Literary studies in particular and humanities in general nowadays have become sedate. They don’t sweat any more. It’s time they did so again. This means giving up the pseudo-scientific notion that there is such a thing as literary studies of an objective manifold of literature, or texts. It’s not a viable notion, as it takes the trappings of science without the givens of the world that make this possible. Literary works can’t, except in an extremely isolated world that plays by its own rules, be used to construct a manifold of study: constructing such a literary world that, like the physical world, can be studied, fails to take account of the mutability of what we call works to begin with, the fact that focusing on works leaves out the rest of the iceberg of things that are related to the work but not even as permanent as works, and the complex relationship between each individual work and the world from which it is wrung, a relationship like that which defines most of life.
The point of view of literary studies, which starts with a listing of works—nowadays we call them “texts” is like the point of view of someone who insists that food grew in the supermarket under cellophane, or at least that the world outside from which these came and from which they were removed were completely irrelevant to what interests us. Works only end up in the library, as food only ends up—on the way to being eaten—in the grocery store. It’s a fundamental misdirection of attention to think our starting, and ending, place should be the store. Yet this, with literary works, is exactly the misdirection of attention that literary studies has encouraged us to do. The result is, literary studies nowadays locks us all in the library on a spring day when we’d rather—and probably should—be outside.
This literary study is largely the construction of the last half-century, as professors of literature sought to justify themselves and what they did by constructing an undertaking with the trappings of science, that respected and methodologically-heavy undertaking whose purpose in the world was clear. The paradox is that in constructing such a methodologically-heavy manifold, literary studies has shut out the world, rather than reconnected to it. Literary studies has become dry and airless, spinning away from the rest of the world on an orbit of their own. This leaves most students, young and full of life and eager to find ways to connect with the world, puzzled or alienated—and even many professors, who themselves were once young and idealistic, questioning the point of their undertaking.
Giving up literary studies means giving up the notion that we can “learn more” in any absolute sense about literature. We only learn more with respect to the last increment: we study two books by Joyce, not one. But while we are studying Joyce, what have we forgotten about Chaucer? What have we failed to learn about someone else who, by definition, remains forgotten? Oh, we say: I need not know more about Chaucer. “Literary studies” knows more about Chaucer. But what does this mean? More articles published? What of these is actually read? Of what’s read, what’s understood? What transmitted to others? What if we write so much about X, or read it, that we become heartily sick of X, or writing about X, and want only to read Y? Is this knowing more or knowing less? It’s all like making sand castles, that are swept away by the next wave. If we concentrate only on making the castle, or the next, or life seems to have a point. The illusion that we make progress in literary studies is the result of selective vision, which in turn means adopting the airless givens of the enclosed and increasingly pointless world of literary studies.