Literary force: institutional values – Timothy Clark

‘The authentic answer is always the question’s vitality’

Blanchot, The Space of Literature.


Let us imagine that while one was preparing a lecture or seminar, the ghost of, say, James Joyce or of William Blake appeared in the room, asking ‘what are you doing with Ulysses / The Four Zoas?’ The answer comes back: ‘I’m teaching it as literature.’ ….. I leave it to you to imagine their response. My point is this: why does this answer, so obviously truthful, seem so inadequate and reductive, almost as if the main effect of studying, or teaching, something ‘as literature’ were to contain or to curtail it in some way? What is the relation of literary force and institutional value?

This essay follows a path broken by Robert J.C. Young and Bill Readings (Young, 1996; Readings, 1996) in arguing that a major if neglected site in debates about literature, ‘the crisis in criticism’ and so on, is the university institution, its ‘idea’ and its public status. I contend that many of the debates going on within the walls of English departments, about the canon, the authority of tradition, the nature of interpretation, etc., can never be solved. This is because they are not ultimately academic problems at all in the sense of questions that can be formulated and addressed within defined disciplinary boundaries (the way, for instance, that nature of Proxima Centauri is a clearly a topic for the astrophysicists). Many major questions in literary studies cannot be solved in literary studies, but immediately involve both other fields, such as history or sociology, and the cultural mission of the humanities, and an ‘idea of the university’. In the second section of this paper I will argue that one way of defending literary study in the contemporary corporate university is to focus on literature’s resistance to institutionalised lines of demarcation, and the creative disruptions this entails. In the terms of my title, there is a tension – one which needs to be maintained – between institutional values and literary force.

First, however, I want to offer a schematic account of the various institutional values that have dominated literary study.

Ideas of a University

One of the distinctive features of literary criticism is that its status in the university has always been controversial, if not precarious. Throughout its history it has tried to answer accusations of being little more than a professionalised hobby, a dilettante subject, the poor man’s classics, or an amateurish cultivation of taste and connoisseurship. If one reads the various histories of English that are now available, such as the work of Franklin E. Court (1992) or Brian Doyle’s English and Englishness (1989), one is struck by the way in which changes in conceptions of the subject and of ways of teaching it are invariably driven by internal, university pressures, especially the need to conform to models of disciplinary knowledge regarded as established in other areas. We see a succession of different methodologies as various as philology, belle-lettrist cultivation of taste, and ethnology – to confine oneself to the nineteenth century alone. There is no history of English with the same inherent rationale as the history of physics or sociology, working out various theories and conflicting claims around a common object. Instead, we have a series of usually short lived quasi-disciplines whose rationale dictates the appropriation of texts in certain ways, and the definition of certain texts as literary. These endure for a generation or so before being displaced, and an essentially different academic practice taking their place under the same administrative titles. Even what some people call ‘traditional criticism’ – the kind of loose untheorised amalgam of historical context and close textual evaluation practised in group-work at most universities – has only been around since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Is it possible to offer some kind of schematization of the institutional pressures delimiting literary study in the university? Peggy Kamuf writes that literary study has always been both determined and riven by the double demands of its institutionalisation: (1) the need to dissociate itself from merely amateur literary culture, to claim the status of a knowledge worthy of full inclusion in the modern university, with warrantable procedures of research, and the methodology of genuinely disciplinary and pedagogical procedures, not mere impressionism, subjectivism, etc.; (2) the converse need to be differentiated from other parts of the university – i.e. the need to define and delimit a conception of literature and literary value that will not collapse into cross-disciplinary areas under the least intellectual pressure (Kamuf, 1997: 95-6). These are the institutional pressures delimiting literary force.

How might Kamuf’s schema apply to the various practices which have taken place under the title of English in the university? In answering this question, I’m going to follow Bill Readings in schematising three major ideas of the university since the modern research university emerged in early 19th century Germany. The first two are what Reading’s nicknames the ‘University of Reason’ and the ‘University of Culture’. The third I’ll come to later.

