Todd III
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Disciplining Literature in the Age of Postdisciplinarity:
An Introduction

At the outset of his contribution to this volume, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht claims that never in its almost two centuries of existence has the discipline of literary studies been so obsessed with its own origins as in the last decade. To this observation, we would like to add one more: there is perhaps no other discipline, no discursive practice or realm of knowledge, that is as obsessed about its own origins, or, in general, as obsessively self-reflective, as literary studies. The need of the second-order observer to constantly step back and survey the ground on which she stands has ossified into the sine qua non of literary scholarship; but why is this the case? As students just entering this field in the late 1980s, we were required, as an introduction to the field, to take a course in the history of criticism, a survey of the various methods that had been, since the turn of the century, invented, idolized, and then often abandoned in the face of the next theoretical vogue. Differently from the 50s, 60s, or 70s, at which time we would have learned the way to read literature according to New Criticism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, or Marxism (depending on the specific historical moment and the preferences of our teachers), we students of the late 80s and early 90s have entered a profession, perhaps unique in this respect, that quite openly and unabashedly admits to not knowing what to do with its designated object of inquiry. Criticism, we were told, is in its "post-theoretical" stage. We are "eclectic" now. Of course there are the throwback strongholds of those who think they still know the way to read literature, primarily the Marxists or neo-Marxists or socio-historical critics,1 but they are clearly in the minority. Most critics today, we were made to understand, live in benign tolerance of any and all methodology, and are even likely to alternate theoretical approaches themselves, in accordance with the project at hand.

One result of this situation, of course, is that when scholars of literature come together for any reason, they almost never talk about literature. At the very most they might discuss generally the pros and cons of different theoretical models or, slightly more often, a political topic on which they assume they can safely agree; but the notion of discussing literature would never cross their minds. For them to do so they would have to make three untenable assumptions: 1) that by literature they mean more or less the same thing; 2) that what they have to say about the literature they have read is more or less comprehensible to any other scholar of literature; and 3) that they have, in fact, read some books in common. The fact that these assumptions are far from natural to today's literary scholars is reinforced by the fact that, in many institutions, the place once held by literary studies is now being taken over by the broader, more nebulous field of cultural studies. If everything has become culture, as Gregory Jusdanis claims in his contribution to this volume, then cultural studies is the logical outcome of this metamorphosis; it becomes the ultimate meta-discipline, and a more specific term like literature is washed out in its all-encompassing glare. And yet, many of us in literature departments will have to admit, we have essentially been doing some form of "cultural studies" for years.

It would seem, then, that the honest solution would be to do what some have already done, to change our names and give up on any notion of literature's autonomous status and go criticize, under the name of culture, anything that happens to grab our fancy. Even if this were a universally desirable option—which it is not, as there are some, even today, who cherish the notion of literature as a distinct and valuable form of culture—we nevertheless must recognize the institutional constraints barring such a move. Literature, and the discipline of its study, was not created in a vacuum; and if the importance of the object has dwindled in the changing contexts of cultures and communities, the exigencies of the institutions, and their histories, remain, and must be dealt with. The common assumption of the articles in this volume is that literature and its study exist as disciplines, and as disciplines they are embedded in a particular history. To have a grasp of how to face the changes these disciplines, and those of us working within them, are undergoing, we must take account of these histories, and thereby learn how literature was disciplined, and at the same time born of its discipline.

A discipline, Jonathan Culler writes, "must suppose the possibility of solving a problem, finding the truth, and thus writing the last word on the topic. The idea of a discipline is the idea of an investigation in which writing might be brought to an end."2 In other words, the more a practice conforms to a discipline, the more it becomes disciplinary and thus authoritative. Ironically, however, such authority can never reach the end it envisions; rather, as Culler points out, it always provokes an increase in writing, as new voices and opinions successively vie for the prize of authority. While the fact of this eternal production of writing may have become the received view in the study of literature—think of the endless chain of interpretations and the inexhaustibility of the text or, more generally, the reigning eclecticism described above—other humanistic disciplines, such as philosophy, at least in its dominant North American form, to this day perceive themselves as operating according to a principle of convergence such as that contained in Culler's definition of a "discipline." From such a "philosophical" point of view (one shared, in fact, by Jürgen Habermas)3 any discipline of literary studies worthy of its name would indeed entail a rigorous "disciplining" in order to contain the infectious lack of "discipline" characteristic of things literary. Discipline would not only serve to fix the object and to arrest the play of the (literary) signifier, it would also entail the denial of the "literary" in any type of writing, whether explicitly literary, or theoretical, or philosophical.

