Jeffrey T. Schnapp
Todd III
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Along the Fault Line:
An Epilogue to "Disciplining Literature"

This volume originated in a conference held at Stanford's Humanities Center on May 6-7, 1994, which bore the title Disciplining Literature: Past, Present, and Future Institutions of Literary Study. As I think back to the event with the benefit of three years of hindsight, I find it difficult to describe, not to mention to fully explain the air of anxiety that accompanied its unfolding. But suffice it to say that the air in question was thick enough to be cut with the proverbial knife. So much so that for some members of the conference audience I suspect that the semantically indeterminate disciplining in the title referred not to the rituals and rule-sets governi

Johann Schoffer, Inquisition by torture. Landesbibliotek Coburg
ng academic fields, but to an impending punishment awaited from on high. For these audience members, the conference emblem that I devised—a book bound in a black leather harness appareled with spikes and studs—hinted neither at the erotic potentialities of literary study nor at some future or past disciplinary armature. No, it must have loomed like yet another dark omen, the sign of a vengeful administrative god.

Some institutional history is required in order to make sense of the above: an institutional history that, though local in character, will perhaps echo that of other localities. Stanford is an anomalous institution when compared with its principal Ivy- and non-Ivy league peers in one decisive respect. It was not built around a core consisting in a liberal arts college, despite the efforts that its architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, made to intimate the contrary by laying out the campus around the central quadrangle housing the School of Humanities and Sciences. Stanford undergraduate alumni, therefore, rarely identify their experience with a distinct and detachable undergraduate entity. For them, the School of Humanities and Sciences is little more than an administrative phantom and the university as a whole a vast, decentralized abstraction, within which a single toehold—usually the department of their major or their residential unit—commands their special loyalty. On an organizational plane, the university's structure reinforces this perception. It consists in a horizontal array, with various Schools—Engineering, Business, Law, Earth Sciences, Education, Medicine—sitting at the table alongside Humanities and Sciences, each enjoying relative autonomy from a budgetary and development standpoint, while sharing revenues according to a set of complex ad hoc arrangements and formulae. Some of the schools are large and some small; most are wealthy, some less so; many possess state-of-the-art research facilities; some have little or no connection to the university's teaching programs, while others are directly tied in. But one fact is indisputable: the vast majority of undergraduate studies take place under the aegis of the phantomatic School of Humanities and Sciences, where, generally speaking, departments are significantly smaller than at peer institutions.

All of this to begin to account for the distinctive anxieties and energies that have long circulated within the non-Anglo-American literary disciplines at an institution where, in the place of self-assuredness, what has often prevailed in its stead is an acute sensitivity to the powerful, and in the view of some, the overpowering presence of the disciplines associated with the study of technics and science. The result is an absence of confidence (however illusory or historically naive) that the liberal arts disciplines represent a "natural" feature of the university landscape that one so frequently encounters at traditional liberal arts colleges and elite research universities; a haunting sense of ontological instability akin to the instability of the soil along one of the American continent's most active fault lines. To some the feeling of standing on shifty, unsteady ground has seemed a welcome occasion for self-scrutiny and experimentation; to others less inclined to revel in "living on the edge," it has seemed a curse and a premonition of impending doom.

Neither view is groundless. Advocates of the first rightly celebrate the exceptional freedom for cross-disciplinary experimentation that prevails at a university like Stanford, whether in the form of interdisciplinary programs like Modern Thought and Literature, entities like the Center for the Study of Language and Information, and departments like Comparative Literature; or within the confines of an overall academic atmosphere where disciplinary boundaries are generally assumed to be permeable and/or susceptible to constant rearrangement. Though tempered by the standard disciplinary restrictions upon undergraduate majors and graduate students, both categories of students are nonetheless encouraged to pursue heterodox and inventive intellectual trajectories, particularly when their border crossing involves leaps back and forth across the partitions that separate literary studies from the sciences and the social sciences. And this freedom translates into an abundance of inter-departmental initiatives. In a single four-year stretch, for instance, the Comparative Literature department alone, my secondary home department, was the initiator of collaborative ventures with Philosophy, History, Anthropology, Music, Art History, Athletics, and the Law School.

