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How Buffy became literature

Peter Wicks | Wednesday, September 1, 2004

When Oxford introduced English as a degree-subject in the late 19th Century, Edward Freeman, the Regius Professor of Modern History, objected that while literature may cultivate taste and enlarge our sympathies, it was not appropriate to award degrees in the subject because “we cannot examine in tastes and sympathies.” In the absence of objective criteria of assessment, Freeman warned, the academic study of English literature would amount to “mere chatter about Shelley.” If only it had.

During the infancy of the discipline the focus was largely historical and philological – and hence examinable. That type of criticism never completely disappeared, but it was overshadowed by a series of new critical approaches to literature. This is not the place to list the order of succession, which would resemble the sort of genealogical table found in Genesis – “and Structuralism begat Poststructuralism” – which even the pious reader may be forgiven for skipping over.

For understanding the malaise in literary studies, knowing the family tree of critical schools is less important than understanding the economy of prestige in academia. Within higher education, and especially at the most eminent universities, hiring and tenure decisions depend much more on published work than on teaching abilities. Those hoping to ascend the ivory tower must publish or perish.

But whereas in the sciences there are always new experiments to be done and it is relatively easy to contribute to original research in one’s twenties, in literary studies it is hard for a PhD student or young professor to find something original to say about John Milton, which has not already been said by a professor who has devoted a lifetime to reading Milton’s work.

The two most influential innovations in the scholarship conducted in English departments, Critical Theory and Cultural Studies, are best understood as solutions to this problem.

Critical Theory originally named a philosophically informed sociology practiced by a small group of Marxist thinkers associated with the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Since the late ’70s, in English departments across the country their work was combined with ideas drawn from Marx, Freud and a number of French philosophers.

It was a heady cocktail, and under its influence literary criticism became a diagnostic exercise in which the psychological and ideological deficiencies of the great authors of the past were exposed or “unmasked” [from the Latin, literally this means “I’ve read Nietzsche”]. Literary criticism degenerated into complaints that authors failed to meet the exacting ideological standards of enlightened late 20th Century professors of literatures mixed with praise if they appeared to anticipate whatever bromide was currently in fashion at the Modern Language Association. That is to say, literary judgment ceased to be literary at all.

I do not subscribe to the view that English departments are full of tenured radicals indoctrinating students with their ideological prejudices. When a professor argues that the war against Saddam Hussein could have been avoided if everyone involved had read Wallace Stevens, even freshmen know enough to smile politely while silently marveling at the inanity of the view that there are no enemies, just book circle members we haven’t met yet. The real problem with the professors who preach their politics is not that they are indoctrinating students, but that they are wasting time that could be spent teaching them to appreciate literature.

Cultural Studies provided the other opportunity for young scholars to produce original work, by expanding the scope of literary scholarship to include film, television, airport fiction and contemporary music. And so in 1990 it was possible for Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of English at Duke, to testify in the 2Live Crew obscenity trial as an “expert witness.”

In his testimony Gates compared the rap group’s lyrics to Shakespeare’s “My love is like a red, red rose” – a comparison that would have been only marginally less absurd if it actually had been Shakespeare who wrote the line, and not the Scottish poet Robbie Burns.

The following year, Harvard offered Gates a professorship.

This semester at Notre Dame students can take a course in which they will use feminist theory to analyze Buffy the Vampire Slayer or another with a syllabus that includes Basic Instinct.

What those who read classic literature as food for political and philosophical rumination have in common with those who have given up reading it at all in favor of the works of Joe Eszterhas is that neither betrays any sense of the pleasure of literature, any hint of why anyone who isn’t trying to make a career writing about literature would ever read it.

Literature is for amateurs, in the original and best sense of the word, which is “lovers.” It is still possible to love literature and be an English professor, but as a result of the trends I have mentioned it is becoming harder for those who love literature not to hate the profession.

We should not be surprised if some who in their youth take pleasure in books find, that in their middle age, they are more engaged by politics or television. But those who teach politics and television under the guise of literature are like those priests who have ceased to believe the creeds of the Church and who instead of renouncing their priesthood convince themselves that their doubt is true faith.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He wrote this column to annoy Kristin Mahoney. Peter’s review of “Fahrenheit 9/11” can be found on his Web page. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.