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  • Disciplining Culture
  • Genevieve Abravanel
John Carlos Rowe, ed. “Culture” and the Problem of the Disciplines. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

This collection of essays emerged out of four years of discussion and dispute among humanities scholars at the Critical Theory Institute of UC Irvine. What the contributors, including David Lloyd, James Boon, and J. Hillis Miller, have produced is not so much a theory of interdisciplinarity as a map of the ruptures and problems attendant when disciplines contest understandings of “culture.” The collection’s unproblematized decision to place “culture” in quotes highlights its distance from that moment in the eighties when the quotes in Henry Louis Gates’s title “Race,” Writing, and Difference, required much deliberation and were capable of provoking well-mounted attacks. Here “culture” is in quotes not only because, as with Gates’s reading of “race,” it is understood to be socially constituted, but also, more pointedly, because it is seen as an object of disciplinary knowledge, subject to institutional constraints and to a genealogy of practice. This collection thus participates in a general reorientation which takes cultural studies to be less a specialized field with its own canon than a redescription of the current state of the humanities.

Part of the compromise of exploring culture from within an institutional framework such as the Critical Theory Institute is its position as the site of its own culture, albeit not one with a disciplinary structure. The affiliation of the group around the topic of critical theory allows for a significant degree of intellectual space, but is nonetheless grounded in work that has harbored attachments to the linguistic or to the literary. Sacvan Bercovitch’s essay “The Function of the Literary in a Time of Cultural Studies” evinces the strongest desire in the collection to preserve an attachment to literary studies as the arbiter of certain forms of cultural knowledge. For Bercovitch, “to recognize that disciplines are artificial is not to transcend them” (69), and their constructed aspects can occasionally be a source of their value. To distinguish the discipline of literary studies from others, Bercovitch stages an unlikely chess match between Wittgenstein and Faulkner, or between Wittgenstein’s well-known allusions to chess in Philosophical Investigations, and a scene of chess in Light in August. The import of this chess match is that it cannot really be played, because Wittgenstein and Faulkner do not share a set of rules. (Wittgenstein has rules, while Faulkner does without them.) The translation of Wittgenstein’s observations on language into a rhetorical parlor game with a literary text could seem parochial, but it enables Bercovitch to gloss the value of the literary as the site of the particular over and against what he deems a set of philosophical abstractions. Although his case against the abstract is perhaps itself an abstraction of the discipline of philosophy (he highlights Descartes, along with late and early Wittgenstein), it is one that follows from the mobilization of the individual disciplinary position. Faulkner’s culturally-specific, racially-motivated chess match bears with it the textual coding which is the provenance of the literary critic. For Bercovitch, a location in the discipline of literary studies brings with it privileged access to socially-nuanced varieties of meaning.

The place of literary studies in an academic context also shapes J. Hillis Miller’s thoughts on present change in the university, and particularly in the humanities. “Something drastic is happening in the university. Something drastic is happening to the university” (45), Miller incants in his essay’s opening. Phrasing the change in Platonic terms, “the university is losing its idea” (45), Miller suggests that since the end of the cold war, the humanities have no longer been driven by nationalistic imperatives “to be best” (52). Funding has fallen off for the humanities much as it has for the non-applied and even the applied sciences, where fields of research once dominated by the universities have shifted over to the corporate sector. The university is still to a certain extent the nostalgic protectorate of old forms of knowledge that do not concede the changing global environment. For Miller, the PhD itself is an outmoded form, at least semantically, since so many “doctors...

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