(a) The University of Reason refers to the idea of the University at work in Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties of 1798 (another bicentennial) (Kant, 1992). The following question governs the foundation of the modern university: can a life of reason be institutionalised without becoming other to itself, as it manifestly had in republican France? Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties presents a model of the university as the institution in which reason gives itself its own law (which is still the crucial component of the idea of academic freedom). Although the university must be allowed to legislate in all matters of knowledge, it is subordinate in power to the state. At the same time, however, the state has a duty to protect the university from any abuse of power that would interfere with the autonomy of reason. Reason is instituted primarily in the so-called lower faculty of ‘philosophy’ (a term that would now cover the humanities and natural sciences). The three higher faculties of law, medicine and theology, are devoted mainly to the training of a professional class in service to the state-lawyers, doctors and clergy. Yet they are also expected to submit to the legislation of philosophy, of reason, in their own affairs. As a consequence, reason grounds the university as whole, while its influence on professional training enables a peaceful diffusion of enlightenment throughout the state.

One of the practical consequences of trying to institutionalise ideals of the self-determination of reason has been recognition of the need for a division of labour, to compartmentalise the pursuit of knowledge into discrete departments and fields, each with its recognised objects and procedures. The double demand outlined by Kamuf can be discerned from the very earliest attempts to institutionalise literary study at the University of London up till the present day. The demarcation of ‘fields’ of expertise is one of the founding gestures of the division of labour within the professional university: ‘Limits and limitation were indispensable for the demarcation of the professional field, but once the latter had been established, the attention to borders (founding principles) became increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Attention was focused on the problems and questions emerging within the field, the coherence and even history of which was increasingly taken for granted. Areas of training and research increasingly ignored issues of their own constitution and history… Indeed, the very notion of academic “seriousness” came increasingly to exclude reflection upon the relation of one ‘field’ to another…’ (Weber, 1987). Academic freedom, too, is not just a case of free speech: it is a particular and specific freedom linked to the public recognition of expertise in a field. It is inseparable from the division between disciplines: it is accepted that those academics appointed by a department to work within it have a level of expertise in their teaching and research that, ultimately, only peers can recognise or underwrite. What counts as good work in a history department is a matter for historians to decide, what counts as good sociology should not be decided by biologists, etc. Academic freedom is thus an institutional affair, not solely a matter of individual free speech. It depends on the recognised autonomy of departments of learning. Clearly, then, insofar as my account of literary studies is transgressive of the clear disciplinary boundaries, and in fact downright suspicious of some of ways they operate, it must cause problems for this particular notion of academic freedom.

The professionalisation of academic life has had then profound effects upon the changing understanding of literature. This is not a trivial point, because the drive for the professional autonomy of literary studies as a discipline in the university effects the very minutiae of thought, especially in the form of the drive or project to discern or isolate some object able to underwrite or guarantee a self-contained disciplinary space. Hence the repeated call to study ‘literature as literature’ or to isolate some definable or measurable criterion of intrinsic literariness. The ethos of professionalism has been inseparable from a tendency towards formalism, which emerges, in effect, as partly a strategy of disciplinary containment. Such purism is, as we now realise, in tension with the nature of its object, as may be the concept of objectivity itself where literature is concerned. Clearly, even the debate about the merits of close reading, argued by some to be the key practice upon which any independent discipline of criticism might be founded, is largely determined by a certain idea of what a university discipline should be.

Claims that literature should be attended to for itself, without supposedly extrinsic motivation, are a recurrent feature of professionalised criticism. Such a claim is a mirror image of the idea of pursuing knowledge ‘for its own sake’. This platitude is a very distant echo of the original German ideal of a rational enquiry that would be ‘unconditioned’. Both claims to transcend squabbles about value are, inevitably, value-laden themselves: they affirm a notion of autonomy as the realisation of an essence – i.e. as in the claim that only the study of literature as literature will let us see it as it really is, and not distorted by some sort of instrumentalising program. There is a complicity between aesthetic purism and notions of scientific objectivity. Both can be understood as consequences of the ideal of autonomy inherent in a Kantian idea of the university, as this is reinforced by the culture of professionalisation. Their institutional basis lies in the pressures of such a university towards disciplinarity. The discipline is held to be maintained as an untrammelled disinterested enquiry in which reason gives itself its own law, indicated by the state or distorted by personal motives. Yet such ideals also subserve professional specialisation and tend, at worst, to the kind of irresponsible formalism of which Russian formalism and New Criticism are now often accused.

