How do you Make Literature Studies Relevant?

By Julia Alekseyeva, Gabriella Lindsay, and Wassim Rustom

This post is the fourth in a series on the work of the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique. The Critical Theory Workshop is a dual-language intensive research program, founded by Gabriel Rockhill and sponsored by Villanova University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy. It takes place every summer at the Sorbonne in central Paris. Open to graduate and undergraduate students, as well as to faculty or independent researchers and writers, it provides an international platform for trans-disciplinary, comparative and engaged work in critical social theory (in the broadest sense of the term). For more information, as well as videos and links to social media accounts, visit the website: https://criticaltheoryworkshop.com.

A picture of the Critical Theory Workshop 2016 participants.
A picture of the Critical Theory Workshop 2016 participants.

Literature departments in the United States (and, to varying extents, globally) are currently struggling to maintain the kind of cultural relevance and intellectual novelty they held in the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s. The study of literature lacks a clearly defined set of dominant interpretive paradigms; what literature departments do or ought to do provokes disagreement and debate and scholars’ divergent approaches are at times incompatible. For instance, while some departments focus on translation and the global canon, others argue that literature must necessarily be immersed in a critical tradition. While some focus on historicization, others favor more traditional practices of close reading. Even the very concept of what constitutes a literary object of study can vary greatly according to different scholars. Indeed, many disciplines in the humanities, such as area studies or media studies, are in a similarly transitional moment.

We came to the Critical Theory Workshop concerned with reconciling varying approaches to the interpretation and status of literature. For Gabriella, currently in a joint program between a French literature department and a social science institute dedicated to French Studies, these approaches seem particularly heterogeneous. Likewise, Julia, finishing a comparative literature PhD that is nonetheless rooted in film theory and comparative media, finds the trend favoring historicization over theoretical rigor rather troubling. Finally, Wassim, working on English literature, has felt a growing need to reflect on his chosen field “philosophically”, including the consequences of metaphysical positions for the practice of critique in general, and literary critique in particular. The Critical Theory Workshop allowed us to join students and professors in philosophy, history, and political theory, as well as visual and performance artists, to reflect more broadly on the forms, ambitions, and stakes of knowledge production in the humanities.

The Critical Theory Workshop in session.
The Critical Theory Workshop in session.

Attempting to challenge the logic of disciplinary structures and seriously consider the possibilities (and limits) of interdisciplinary work, the CTW provoked a series of conversations on the epistemological and methodological stakes of participants’ research. These conversations were personal, intellectual, and in a certain sense, urgent; indeed the survival of scholarly thought in or about literature (and cultural objects produced more broadly) depends on our ability to articulate its critical force in a way that resonates both in and outside of the discipline. The need for “philosophical” reflection on literature and literary studies is perhaps better referred to as critical— perhaps even metacritical or metaphilosophical: a researcher must submit the ends and means of the discipline to critical examination. It must also be considered as a concrete practice anchored in institutional and social spaces, necessarily interwoven with other practices and discourses.

This necessity to examine the foundations of our discipline(s) was a prominent theme over the three weeks of the CTW. Not only did this question arise on multiple occasions during the conference, but it also emerged as a point of concern shared among workshop participants from various disciplines. The result was a series of serious (and occasionally heated) debates aimed at reexamining the foundations of our disciplines — even when doubts were raised about the very position from which such a metacritique could emerge.

We may not have walked away from the CTW with clear, definitive answers to the foundational questions with which we arrived. But our interactions in Paris with a talented and multifaceted group of participants and guests provided a forum for thinking through different possible responses and developing a nuanced understanding of the difficulties, stakes and potential rewards of our respective projects.

Julia Alekseyeva is finishing her PhD in comparative literature at Harvard University, and also serves as adjunct professor of Cinema Studies at CUNY Brooklyn College. Concurrently with her academic work, she is an author-illustrator, and her first graphic novel, Soviet Daughter, will be published by Microcosm Press in January 2017.

Gabriella Lindsay is a PhD candidate in a joint program between the Institute of French Studies and the French department at New York University. She works on contemporary French and Francophone literature and is currently on exchange with the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Wassim Rustom recently earned a MA in English Literature from the University of Oslo. He lives in Oslo, and is developing a project on the contention of discourses related to use in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature and criticism..

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