Advocates of the second view do not necessarily reject this picture, but note the smallness and isolation of the foreign literature disciplines within an institution where, despite the paying of much lip-service to internationalism and the existence of an extensive network of overseas campuses, there are few palpable signs of an enduring commitment to foreign language studies. They rightly cite the fact that, up until the academic year 1996-1997, Stanford was alone among its peer institutions in expecting little more than a pittance of foreign language competence of its undergraduates. Indeed, for the last several decades, the "equivalent" of first year collegiate competence in a single foreign language was the sole language requirement, with "equivalency" being defined as three years of high school language study: a standard so weak that it exempted more than three-quarters of entering undergraduates from any foreign language study whatsoever. That a status quo so "appalling"—to echo the adjective that most regularly crossed the lips of colleagues during the year of lobbying that culminated in the approval of a new, more demanding standard—should have endured for so long points to more than just a lack of leadership or intellectual vision in the highest administrative circles. It is symptomatic, rather, of the political weakness and marginality of small departments within a large institution where the needs of undergraduate engineers have to be reconciled with the conventional demands of a broad liberal arts education, and where the power of professional schools and vocational pressures have always borne a special weight.

Two earthquakes set the world I have just described on edge: one literal and one figurative. The first was the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 which shook the material foundations of the buildings housing most of Stanford's foreign language and literature departments. In its wake, a mass relocation became necessary and resulted in a diaspora that diminished both enrollments and morale. Small departments were spun off to various temporary locations. The largest departments found themselves relegated to hand-me-down trailers set up in a remote parking lot (and abandoned only at the beginning of the 1996-1997 academic year, thanks to the completion of restorations to their traditional home, near the central quadrangle of the campus). The second calamity did not seem calamitous, at least initially, for it appeared distant from the concerns and cares of Stanford's foreign language and literature departments: namely, the indirect costs scandal in which Stanford became embroiled with the federal government. But, as the financial repercussions of the affair became evident and as committee after committee was set up to undertake the downsizing packaged under the label of "repositioning," panic began to set in. Who would bear the brunt of the impact? Would there be an across-the-board approach or would it be selective? And, if the latter, would the selection be made on the basis of academic distinction, degree of dependence upon federal research dollars, or political heft? Given the small size of the foreign language and literature departments, and, particularly, the perennially small enrollments in upper division and graduate literature courses, there were good reasons for concern. The details of how "repositioning" was actually implemented over the following two years would be too laborious to recount, but two points are worth underscoring: first, the foreign language and literature departments were indeed subject to special scrutiny (to the point that there was even serious consideration given to the merits of "farming out" all foreign language training to some outside entity); second, nearly every sector of the university underwent some sort of downsizing, but the cutbacks' impact was felt with special acuity by already small departments. Most of the latter found themselves reduced in size; some very significantly so. To cite but a single example, my own principal home department of French and Italian lost two out of five faculty positions in Italian and three out of twelve in French. Graduate fellowship pools were reduced. Staffs were cut back at both the center and the periphery, while functions once performed by central offices were downloaded onto departmental secretaries.

