Zachary Samalin (English, PhD Program, GC)
J. Hillis Miller’s talk on “Why Literature?” voiced a number of concerns about the rationale for and merits of teaching literature at the present historical moment; a moment which he characterized by mentioning environmental and financial crises, ultraconservative reaction, various, mostly negative, transformations within the university system, a perceived rising tide of philistinism and the obsolescence of printed matter — perhaps of the book itself — under what, quoting Derrida, he hailed as a “new regime of telecommunications.” This is not a new critical gesture — I call it ‘The Big Oh No’ — and Miller didn’t exactly wind up in uncharted waters, either, by claiming that the kind of careful attention that reading a poem demands can be useful training for counteracting the ideological mayhem of the world at large.
The questions Miller’s seminar raised responded less to an actual need to justify the study of literature today (certainly not to a room full of English PhDs) than to a historically grounded defensiveness inherent to certain forms of critical practice. The talk was not about literature or the value of literature per se, but rather about whether or not there is any social utility to the institutional study of literature as it has been variously practiced, roughly, for the last half-century, century, or perhaps two centuries. At the same time, though, Miller recognized that one way of thinking about literature — taken in the terms of his talk to be something like canonical literature — is that it can be used to combat the sense of an increased pressure within society for things to perform some specific function, whether it be entertainment or work or pleasure or whatever. So think about it: Miller began by asking whether there were a specific social function for the study of literature at the present moment and ended by saying that literature can be used to combat ideological demands for social instrumentality. The question “Why [Study] Literature?” twists itself up into a pretzel as soon as we start contrasting interpretive practice from more ‘necessary’ or ‘useful’ forms of social behavior.
For Raymond Williams, this push and pull has shaped the development of the larger idea of the aesthetic from 18th and 19th centuries onwards. The restrictive designation of certain kinds of writing as literature, the need to protect and cordon off certain forms of productivity as creative or artistic or imaginative, all register a protest against the same kinds of social conditions that slash funding for the arts and humanities today because they are not instrumental to economic recovery. But this defensive response comes freighted with its own internal expectations that aesthetic production justify itself — as with Miller’s expectation that reading poetry closely is a skill that can be repurposed to combat ideology.
The picture of the present that Miller gave us was not coherent enough to sustain such a heavy question. Some of the social problems he was talking about, like financial crises, are in large part beyond the reach of English professors, in their professional capacities, directly to prevent and to remedy; whereas some of the problems he mentioned were matters of internal debate — whether English departments should just give up the ghost, become cultural studies departments, and only study video games, for example; and some were right on the line, like the question of increased reliance on contingent faculty, particularly from English departments, or the future of the printed book. These different responses each belong to difference discussions, and ought to be distinguished; it makes no sense to elevate the process of learning to read poetry to such a lofty position that it would be made to answer for all these different social problems — no kind of reading could shoulder a burden that big.