- The Function and Value of Literature and Literary Studies Reconsidered
In 1949, René Wellek and Austin Warren divided literary studies into three branches: literary criticism which determines the meaning of individual works and makes evaluative judgments regarding their worth, literary theory which studies the principles of literature qua literature, and literary history which views literature from a diachronic perspective (1956, 38-45). But by 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith could auspiciously write of literary criticism that the "entire problematic of value and evaluation has been evaded and explicitly exiled by the literary academy"; [End Page 204] indeed, it has "not been subject to serious inquiry for the past fifty years." (1988, 17). Since the New Critics, research into literary meaning intensified whereas the business of axiology went under (17) and has only recently taken up shop in Anglo-American philosophy of art. It was not long, though, before specific axiological questions were posed—often carpingly—during the fervent culture wars of the early 1990s where, as debates-cum-caricatures go, literature was the expression of beauty or the manifestation of ideology, intrinsically rewarding or extrinsically interested, the medium through which cultural and national tradition is transmitted or patently subversive of traditional authority. In a word, either welcome literature and civilization or descend into the bowels of theory and barbarism. However farcical the debates sometimes were, they nonetheless reminded us that the institution of literary studies must be thought in conjunction with the study of literature and within the broader context of higher education. But while discussions of the canon were largely about which works of literature mattered (Macbeth or Beloved?), which did not (comic books and Westerns), and what to do about this (make the canon more inclusive, circle the wagons, critique and destroy), the status of the literary aesthetic itself has yet to be systematically addressed by literary criticism as a whole.
Michael Bérubé has called the current predicament in literary studies a "crisis of reproduction" (1988, 6) which is tied, to be sure, to the wane of the "cultural legitimacy of literature" (Lamarque and Olsen 2004, 197). At a time when professional positions in literary studies are scarce while those in composition studies and creative writing are (relatively) abundant (Perloff 2006, 3-4), when literature professors continue to describe themselves mainly as researchers and editors and not as teachers, committee members, advisors, and mentors (Williams 2002, 1-18), when the number of students majoring in English since 1990 is down one percent (Menand 2005, 11), when it takes an average of 8.9 years to complete a Ph.D. in English (12), when some professionals still worry that courses on subversive pornography and Empire are replacing those on Wordsworth's poetics and Joyce's artistic development, and when cultural conservatives in the public sphere continue to question the merit of literary studies while some scientists doubt its counterintuitive arguments, a manifesto for literary studies written on behalf of literary critics goes beyond mere fashion or fad; it is entirely prescient. For, as Bérubé gravely declares, "Institutionalized literary study, as an academic subject and as a profession, simply will not exist very much longer if it does not demarcate, for its potential clients, its domain and procedures, however loosely these might be defined" (1998, 159). I take it that Marjorie Garber's AManifestoforLiteraryStudies (2003) attempts to do just this—carve out the object domain and delineate the procedures of institutionalized literary studies in order to [End Page 205] defend its intrinsic and extrinsic value and to thereby justify its existence. At this historical juncture, should the discipline be unable to legitimize itself as a rigorous and worthwhile pursuit, it faces not just becoming extinct but bequeathing literature to those more capable of appreciating the latter's aesthetic value—which is where Anglo-American philosopher Frank Farrell's WhyDoesLiteratureMatter? (2004) comes in.
In her "Introduction: Asking Literary Questions," Garber charts the rise...