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  • When Did Literature Stop Being Cultural?
  • Sandy Petrey (bio)

Debate over the future of French Studies in the United States has sometimes neglected a vital fact: even though the field of French Studies incorporates everything relevant to the francophone world, no single department of French Studies can be that comprehensive. If we want to teach anything serious, we must focus our collective energy and intellect on some manageable component of the many topics French Studies can legitimately address. To try to cover everything is to condemn ourselves to watered-down, dumbed-down versions of history, political science, art, economics, sociology, and the many other areas pertinent to things French.

I believe the makeup of French departments in the United States means that our dominant focus should remain literary. Since we aren’t going to retool ourselves so spectacularly as to master all the disciplinary perspectives relevant to the francophone world, we have to make choices. As far as I can see, the best choice is an orientation toward literary criticism, the area in which most productive scholars in French departments in the United States were trained. We’ve learned how to deal with words, and chances are very good that we will do more things that deserve doing if we address words than if we address immigration statistics, changing styles on Maghreb dance floors, or the status attached to owning a pit bull in French housing projects.

This doesn’t mean that immigration statistics, dance styles, and pit bulls are forbidden topics, just that we can best approach them if our primary focus remains literary while we open secondary focuses onto other areas. Those openings can renew our field without compromising our identity, allow us to adopt the interdisciplinary concerns animating cultural studies without repudiating literature’s traditional place in foreign language programs. I categorically reject the idea that the literary studies/cultural studies opposition is absolute, that concentrating on literature imposes the necessity of ignoring dance floors and pit bulls. My answer to the question in my title, “When did literature stop being cultural?,” is that it didn’t, whether we take “cultural” in the dirty-word sense of “high culture” or the buzzword sense of “cultural studies.” Literature’s credentials among the accomplishments of high culture matter to language departments in a great many ways, but more relevant to current professional concerns is that cultural studies can address the monuments of the French literary tradition as well as the monuments of French reaction to the Spice Girls. To impose a choice between literary studies and cultural studies strikes me as horribly misguided, something like imposing a choice between breathing and eating.

Yet that choice is being imposed with more and more insistence, its suicidal consequences accepted with less and less concern. At times, those preaching an either/or approach have done so in defense of literature, and I refuse the idea that literature is Emerson’s “jealous mistress” who tolerates nothing else in her domain. To study either high culture or popular culture as if the other were unworthy of concern impoverishes both, which means the literary studies/cultural studies binary is pernicious no matter which side defends it. Although the either/or model has sometimes been asserted in the [End Page 12] name of literature’s integrity, however, its most influential recent articulations have come from partisans of cultural studies. The sides have changed. Instead of the argument that the nature of cultural studies means it must be excluded from literary analysis, we now hear that the nature of literary analysis means that it must be excluded from cultural studies.

Let me take as evidence the MLA’s most recent publication on trends in language and literature departments, Profession 1997, and the Russell Berman article it contains, a brief for a new form of “Graduate Education toward a Foreign Cultural Literacy.” Berman’s essay makes a strong and informed argument for interdisciplinarity, the best features of which have in Berman’s representation come together to create cultural studies. Throughout this argument, I find the scary logical and political missteps endemic to recent contentions that cultural studies and literary studies are mutually exclusive . Berman’s essay is doubly...