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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bruce Fleming says the professionalization of literary studies killed literary study.

The major victory of professors of literature in the last half-century — the Great March from the New Criticism through structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism — has been the invention and codification of a professionalized study of literature. We've made ourselves into a priestly caste: To understand literature, we tell students, you have to come to us. Yet professionalization is a pyrrhic victory: We've won the battle but lost the war. We've turned revelation into drudgery, shut ourselves in airless rooms, and covered over the windows.

The good news is that we've created a discipline: literary studies. The bad news is that we've made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world.
To the extent he has a point, it seems to me to be a question of pedagogy, not discipline or professionalization. Pedagogically, perhaps, we can do better. But with regard to critical theory and "literary studies" I think we're doing pretty good—it's not drudgery or hermeticism if you're doing it right.