Futures of Literary and Cultural Knowledge Winter 2019
Instructors: Chris Newfield & Jess Wilton
What is literary knowledge? What is the cultural knowledge produced by literary study? In this course we will address these two questions by reading from a set of major intellectual histories of literary criticism. Towards the end of the course, we will work collaboratively to identify two or three possible futures for the discipline of literary criticism.
Although research results are assumed by the existence of the research fields of English, Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, German, Comparative Literature, etc., the idea that literary criticism produces “knowledge” has long been controversial. It may also be false. Stating the “findings” of a particular work of literature or of literary study is harder than it seems at first. In addition, the awkwardly joined fields of literary and cultural study (LCS) have been doing pretty well without either a unified notion of the knowledge they produce or a methodological core to produce it. So why ask about literary and cultural knowledge now?
One reason is conceptual: understanding the long-term narratives of literary knowledge clarifies the structure of current theoretical debates in LCS, whether the topic is literary reading (“surface,” “distant,” “symptomatic”), or what literary criticism tells us about cultural and historical topics like contemporary queer affect, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.
A second reason is institutional: there are widespread doubts in both society and in the university about whether literary or cultural study produces meaningful or useable knowledge. These doubts have likely encouraged adjunctification in our corner of the humanities. The course posits that the tenure-track job market in literature and languages will not recover without more complete accounts of the status of results that LCS generates.
To address the meaning of literary and cultural knowledge, we will read selections from leading modern efforts to define the intellectual history of literary and cultural study. These works are
Richard Ohmann, English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (1976)
Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (1980)
Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012)
Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015)
Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Political History (2017).
Aarthi Vadde, Chimeras of Form (2017)
Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’ Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment (2018)
Our selections will aim at creating an improved storyline for the discipline of literary study as it has come to incorporate cultural questions and interpretations--while also making the reading load manageable.
Throughout the course, we will introduce two other types of material. One consists of short texts that introduce concepts that are crucial for the larger histories that constitute our primary reading. That includes Frederic Jameson on cognitive mapping, bell hooks and Cherrie Moraga on intersectionality, Cedric Robinson on racial regimes, Lisa Lowe on settler colonialism, among others.
The second type of material is analysis of the university as an institution. The two instructors will introduce key concepts from Critical University Studies as the material requires. While previous generations of literary critics could assume institutional growth and steady funding, today’s generation of critics cannot. We believe that LCS scholars—and LCS theory-- will benefit from new combinations of theory and institutional analysis.
Course requirements: weekly reading and participation; one class presentation of a text; and a final project, to be shaped through class discussion, which will include building scenarios for the future of LCS as informed by the course’s historical research.
Bios: Newfield is an Americanist who also works in Critical University Studies. Wilton is the English Department’s Arnhold Fellow, who is researching a project called “The Rise of Creativity and the Fate of Knowledge.”