From this perspective, to "discipline" would mean to effectuate a series of limiting distinctions upon something that already has a certain unity, but whose unity represents something uncontrollable, something wild. Literature, in this view, pre-exists its parcelling, and to realize what was there before we must work back through the particular histories of its several disciplines in order to release it in its universal and primordial splendor. But there is another sense in which the term can be understood. In this sense, instead of focusing on the emergence of various disciplines on the ground of a preceding literature (as if there had ever been such a thing: a literature in itself before the arrival of any disciplinary measures and categories), "disciplining literature" would name precisely the opposite possibility. It would insist on a notion of literature as something contiguous with and perhaps resulting from its very organization into disciplines. To think about the disciplining of literature in this way is to think about those disciplines historically, but it is not merely to reduce the contents of "literature" on the one hand to a function of a time and a place, a power differential or situation of class conflict, or, on the other, to an expression of national values and aesthetic style; rather, by opening itself to the opacity of writing, such a perspective discloses again and again the impossibility of explaining away, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, "the long-term interest of certain literary works and...the cultural significance of a distinction between the literary and the non-literary."

Such a perspective on disciplining also exposes the need of philosophy, theory, criticism to discipline this opacity of writing in such a way that it becomes again transparent, releasing the secret of its distinction to the penetrating gaze of the scholar. This is literature as myth, in Roland Barthes' sense of the term,4 its historical contingency concealed and literature itself naturalized. Its constructedness, perceived as an obstacle on the way to pure truth, pure beauty, and ultimately even pure language, is hidden in the disciplinary operations of the disciplines, which function in the academy no less than in the panopticon "as a calculated, but permanent economy."5 The contemporary conservative appeal to renounce the closing of the American mind and to reject tenured radicals is thus itself an extension of a rigorous disciplinary apparatus that is perceived by its proponents as an array of natural kinds rather than the historical actualization of one possibility in the immense disorder of things. However, is it not also the case that the genealogical critic, whose work aims to unmask the constructedness of literature behind the machinations of the disciplines, is equally involved in disciplining the opacity of writing, by attributing literature's distinction entirely to its disciplines?

It is this diaphanous space, the excluded middle separating two equally undesirable alternatives, which the contributors to "Disciplining Literature" attempt to negotiate. In this respect, this volume is unique: a collection of scholars from a variety of literary disciplines—real disciplines, as they exist now, in real institutions: Comparative Literature, French and Italian, German Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, English, Slavics, East Asian Studies, Classics—each analyzing the history of his or her own discipline in its institutional context, with the aim of addressing one, central question: in light of its disciplinary history, what is to become of literature and literary studies now?

The first selection, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's "The Origins of Literary Studies—And Their End?" presents us with this quandary: is to ask the question concerning the origin of a discipline necessarily to contemplate the possibility of its demise? Gumbrecht challenges literary scholars to do just that, to recognize that in the current intellectual climate, one in which the academic discipline of literary studies has been more "intensely fascinated by its own history" than ever before, "the concentration of literary scholars on the origins of their discipline is not independent from a confrontation with the very real possibility of its end." By way of a careful analysis of the "social functions" that led to the emergence of the disciplines almost two centuries ago and of the "intellectual premises" that reigned over their first hundred years of existence, Gumbrecht offers a compelling explanation for the crisis of identity that literature (and the humanities in general) is suffering today, and a no-nonsense review of the options available for its future.

