- Cultural Dreaming and Cultural Studies
It has become a truism that the emergence of cultural studies in American academic literature departments marks the present as a moment of significant disciplinary reconfiguration. In Cultural Capital, John Guillory asserts that “the several recent crises of the literary canon—its ‘opening’ to philosophical works, to works by minorities, and now to popular and mass cultural works—amounts to a terminal crisis, more than sufficient evidence of the urgent need to reconceptualize the object of literary study.” 1 Because cultural studies is at once catalyst of and exemplary response to this crisis, and because important trends within cultural studies either implicitly or explicitly reject the literary as a distinct discourse, practice, and/or valuable object of critical attention, I make a case here for the literary from within (as a practitioner of) cultural studies. 2
In making this case, I do not intend to advocate any neo-New-Critical, antitheoretical, apolitical, exclusive regime of literary study, canonical or otherwise, that would promulgate an ideology of literary criticism and the literary text as “ends in themselves.” 3 In fact, it is precisely the political and theoretical agendas of cultural studies that elicit my fullest, most unconflicted commitment. My hope in this essay is to reconcile that commitment with my commitment to the literary.
I have always felt the need to write in what are considered literary forms: poetry, fiction, drama, journal/autobiography, then, once I found out about it, experimental mixed-genre writing like Gertrude Stein’s. This need has occupied a different—not wholly dissimilar but meaningfully distinct—psychic territory from the need to write the way I am writing here. I suspect that many of us in literary academia feel both of these needs, whether, like some, we manage to publish and gain recognition in both modes, or whether, like me, and (I expect) many others, we are more or less in the closet, or simply unsuccessful in terms of publication, as literary writers. The distinction I am making between the need to write in literary modes and the need to write in the modes of professional academia has nothing to do with the ideology that establishes a binary of literary writing as authentic, or outside the boundaries of social-cultural construction, over against an institutionally constructed and therefore somehow inauthentic professional academic [End Page 127] writing. Literary writing is no more or less socially constructed, no more or less authentic, than any other mode of writing. It simply occupies a meaningfully, though not entirely, different social-cultural-political-psychic territory, and offers different possibilities of agency.
This difference, of course, is not absolute. The boundaries between literary and nonliterary writing have blurred and eroded significantly in postmodernism, where essayistic writing appears regularly in fiction, critical writing more and more commonly incorporates autobiography, some theory edges toward poetry, and genre divisions are everywhere disrupted. Erosion of the distinction is not, however, the same thing as obliteration: criticism and theory are still recognizable as such, and literary writing is still recognizable as such. Moreover, new literary movements have historically emerged by incorporating heretofore nonliterary uses of language. I think the need so many of us seem to feel to write in literary modes has to do with the status of literary writing as practice in contemporary American culture. 4
Marianne Moore’s poem defining poetry begins “I, too, dislike it”; in Langston Hughes’s national African American anthem he writes, with a similar ambivalence, a similar mix of identification with and distance from, “I, too, sing America.” 5 Moore’s and Hughes’s “I, too,” speaks directly to the literary as practice. Literary writing for them is an act simultaneously of self-assertion and self-construction; an acknowledgment of the division, alienation, and reification of the subject and at the same time an assertion of subjective agency. “Too,” set apart and therefore emphasized as it is by commas, puns on “two”: I, as split, double, self-alienated as well as nonself-identical, nonetheless assert a relation to poetry and to America, and make a claim on it in my own behalf. Poetry and America are partly other and partly self to...