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Home > Newsletter > Fall 2011 > Millennium Advances: Theory, Interdisciplinarity, and the Humanities

Millennium Advances: Theory, Interdisciplinarity, and the Humanities

by Edward H. Friedman

In the past—not necessarily the good old days, not necessarily inferior times—the study of literature and the reading of texts in other disciplines was, in many ways, more pat and more predictable than it is today. Stated a bit differently, the frames through which we studied texts were narrower, more stable, and less likely to be, as it were, deconstructed. When a "boom" in theory began in the 1960s—not that theory had been missing before that, of course—it caused us to be more aware of process, of variability, of instability. It even transformed some theorists into superstars. Analogous to movie actors whose names appear above the title, certain theorists and critics seemed to have more clout than the authors and works about which they were commenting. Tellingly, literary theory became theory (and, one might say, Theory with a capital t). Arguably, the change is most strikingly marked by a greater self-consciousness of the critical act per se. Scholars analyze texts along with the mechanisms through which the analyses take place. It appears that some critics want to be more "scientific," others want to be more self-reflexive, or, paradoxically, both. Heightened interest in theory leads to a more comprehensive interdisciplinarity and thus to what may be called theoretical interconnections. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that theory is the lingua franca of the humanities and the social sciences, permitting dialogues that, more likely than not, would not have occurred a few decades ago. The broad umbrella of cultural studies has widened the base of study, given that literature is part of a system but not the entire system or even the prioritized element. The enterprise of theory has grown, and the combinations and permutations of the field of criticism have increased exponentially. Look at dissertation topics from fifty years ago, and compare them with those of today. The difference is obvious, palpable, and fascinating. We are a long way from North American New Criticism, whose heyday was from the 1930s to the 1950s, and its accentuation of the literary text itself, with negligible interest in the historical author, the individual reader, generic categories, the world view of a particular era, or disciplinary border crossings. And yet, we can perhaps take comfort in—or find ironic relief in—the fact that the bottom line in theory is that we ultimately always come back, in some form or another, to the rhetoric and poetics of classical antiquity, no matter how postmodern or post-postmodern our aims.

Those of us who study and teach literature have been at an exciting juncture during the recent past. The same is true of our predecessors, from time immemorial, but this boom, so to speak, has been especially loud. In a sense, anything goes. In another, we have to convince our audience of students, scholars, and the general public (who sometimes hold the purse strings) that there is value and significance in what we do and how we do it. We want to be relevant, and we want to be true to the texts and reasonable in our setting forth of contexts. In short, canons have expanded, disciplines have blended, approaches have multiplied, and parameters have widened. Education of students in literature, at the graduate and undergraduate levels, has shifted markedly, and the themes of how to prepare students and how to preserve (and, correspondingly, to update) the study of literature are constantly on our minds. Because self-reflection is an inevitable part of the process, self-consciousness and self-assessment go hand in hand. On March 18-19, 2011, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities hosted a symposium on "The Object of Study: Theory, Interdisciplinarity, and the State of the Humanities," made possible through a Research Scholars Grant from the office of Dennis G. Hall, Vice Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. The invited speakers were David T. Gies, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia; David Theo Goldberg, Professor of Comparative Literature and Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine, and Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute; and Valerie Traub, Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. The three have been recognized for their research, their teaching, their service to the profession, their power of exploration, their opening of doors to investigation, and their innovative approaches to the subjects and objects under scrutiny. In planning the event, we asked the speakers to address, in whatever form they preferred, the topic of "the state of the art" of theory. We knew that this would lead them, and the participants, in a variety of directions and that they would supply abundant food for thought. To complement the talks, we called on distinguished faculty members from the Vanderbilt community to introduce the speakers (Earl Fitz, Mark Schoenfield, and John Sloop) and to serve as respondents (Ellen Armour, William Luis, and Dana Nelson), and there was ample time for discussion. Dean Carolyn Dever of the College of Arts and Science gave the welcoming comments, and the symposium ended with a roundtable discussion.

The title of Valerie Traub's paper is "The New Unhistoricism (and Early Modern Futures)." At the center (a loaded term in itself ) of this subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced commentary is the field of queer studies, particularly the points of contact between literature and history. The motivating force here is the "critique of the teleological impulse supposedly underwriting most queer historicist work." The premise that queer scholarship needs to be freed from "the tyranny of historicism" gives direction to the paper by allowing Professor Traub to analyze—and to present a counter-critique of, if you will—the operations that inform such huge concepts as temporality, periodization, empiricism, identity, feminism, and sexuality. In the dialectics of center and margin, and logically so, hermeneutic strategies themselves come to the fore. In sweeping but detailed strokes, Professor Traub addresses the major players and the major game plans in the debate over what Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon have called "homohistory." She recognizes that the very notion of making history, in its multiple contexts, is at stake and that tactics of dismissal, however well-intended, can do more harm than good. Professor Traub takes a stand, while searching for a synthesis that will accentuate difference without eliminating the benefits or even the admittedly thorny areas of historicism. Her ability to highlight a specific topic, to propose a practical (as well as a theoretical) thesis, and to open the deliberations to broader issues made this a compelling and dynamic opening to the symposium.

