than women, but there is also this, which shows the opposite (and totally impressionistically, I would say that I think there probably are more women than men blogging–journalling has traditionally been a women’s activity, not a men’s activity). Yet somehow English/women are seen as marginal. Hm. Could this have to do with an assertion of power and importance as elite and/or meritocratic? Yes this contradicts what seems to be being said on the surface, which is that English isn’t popular enough (just as women’s issues aren’t broad enough, ‘scuse the pun). Ideology is contradictory, and often lies.
    4. Gender. Maybe this has something to do with English being seen as a “womanly” subject? Not as “serious” or “rigorous” as, say, political science or philosophy or math?
    Ok, that’s enough for now. If I think of any more ranty mcrants, I’ll pop back in.

  2. (But I do have to say that one of the people on the Valve is a personal friend of mine, and though I think his work is conservative in a disciplinary sense, he isn’t conservative politically, and I think he’s a good guy.)

  3. Notice, also, the conflation of conversations about literature and conversations about literary studies.
    If I say that people with advanced training in literary studies are more qualified to talk about literary studies, people accuse me of being elitist and trying to close the door on conversations about literature.
    Here’s a thought: if you’re incapable of reading carefully (and the evidence is that you consistently misinterpret what others say), that’s a good reason for me to say that you’re not as qualified to participate in the conversation.

  4. People are more qualified to talk about their own experiences in general. So inasmuch as you experience academic literary criticism as an academic literary critic, you’re much more qualified to characterize it.
    But this is not an unlimited license. Were it so, for one, no disciplinary practicioner could comment on another without precisely replicating the experience of being trained in that discipline, attending to all its institutional forms and practices and so on. For that matter, no subdiscipline could comment on any other subdiscipline. African history is quite different in a number of respects than European history in its disciplinary and institutional practices: I could raise the same fence on experiential grounds.
    This really goes for any claim of knowledge through experience: such claims, if not held in check in some fashion, rapidly devolve towards the incommensurability of any individual’s experience with any others, to a sort of solipisism.
    I think you’re right to demand a humility from many of the casual critics of academic literary criticism. But spoken too strongly, I think that demand often overlooks the specificity of experience on the other side. When I read these threads, scattered among the more typical MLA-bashing are: 1) people who are academic literary critics (say, the ALSC members); 2) other academics who know a lot about literary criticism because their own scholarly practices heavily overlap or interpenetrate academic literary criticism (I’d include myself in this category); 3) people who’ve had specific bad experiences with academic literary criticism in terms of having their own aspirational understanding of literary study rejected or demeaned. That there are many other “bashers” in these discussions is absolutely the case, and you’re right to be frustrated by them. But don’t overlook the other criticisms that are coming from much more grounded sources.

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