In the course of "repositioning" discussions, the conviction had matured in administrative circles that "something had to be done" about the foreign language departments. Their upper-level enrollments and numbers of majors appeared small (though not when compared to peer institutions) and, in one or two cases, declining; certain members of their faculty seemed to be teaching very few students; and, despite high national rankings and excellent graduate job placement rates, doubts were being raised by some about the rigor and distinction of some of their programs. There were also the standard concerns about the inefficiency and, therefore, the elevated costs associated with running such small administrative units. So to further stir up the already turbulent pot came a decanal initiative to rethink the future of the foreign language and literature departments. This 1993 initiative assumed the form of both a carrot and a stick. The carrot in question was a new fund—the so-called "25K Fund" of which, as chair of the Comparative Literature Department, I served as secretary—made available to promote inter-departmental collaborative activities and initiatives. The stick was yet another committee charged with considering everything from the creation of a single unified Modern Languages and Literatures department—a solution rejected out of hand by nearly everyone—to some sort of federation of departments sharing a common executive committee and administrative staff—the solution that was eventually adopted. The committee was composed of representatives of the foreign literature departments, whose expertise was supplemented by that of several senior colleagues from other departments. In the course of a year of grueling debates and under the heroically patient leadership of the Senior Associate Dean of  Humanities, John Etchemendy, the decanal committee met and deliberated under a sometimes veiled and sometimes not-so-veiled threat. Various institutional arrangements were discussed, with predictable schisms quickly emerging between the advocates of national or single language-based models of literary inquiry and comparatist or generalist models. By mid-year, in the wake of much hand-wringing and arm-twisting, the consensus was beginning to emerge that eventually led to the formation of an experimental entity called the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages: a loose federation of independent departments joined together by a single integrated staff and overseen by an Executive Committee, made up of department chairs, the director of the newly created Language Center, and two ad hoc faculty appointees. The precise nature and extent of the executive committee's powers, the role of its chair, the impact that the sharing of staff might have upon departmental identity, concerns that integration might be a prelude to further downsizing and/or to the formation of a single department: all of these issues hovered in the air as I drafted the following statement/press release to help orient participants in one of the 25K Fund's first major undertakings:

    The Departments of Comparative Literature, French and Italian, German Studies, Slavic Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, and Asian Studies are pleased to announce an upcoming conference entitled Disciplining Literature: Past, Present, and Future Institutions of Literary Study to be held on May 6-7 at the Stanford Humanities Center Annex. The conference is concerned: a) with the history of the individual national literary disciplines within the modern university; b) with the present situation of the national literature disciplines with respect to the rise of cultural studies and theory-driven methodologies, the growth in comparative/multidisciplinary approaches, and the impact of new transnational media, communications, and knowledge technologies; and c) with the future of literary studies in the contemporary university.

    Ever since the late nineteenth century, when they were first integrated into university curricula and granted the status of departments, nation- or language-based literary disciplines have been a standard feature of the modern university. "Standard" inasmuch as the very definition of the university as an institution was thought to presuppose a commitment to fields such as Anglo-American, Hispanic, Germanic, Asian, Slavic, and Romance literary studies. Yet forces of change within the disciplines themselves, as well as the budget and culture wars of the past decade, have demonstrated that this assumption can no longer be taken for granted. Whether at Stanford or within the great state university systems, a debate has been raging over the desirability of alternate groupings and taxonomies.

    The situation has been particularly dramatic in foreign literature fields, yet it extends as well to the domains of American and English studies. Literature programs now face as a part of their daily existence the need to relegitimate themselves, and to defend the assets they have and to which they would lay claim. And this quotidian struggle is not just driven by the paucity of resources and budget pressures nor by the shifting demographics of the modern university and the ensuing canon and turf wars, but rather, by a far broader crisis of legitimacy. For over two decades now, the taxonomy of disciplines, and of the literary disciplines in particular, has come under ever increasing pressure: whether due to the rise of "theory" and the consequent growth of those cross-disciplinary zones within the contemporary university where theoretical discourses have flourished; or due to the pressures exerted by forces that would seek to vocationalize the teaching of language and literature.

    Within this setting, it seems at once timely and urgent that departments not simply "react" to the crisis, but rather view this crisis as an occasion for historical and critical self-reflection. If one is to judge by recent publications concerning the institutional history of various literary disciplines, such self-reflection is already underway. But it has occurred in isolation and outside of the framework of intradepartmental and administrative debates on the future of the literary fields. Disciplining Literature: Past, Present, and Future Institutions of Literary Study aims to remedy this situation, providing an opportunity both for the tracing of a differentiated history of nation- and language-based literary fields and for critical and historical self-reflection.

