So it turns out that – shockingly – sunshine and 85-degree temperatures are not entirely conductive to extensive nineteenth century blogging. (The fact that the only reliable internet access I had in Rincón was at bars probably didn’t help either.) And, I have to admit, that I rather enjoyed indulging in a kind of blissful nullity – at least for a few days – and letting my brain relax after the crush of the semester and the MLA whirlwind. Now, though, it’s back to work. I start teaching again on the 26th and have a big, important fellowship application due on February 1, which I’m taking as the occasion and impetus to pretty extensively revise my original dissertation prospectus, which, though much beloved by the readers within my department, was not exactly a funding magnet last spring. On a less mercenary level, I do also think it’s time to reassess the work that I’ve been doing and to rearticulate some initial assumptions and ideas. As it turns out, some of the things that I thought were going to be super-important when I first wrote the thing in Fall ’08 turned out to be the things that were holding me back by the summer of 2009, and some of my instincts seemed to be borne out in the kinds of conversations I was having at MLA. And all of this, in my mind, is justifying the revision. But that’s actually another post (though it’s not unrelated to this one).

All of this started as an attempt to make good on my promise for a blog post-mortem on the “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” panel, a way to get down whatever thoughts I had that survived my vacation. It got a bit longer, verging on conference-paper length, even in comparison to my usually lengthy posts. But it’s not at all as coherent as a conference paper would be – a point that I want to stress before I go any further in putting all these words out into the world. I should also say that the relationship between my post and the actual panel fluctuates quite a bit here, and I may have latched onto some minor points and taken things in contexts other than the ones in which they were intended.

In the end, I decided to break this up into three not-entirely-arbitrary sections. I guess you could call this first one the overview of the issues that seemed most resonant to me. In the second, I think about the panel’s relationship to Rita Felski’s “After Suspicion” piece in Profession, and in the third section, I finally get around to talking about two of my favorite topics from the Long 19th Century. But, this should suffice for tonight.

One of the things I reread in the brief but heady interlude between MLA and my vacation was Gayatri Spivak’s “Terror: A Speech After 9-11” (boundary 2 31.2 [2004]). At the very beginning of that piece, Spivak defines the mission of the humanities as “a persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires, through teaching reading” (81). That statement has a lot of affinities with what people on the “Why Teach Literature” panel—especially Jean Howard—were saying, although I wouldn’t exactly claim they were saying the same thing. I think we all agree on the importance of critical reading, particularly at a time when there are so many incentives for uncritical reading, when the public sphere, as Howard mentioned in her talk,  has been actively manipulated to create “the conditions under which stupidity arises.” While the idea of “slow reading” as a craft comparable to the discourse of “slow food” is not entirely unproblematic, I do think it has a lot of merit, and in my short career as a teacher (not of literature per se, of course, though I’d argue that I am teaching a kind of literary relation to texts more generally), I’ve always considered it to be my responsibility to encourage my students to slow down and ask questions about how the texts they read (again, literary or not) are working to produce a certain effect – and this attitude has arisen both from a sense of present political responsibility and from the work I do in Victorian literature. So, okay, reading – critical reading, the reading we learn in the humanities, etc. – we probably have to work out the details, but we can at least agree in principle that this is a laudable goal.

This idea of “the uncoercive rearrangement of desires” seems to bear a more complicated relationship to what went on in the “WTLA?” panel. (I should be clear, by the way, that unless I completely zoned out when it happened, no one on this panel invoked Spivak’s piece – I was inspired to reread it because of a paper at a panel on ethics and aesthetics in British Romanticism.) Many different answers were proposed to the “WTLA?” question – as Mia’s description below shows, some of these answers were rather blunt. But the answers that are most resonant for me have to do with literature’s role in providing the “genetic conditions” (a term that Wai-Chee Dimock used in her talk) for broad, thoughtful critical engagement with the world even in non-literary contexts and with the idea that this kind of reading, this mental engagement, this complexity is enjoyable. All of which probably means that at some point my desires got rearranged, so that I became a subject that shared a certain set of values. In my case, then, the teaching of literature could be said to have “worked” on some level.

Or something. It’s not that easy, of course, and no one on the panel came out exactly to say that we teach literature in order to attempt to effect the uncoercive rearrangement of desire in our students or in others. There’s something disturbingly intimate, fraught, risky, about putting it in those terms—not the least because Spivak does use that word “attempt”—marking the possibility that coercion may still occur even when we’re trying not to do it. And, of course, plenty of people have made arguments over the last thirty or forty years that what we consider to be literary texts are themselves engaged in coercive or ideological projects (intentionally or otherwise)—and this is why we need something like the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to help us stay on our guard, even if it means that we have to go into the disenchantment or demolition business every now and then. (Which is no doubt why I’ve often been accused by dates of “ruining” literature simply by being in graduate school for English literature and thinking that maybe that Jacky Derrida guy wasn’t a complete charlatan.)

But I do think that idea of rearrangement is interesting – in part, because it’s been helping me think through what feels in many ways like a false assumption—the idea that “critical” and reparative or reflective reading are naturally opposed. I guess this just has almost never been my experience of reading literature.

I’ve been lucky, of course, since some of this was  undoubtedly the result of having had incredibly conscientious teachers myself. And I’m sure that to some extent I don’t feel the same tension among different kinds of reading because back in the heyday of the hermeneutics of suspicion, when we were learning about all the different ways that we had to be on guard around literature, lest it interpellate or infect us with ideology, I was roller-skating around a suburban subdivision while reading Baby-Sitters’ Club books. But maybe that’s a good image for what I’m getting at here: it’s possible to do more than one thing at once when you read. (And I still have the scars from scraped knees to prove it!)

With all that being said, one of the reasons I do what I do and have always done what I’ve done is that I really do believe that critical reading can make texts more enjoyable, sometimes even more absorbing and interesting. My time as a student of literature (or, more accurately, my time as a student of the humanities and of theory) has certainly changed the way I read texts and occasionally, I suppose, has interrupted a previously uninterrogated experience, has made a fully uncritical absorption more difficult and probably impossible at times. But that may not just be a result of critical reading—it’s also what we used to call growing up. To the extent that this has been a textual experience, I would say that the texts that matter most to me (personally, professionally, aesthetically) have stood up to whatever slings and arrows that my academic life has thrown at them. That’s not to say that they’ve remained impervious, only that the practice of critical reading has opened up the text rather than shut it down.

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