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The Death of Literature registers a more historically inflected (and more justifiable ) concern that “book culture, of which literature is a central part, is disappearing .”6 Kernan’s subsequent edited volume, What’s Happened to the Humanities ? also hunts for a logic by which to explain “the humanities’ . . . lost ground,” a loss that is more or less conceded.7 Robert Scholes, in The Rise and Fall of English, is “interested in returning to the roots of English studies,” having also identified the discipline in a diminished, postlapsarian state.8 Harold Bloom, not to be outdone, is caught somewhere between an elitist insistence on high aesthetic purity and righteous punk-rock self-effacement. In no less mandarin a venue than Newsweek, Bloom echoes Hamlet or Sid Vicious, it is not clear: literary studies has “no future,” he remarks.9 (It might also be worth noting that for all his right-wing supporters, Bloom himself is a culturally conservative socialist .) The death-of-literature refrain is not purchased exclusively by those who argue on behalf of preserving the sanctity of traditional literary texts, however . Its epitaph is as likely to be written by the cultural right as by the left. In a 1990 book describing the rise of CS, Anthony Easthope gives a marginally Bloom-like intimation that literature’s so-called death is a feature built into its very capacity for living. Easthope declares, with exactly the right amount of qualification to make the statement just, that “‘pure’ literary studies, though dying, remains institutionally dominant in Britain and North America.”10 Ten years later, one of the first and most influential chroniclers of CS’s U.S. incarnation , Patrick Bratlinger, seals off the bardicidal scene and asks the nervy question , Who Killed Shakespeare? 11 How to make sense of literary studies insofar as it has conceded its own categorical vacuity—pitched its own absence—with such ubiquitous fervor and force? The disciplinary lacuna attendant to the phantasmatic displacement of traditional critical habit is worth taking seriously here. Death has a kind of prescience in contemporary literary practice. And along the shifting borders of humanities knowledge, there is some clarity on how the sticky tenacity of imaginative writing gets another chance at connecting with the democratic potential it only ever pretended to have. There is some clarity, too, in recollecting the short history of literature as publicly relevant discourse, regarding identity’s own disintegration as an academic labor concern.12 Think here of multicultural displacement as a politics of category writ back into economy via literature’s imagined demise, and call this, broadly, a class-as-classification struggle. Recall, once more, the persistence of Adam Smith’s multitude (as well as Kerr’s “mob”). The multitude was regarded by Smith first and foremost as a generic mutation, which the Enlightenment division between materiality and thought, as much as the disciplinary divisions between knowledges themselves, was designed to make rationally calculable. If new objects were left unrecuperated by consensusH O W C O L O R S A V E D T H E C A N O N 210 producing sympathetic reflection, “gaps” occurred and gave rise to the categorical misfires that threatened the system with incalculable difference. Again, this was Smith’s “novelization” of multitudes. It was accordingly within Smith’s epistemological “gaps” where Althusser located the relational opacity of labor and, in Reading Capital (the full weight of those two words becoming clear), attempted to reconnect political economy and writing. In considering disciplines along eighteenth-century lines, then, the categorization of knowledge was itself a way of adequating subjects to objects on profit’s behalf. Under these historical circumstances, the imagination becomes the quintessential tool for assuring that identities are individuated, while their differences are too conveniently pacified and allied. Imagination deployed affect as detached moral sympathy in the separation between materiality and knowledge. In this way, the encounter with aporia, today everywhere the rule, was considered fatal to the disciplinary arrangements secured by the Enlightenment. It should hardly be surprising, then, that absence comes once again to mark the limit of literature’s historical advance. But it is also according to this historical trajectory that literature finds renewed relevance, and does necessarily, I am suggesting, within its own wake, as much as within the wake of whiteness. Thus, in spite of two hundred years and more of anxious prohibition, the so-called death of literature forces the Enlightenment ’s final and most penetrating question: what sense can the displaced...


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Subject Headings

  • Heterosexual men -- United States -- Psychology.
  • Education, Higher -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Education, Higher -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Whites -- Race identity -- United States.
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • Men, White -- United States -- Psychology.
  • National characteristics, American.
  • United States -- Census, 2000.
  • Multiculturalism -- United States.
  • Group identity -- Political aspects -- United States.
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