    If such an enterprise is to go beyond the usual critical bounds, it must necessarily bring together not only scholars from the broad spectrum of the literary disciplines, but also administrative officials and high-level representatives of major foundations and grant-giving organizations. To this end the conference will be divided up into three broad domains: I) the "historical" ("Nation- and Language-Based Literature Disciplines and the Modern University"); II) the "diagnostic" ("Presents and Futures for the Literary Disciplines"); and III) the institutional ("Administering Literatures"). And within these domains, three topics or sets of questions are envisaged:

    I: the history of the constitution of the individual national literary disciplines and their institutionalization;

    II: the contemporary situation of the national literature disciplines with respect to the rise of cultural studies, the growth in comparative/ multidisciplinary approaches, of theory as an institution, of new media, communications, and knowledge technologies;

    III: the future of literary studies in the contemporary university: why should literature be taught? what is its truth-status/instrumental value? how can we justify its presence? Is language still a foundational factor such that departments ought to be built around a language-based concept, or is geography—an area studies model—more adequate to the task?

Perhaps not a masterpiece in memo-writing. (Indeed, I must confess that I find its publication vaguely embarrassing, my embarrassment being akin to that which I feel when looking back at the radical pamphlets on which I cut my political teeth.) But it has the virtue of laying out the framework that gave rise both to the conference and to the present special issue. The conviction undergirding it, and the conviction of the organizing committee (which included Gregory Freidin [Slavic], Barbara Fuchs [Comparative Literature; now at Washington University, Saint Louis], Yasushi Ishii [Spanish], Herbert Lindenberger [English and Comparative Literature], Rob Robinson [German], Michael Wyatt [French and Italian; now at Wesleyan University]), was that the event ought to fold the local situation into a global analysis of the situation of university-based literary studies at the end of the twentieth century and vice versa. No precise outcome was anticipated or expected. No miraculous clearing of the skies or multiplication of loaves. Our only aim was to stage an alternative, less apprehensive sort of conversation, decoupled from local panics and passions.

From this standpoint the conference proved a success. With the Humanities Center Annex brimming over with audience members (despite the lure of springtime), such a conversation did in fact take place. It mingled histories of individual disciplines with overall assessments, intellectual autobiography with the analysis of academic structures and policies, the pragmatics of administering literature with debate over literature's philosophical underpinnings. Involved were the president of a major university (William Chace [Emory]); two deans (Pauline Yu [UCLA]; John Etchemendy [Stanford]); the executive director of the Modern Language Association (Phyllis Franklin) and its current president (Herbert Lindenberger [Stanford]); a former director of the Stanford Humanities Center (Bliss Carnochan); numerous present or past department chairs (including myself, Jean-Marie Apostolides [Stanford], Luigi Ballerini [UCLA], Charles Bernheimer [University of Pennsylvania], Roland Greene [University of Oregon], Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht [Stanford], Peter Uwe Hohendahl [Cornell], Maria Rosa Menocal [Yale], Mary Louise Pratt [Stanford], William Todd [Harvard]); as well as distinguished scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt (UC Berkeley), John Guillory (Johns Hopkins), Robert Harrison (Stanford), Gregory Jusdanis (Ohio State), Earl Miner (Princeton), Marjorie Perloff (Stanford), and Hayden White (Stanford). In the place of a single common thread (beyond the commonplace conviction that the study of literature, however the term is understood, remains a worthy, even enthralling activity), it was my book bound in a black leather harness, appareled with spikes and studs, that emerged as the unexpected conversational touchstone. Speakers pointed to its cover, stroked it, invoked it, recoiled from contact with it; they speculated about the volume bound within, about its contents, its nature, its condition. All as if the object itself were choreographing their efforts to diagnose the past, present, and future state of the literary disciplines. The local scene was sometimes the direct referent of these choreographies; more often it was not. There was much talk about the "multicultural" turn in recent American literary studies; its differential impact upon various disciplines (potentially great in the case of English, Spanish, French, and the Asian languages; negligible in the case of German, Slavic, and Italian); the promise, prehistory, and limitations inherent in its critique of the canon; its mono- or multi-lingual implications; its relevance or, more often, irrelevance within other national or continental settings. There was also a recurring dispute over the degree of autonomy enjoyed by literary discourse and, by extension, over the degree to which literary history can be disentangled from other varieties of cultural history and their methodologies. Finally, there were the inevitable musings about the overall future of the profession, the job market, the politics of hiring and firing, the impact of new media technologies on pedagogical practices, and the like.

