Craig Stroupe   Ideas 

The Place of Literature

Consider how following book titles rhetorically situate the reading of literature to contemporary society and history:

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline

Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities

The Relevance of English: Teaching That Matters in Students' Lives

Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation

Let's read again closely some of the prominent words from these titles:

  • fate,
  • elegies,
  • rise and fall,
  • transformed,
  • reconstructing
  • future,
  • relevance,
  • matters
  • employment,
  • surrender,
  • problem,

What is literary culture worried about?

There is more going on here than just literary scholars defending the profession's home territory from outside threats like technology, popular culture, etc.:

Literary studies began as a discipline, according to Terry Eagleton’s book Literary Theory: An Introduction, as a result of “the failure of religion” during the latter nineteenth century, in the subsequent quest for a reliable “social ‘cement’” found in literary nationalism, and in an “historic shift in the very meaning of the term ‘moral’.…”: from “a formulated code…” to a “sensitive preoccupation with the whole quality of life itself, with the oblique, nuanced particulars of human experience” (49, 52).

The study of literature, according to Robert Scholes in The Rise and Fall of English offered "a safe place outside the pressures of the marketplace and the strict demands of scientific study…in a lofty place of Arnoldian “disinterestedness.” This realm was…a safe haven for professors, who had become a clergy without dogma, teaching sacred texts without a God….the last pure bastion of liberal education (27).

In his article "Literary Studies and the Disciplines," John Guillory observes: "Looking back on...disciplinary history a century later we are compelled to acknowledge that literature has been made to play a kind of allegorical role in the development of the disciplines, as the name of the principle antithetical to the very scientificity governing discipline formation in the modern university" (37).