Stephen Greenblatt's article, "Benefit of Clergy, Benefit of Literature," announces itself as an attempt to answer the question of what we do when we study literature, of what meaning literature and its study have for the present. In this light, he proposes that "as the belletristic and national models slowly crumble about us, we look at some of the uses of the term 'literature' before either of these models was yet in place." This glance toward the prehistory of our current models of literature leads the author in two apparently opposing directions: the first toward "literature's implication in institutional structures, its deep functional utility"; the second toward its persistent relation with the mystical and ghostly presence of genius literarius, the creative spirit to which literature almost universally refers. Literature, he concludes, "is functionally powerful precisely because it carries the traces of those who are now only ghosts, because it has the uncanny ability of seeming to be written, as St. Paul puts it, 'for us,' because it has always stalked the boundary between life and death."

In "Russian Literature: Projects for the Future," William Mills Todd advances, from the vantage of an institutional history of Russian literary production and scholarship, six projects for the future of Russian literary studies: a series of historical studies of the "social construction of literary roles and discourses in Russian culture"; the recuperation and examination of the literature that has been traditionally excluded from the Russian canon; the study in literature of "private life and attendant topics involving sexuality and gender"; a study of the relationship between literature and science in Russia during the past two centuries; a return to the critical traditions of pre-Soviet Russia, in order to "discover entire critical traditions that have been neglected by both Soviet and Western scholarship"; and finally, a reexamination of the role of the aesthetic in Russian culture, a category traditionally "dismissed as reactionary or irrelevant by Russia's critical intelligentsia."

From the perspective of a detailed review of the history of East Asian studies in Europe and the United States, a history that reveals the surprising extent to which the cultures of East Asia have been figured and analyzed in Western terms and for Western strategic purposes, Pauline Yu, in her "Disorientations: Asian Literatures in the University," asks the difficult question of how the discipline of Asian literary studies should proceed. What, in other words, should be the attitude of scholars of East Asian literature (and, indeed, East Asian scholars) to the analytical paradigms—theory, comparative literature, literary history—that are available in Western institutions, paradigms that are themselves fully implicated in the persistent, and persistently unequal, binary relation that has characterized East Asian studies' existence in those institutions since its inception?

In his "Where Did Great Books Come From Anyway?" W. B. Carnochan looks to the late 19th century, the age of Great Books in the English context, for the origin of the modern obsession, in literary as well as other domains, with formalizing the defining works of Western culture into lists organized according to the slippery criterion of greatness. He underlines the inherent messiness of such projects of cultural taxonomy by demonstrating to what extent the project was undermined at its very foundation by petty disagreements and the efforts of luminaries working at cross-purposes.

Thomas Habinek's contribution, "Singing, Speaking, Making, Writing: Classical Alternatives to Literature and Literary Studies," is an exploration of the notion of SONG in classical antiquity, leading to a polemic against the tendency of classicists to implicitly accept modern standards and modern terminologies in the analysis of classical "literature." Indeed, if we are to take the evidence of the past seriously, then, according to Habinek's argument, "there seems no justification for the exclusively literary study of classical literature in the context of a Classics department," but rather, such departments should extend their purview to "the investigation of special utterances differentiated from everyday speech through a variety of features." Such a scholarly perspective might, in fact, eventually find "the intrinsic terminology of performance" more useful than that of the literary in the historical study of our cultural past.

In "The Past, Present, and Future of Germanistik," Peter U. Hohendahl interrogates the relation between language and literature departments in the United States and their corresponding institutions in their "homeland," in this case, specifically, the relation between German Studies and Germanistik. While German Studies departments have traditionally been seen as satellites to Germanistik departments in Germany, more recent developments in the field have seen deep changes in this situation, both methodological and in terms of the ends the two institutions exist to serve. Whereas Germanistik has responded to the general crisis in literary studies by "reaffirming its older task of providing the basis for a politics of cultural identity," its American counterpart has taken off in new directions, "directions for which there are no parallels in contemporary Germany." Far from decrying this loss of a unified project, Hohendahl sees in this development an opportunity to approach the problems of German culture from new, anthropologically inflected perspectives, an approach he terms the culture model of German studies.

