In response to Ken Gelder’s ‘English, Autonomy, and the Republic of Letters’ (AHR47)

By David Carter

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Surely one of the implications of Ken Gelder’s timely essay is the need for literary studies to lose its self-justifying sense of ‘specialness’, of unique status among the humanities or among all the disciplines. None of the habitual arguments made in defence of literary studies (arguments which almost always turn—sooner or later, overtly or covertly—on literature’s uniqueness and hence on literary study’s privileged status)—none of these arguments are exclusive to the study of literature: not the teaching of ‘critical reading’, not hermeneutic suspicion, ideological diagnostics, ethical enhancement, aesthetic appreciation, critical citizenship or national self-reflection, not even ‘sensitivity to language’. Some combination of these objectives describes the ambitions of all studies in the arts or humanities.

Of course, what makes literature study ‘unique’ in a positively weak sense of the term is its object of study—literature. But this is saying or claiming no more than that cinema studies focuses on cinema, art history on the visual arts, and so on. And yet these other areas seem to do perfectly well without making the kinds of claims to singularity, centrality or transcendality (I couldn’t resist) that literary studies is habitually seduced by. (Certainly, literary scholars and teachers do much more than study literature alone but that’s a separate issue and not, in any case, unique to literary studies.)

Once we stop fantasising about literature’s special status in relation to these ambitions and see literary reading and writing as just one kind of ‘cultural technology’ among others (okay many kinds—and reading and writing need to be separated—but the points are too difficult to incorporate grammatically) then we might be able to see more clearly just what its particularities have been over time and in different places, including here and now. Having done that, we might be in a stronger position to argue why, after all, literary study deserves its place in a national secondary curriculum, without having recourse to those ‘old’ arguments that can hardly carry much conviction any longer even in their revivified forms. We might be more confident about ‘inhabiting the discipline’ and less concerned with always proving that we’re doing something else as well.

Return to Ken Gelder’s essay.
David Carter is Professor of Australian Literature and Cultural History at the University of Queensland.

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