David Gies, in "The State of the Arte: Hispanism and Literary Theory," combines retrospective and current perceptions on the growth and status of Hispanic studies, trends in theory, and his personal development. He looks at how a time-honored philology joined with New Criticism and at how theory began "to creep or seep into the discipline." Professor Gies emphasizes that the research of Hispanists demonstrates both the influence of and the resistance to theory. He notes, as well, that there was a conflict between the increasingly esoteric qualities (and discourse) of theory and objections from the public sphere as to the lack of practicality of academic projects and publications, not to mention conspicuous infighting among the proponents of different schools, movements, and stances. For Professor Gies, Women's and Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, and the New Historicism come to the rescue—my phrasing—by bridging a widening and ever more hostile divide through, in a word, interdisciplinarity. This was new, but it was also a "return to hermeneutics, a return to aesthetics and style, a return to affect and pleasure, a return to the text, and a return to thematics." As a Hispanist who began his career in the 1970s, David Gies is aware that, following Michel Foucault, power is an indispensable factor, and he cannot help but recognize that "the future of Hispanism is secure," as a result of the rise of Spanish in the United States and the ensuing move of Hispanic studies from the periphery toward the center. The newly acquired power can allow Hispanists to have it many ways: to respect, borrow from, and recast the past; to have the confidence to look at theory in their own way, rather than as gleaned from English and other departments; and to relish the fresh ideas and creative sensibilities of young scholars (and of senior scholars) as an acknowledgment of transitions and change. Professor Gies's advocacy of a both/and over an either/or approach is a statement in itself, a victory of rational skepticism and good spiritedness over cynicism. If one will pardon the metaphor, the paper separates the theoretical baby from the bathwater, and unites past and present, in clever and meaningful ways.

Titled "Living in a Critical Condition: Poor Theory and the Post-Humanities," David Theo Goldberg's paper broadens the spectrum to include the place of the academy in the great scheme of things, which, naturally, has a strong economic component. Professor Goldberg raises the inevitable question of for what and for whom universities exist, and how this question has been answered previously and how it is being answered at the moment. Great Recessions affect American Dreams in overwhelming fashion. Trends mirror and adjust to the times. The educational ideals of post-war America are being "remodeled," with "a commitment, more or less explicit and unqualified, to instrumentalism, technicism, and professionalism in training," for the sake of global competition and of technical—and financial—viability. The traditional humanities may easily take a back seat to fields such as engineering, computer science, business, law, criminal justice, and tourism, along with the "self-sustaining" field of medicine. The humanities and what Professor Goldberg refers to as the "interpretive social sciences" are being called upon to transform themselves, in order to become as connected as possible to the mainstream; think digital humanities, for example. The paper summons the spokespeople, among them Stanley Fish, for the justification of the humanities by virtue of their intrinsic value, or autotelism. Professor Goldberg submits that apologies, and apologists, for the humanities often fail to consider the dramatically altered social environments and problems that have emerged recently or "how humanistic practice might creatively respond." He defines post-humanities not as "the end of the humanities, its death or demise, and so its post-mortem," but rather a "positing of alternative modalities," "a mobile, an agile humanities" that can "encourage and embrace a reformulating of public reason, of what it amounts to and how vigorously to promote it." The consequences, in this instance, would encompass economics, pragmatics, social concern, and, not coincidentally, interdisciplinarity, comprised of "historical, social, conceptual, linguistic, [and] visual rhetorical analysis" and thus of intriguing partnerships, collaborations, and coalitions. Professor Goldberg reminds us that, for the idea to work, "the humanities have to be invited in." To help make this happen, he employs the model of "Poor Theory" to allude to "a constantly renewed and renewable humanities," opened rather than closed and introspective. A key aspect of the paper is the author's commitment to the humanities and to the realities of the academy and of society. Ultimately, survival skills will have to replace abstraction and passivity, and flexibility will have to trump a stultifying idealism.

As a member of the audience and as a student of literature, I found the depth and the breadth of the individual papers to be truly impressive, and, beyond that, I found their collective thrust and range to be awe-inspiring. Textual analysis, the creation and application of contexts, the place of the humanities within the curriculum and at large, and the need to establish criteria and priorities—indeed, to face reality—were all part of the dialogue, enhanced by the on-target responses by Vanderbilt colleagues and by the remarks of those in attendance. When I teach seminars on theory, my all-inclusive question is how a determined theory or approach conceives the object of study. Decades ago, that question would have been easier—though hardly easy—to answer than it is today. A specific novel, short story, play, poem, or work of art is, in one sense, small and unique, and, in another, inseparable from a host of big pictures. David Gies, David Theo Goldberg, and Valerie Traub have helped us to understand the dual phenomenon—simultaneously, the microcosm and the macrocosm— that is literature, that is theory, and, finally, that is the world that literature and theory replicate, redefine, and make their own.

Edward H. Friedman is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Spanish and Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University, and director of the Warren Center.