So what became of the collision between public event and local context? Nothing readily visible or immediate, though I would not rule out that Disciplining Literature left in its wake some lingering and/or oblique positive influences. If not a catalyst for change, then it served at least as an escape valve and as an incubator for clear-headed thoughts on what cements the literary disciplines together and what pulls them apart, whether at Stanford or elsewhere. In the weeks following the conference's conclusion, the precise terms for the foundation of a Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL) were hammered out. Not that the cloud of anxiety had suddenly lifted. On the contrary, an ill-timed decanal announcement of yet another round of budget cuts unleashed a storm of protest so fierce that, at least for a moment, the entire initiative seemed about to sink. Yet the storm eventually abated and the Dean's committee went back to work and reached agreement on what is best characterized as a "minimalist" solution. According to its terms, individual departments and department chairs would retain their traditional autonomy and powers. On matters of appointments and promotions, however, dossiers would be vetted by an Executive Committee, whose recommendations would be forwarded, in turn, to the Dean's office. Budgets would remain independent, but staff operations would be centralized according to a plan that would allow each department to retain at least one administrator that it could call its own. No reduction in overall staffing levels would result. The 25K Fund would pass under the wing of the Executive Committee where it would continue to be used to encourage inter-divisional endeavors. A centralized DLCL pool of billets, and graduate fellowships would be created, above and beyond the existing resources of each department, to be distributed on a competitive basis. Entrusted with adjudicating matters of collective interest and granted an advocacy role within the university vis à vis the Division's component departments, the Executive Committee would elect its own chair on a year-by-year basis. His or her powers would be limited to chairing the committee (which is to say that in no sense would he or she occupy a higher rank than the chair of a member department).

Such, at least, was the skeletal structure that emerged at the end of the 1993-1994 academic year. That the eventual musculature might include some shared graduate or undergraduate core courses, a freshman Humanities track, and even collaborative majors was not excluded, though it would not be part of the start-up phase. And the results of the experiment? As expected, the first year was largely devoted to fleshing out the responsibilities and protocols of the Executive Committee. Procedures and standards for the evaluation of promotion dossiers were worked out and several cases were submitted and reviewed, with the Executive Committee's votes being ratified by the Dean's office in each and every case. Mechanisms were devised for the competitive allocation of DLCL graduate fellowships and for the use of DLCL billet resources. Searches for central staff personnel were run, with numerous existing staff members either moving up a rung or being waived into new positions (with a downgrading of their administrative rank, though not their salaries, in some cases). Most of all, with the energetic support of the current provost and president, the Executive Committee played an instrumental role in leading the campaign for the approval of a new foreign language requirement. The prior standard ("equivalency of one year of university-level training") was thereby replaced by a still modest, but tougher formula: "demonstrable attainment of the first-year university level competence"—the latter being fully spelled out as the ability, for instance, to read items in a foreign language newspaper, while "demonstrability" would be based upon the results of placement examinations. The new standard went into effect in the fall of 1996, but its impact upon foreign language enrollments has already been significant.

Now entering its fourth year of existence, the DLCL is beginning to attain a kind of normalcy. The integration of academic staffs was completed during the summer of 1996. And memory of the two earthquakes alluded to above has begun to fade to the degree that the overall budget situation has improved and the diaspora ended with the foreign language departments now clustered together along the periphery of the Quadrangle, most in their original homes. A happy ending? On the whole. Not that the illusion of groundedness has suddenly and definitively been embraced by all. Nor should it be, given the lingering sense of crisis and disarray within significant sectors of the current disciplinary grid, the humanistic-literary one being only a single case in point.

But crisis or no crisis, disarray or no disarray, one thing is certain: my black-leather-bound book has temporarily retired to the bottom shelf of a living room coffee table, where it continues to serve as a conversation piece and memento mori. The identity of its contents is by now a mystery to almost no one: the omnibus writings of Francis of Assisi. All of which goes to show that you can judge a book by its cover, for who better than a holy fool could combine the celebration of the divinity of little things with a summons to attend to our collective ephemerality?

Jeffrey T. Schnapp

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.