In "New World Studies and the Limits of National Literatures," Roland Greene sets forth a program of research and pedagogy he calls new world studies, a practice that, while situated in specific historical and cultural "contact zones" (Mary Pratt) between "worlds," nevertheless emphasizes the "transhistorical dialogues over formative new world issues carried out across differences of race, language, institution, and nation." Greene envisions this project as playing an important role in the reorganization and "redisciplining" of literary studies in an institutional context that makes the ultimate dissolution of the national literature model unlikely at best. Rather than ignoring the inherent problem of national identities within the various literary disciplines—a problem that often continues to inhere despite efforts to change departmental structures to better fit the current climate in the humanities—Greene offers a research paradigm that actively examines the role of European colonial history in the production of its own cultural traditions, by way of and from the vantage of its interactions with the new worlds it encounters, and that uses the commonalities of new world experiences to assemble objects of literary and cultural study from what would otherwise appear disparate places and times.

In "Beyond National Culture?" Gregory Jusdanis argues that the historical moment that saw the mutual entanglement and dependence of culture and the nation-state is over. Culture has become, in this age of multinational capitalism, commodified through and through, and, as a result, has become ubiquitous and borderless. If this is the case, if the nexus between culture and national identity has eroded beyond repair, what is the place of literature, once so important a tool in the construction of cultural identities? According to Jusdanis, we must acknowledge that literature can no longer lay claim to the autonomous status it enjoyed throughout the history of modernity. With the diffusion of culture, literature becomes one among many indexes of experience of the micro-communities threatened with eventual dispersal in culture's deluge, and the practice of reading and studying literature inevitably returns to the social realm it inhabited before it was granted its independence with modernity.

In "Along the Fault Line: An Epilogue to Disciplining Literature," Jeffrey Schnapp, one of the editors of this volume and the organizer of the conference from which the majority of these essays were culled, describes in detail the institutional context at Stanford University that inspired the conference and the atmosphere of anxiety in which it took place. This atmosphere was the result of the realization on the part of the organizers, the participants, and the humanistic departments at Stanford that apocalyptic premonitions concerning the future of literary studies might not be so far off the mark, if not as a result of internal, philosophical interrogations of the disciplines' purpose, then as a result of external, practical interrogations. Despite the apparently dire situation of the humanities in general, Schnapp claims that the literary disciplines at Stanford might be learning to profit from their position abutting a literal and figurative fault line, by taking up the challenge to rethink their purposes relative to the other disciplines (medicine, athletics, the physical sciences), thereby creating new paths of exchange not encompassed by traditional humanistic "interdisciplinarity."

Finally, it is this notion of interdisciplinarity that is at issue in a series of responses to Charles Bernheimer's 1993 Report to the American Comparative Literature Association. This "roundtable" discussion comprises the views of four literary scholars from Stanford's faculty: Jeffrey Schnapp, of French and Italian; Russell Berman, of German Studies; Herbert Lindenberger, of English, who is also a recent president of the MLA; and Valentin Y. Mudimbe, of French and Italian. Each of these scholars is also a member of the Comparative Literature department at Stanford (in addition to, in some cases, a few others), and each has a distinct (and in all cases distinctly different from that of the Bernheimer Report) view of what comparative literature is and what it should be.

An introduction is not the place for a conclusion, and this will not be an exception. The essays, the roundtable discussion, even the reviews contained in this volume, while coming from a dizzying multiplicity of perspectives and particular histories, are all dealing with one, almost overwhelming problem: how does one transcend a history without suppressing it; how does one acknowledge a history without being enslaved by it? This, after all, is the question of discipline.

William Egginton
Peter Gilgen



(1) See Fredric Jameson, "Marxism and Historicism," in The Ideologies of Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) 148, where he affirms the priority of Marxist analysis as "an ultimate and untranscendable semantic horizon."

(2)   Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982) 90.

(3)  Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988) 219-247.

(4) Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 155 f.: "Myths are nothing but this ceaseless, untiring solicitation, this insidious and inflexible demand that all men recognize themselves in this image, eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them one day as if for all time. For the Nature, in which they are locked up under the pretext of being eternalized, is nothing but a Usage."

(5)  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995) 170


© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.