(b) The second historically decisive idea of the university, distinct in idea if not in practice from the Kantian model, is that which Readings nicknames the ‘University of Culture’. The reference here is to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s University of Berlin, established in 1810, and to the documents by Schiller, von Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Schelling that fed into the project. 1 In 1789 Schiller had affirmed an ideal of the university as providing a midpoint (Mittelpunkt) from which the unity of all the disciplines can be grasped (1980: Vol.4, 749-67). The program for the University of Berlin is remembered now, if at all, for making teaching and research inseparable (though, at this time this was in part a cost-cutting measure – why pay two different sets of people to do these two things?). More philosophically, knowledge is held to be not a static body of information but an organic process. The organic, process-like nature of learning demands that the teacher be engaged in research, and the student earns a place in the system by personally working through the stages of the knowledge in a discipline. Schiller and the others stress more than did Kant the ideal of culture – of Bildung – as the defining purpose of the university. Bildung names the intellectual process whereby tradition and the life of the people are infused with the spirit of rational enquiry and grounded in an understanding of the unity of all knowledge. As a synthesis of custom and reason, the ideal of Bildung is partly a reaction against a radical, abstract and Jacobean rationalism, associated with the French wars and conquest. ‘Culture’, then, and often since, named a reformist notion of the gradual development of customs and forms of consciousness, the reconciliation of reason and history. The institution is simultaneously the embodiment of culture (Bildung) as an archive or repository and the agent of Bildung as the process of individual and communal self-development and clarification.

These German ideas of culture are familiar to anyone who has studied the history of criticism. For a very long time the dominant claim to legitimacy of literary study was parallel to a traditional claim made for the institution as whole. This was the notion of literature as the site for a liberal education, specialised but not specialist, academic but not narrowly technical, addressed not just to the intellect but to general cultural skills. Such an ideal is analogous to the traditional ‘idea of a university’ as the central institution of cultural legislation. In Cardinal Newman’s lectures on the idea of the university (Newman, 1976), a liberal education, being addressed to ‘the whole person’, is simultaneously a process of self-edification and self-empowerment. It is held to open and refine the mind in way that enables self-command, self-understanding, and self-esteem.

The idea that literature can be the centre of a scheme of liberal education was a tempered and watered down English translation of the German ideals of Wissenschaft and Bildung, filleted of anything so difficult as transcendental philosophy, except in the heavily disguised and simplified form of the notion of ‘the imagination’. Literature was offered as a unique form of knowledge not as an object of it, as defence of the imagination in a world dominated by utilitarianism and political economy, its antagonist being not religion (the implicit antagonist of Wissenschaft in the German scheme), but a caricatured view of science as a monstrous calculating machine, murdering to dissect. For most of the twentieth century literary studies bore the marks of its institutionalisation as part of the nineteenth century struggle for dominance between two factions of the bourgeoisie – the managerial/technical/utilitarian, and the liberal/humanist. The concept of literature as imaginative writing, a site of humane values, of the creative as a self-evident good – were forged in this struggle. This model of literary education has endured for so long, I think, partly because it met exactly Cardinal Newman’s translation of the German Bildung into the notion of liberal education. In this sense the legitimacy of English was not that it formed a subset of the research project of the university as a whole, but either forms its animating centre (as in F.R. Leavis’s (1943) proposal for an English school) or offered an alternative to it in the form of a non-specialised form of liberal education addressed to the person as a whole, rather than as a technician or mere specialist. It was a discipline but also saw itself as supra-disciplinary, a cohesive and redemptively unifying rather than a merely factional form of knowledge. Literary criticism could thus legitimate itself as a discipline opposed both to the dominant values of ‘technological-Benthamite civilisation’ (Leavis) and to the increasing reification and specialisation of the modern university, the decline of ideals of Bildung into Clark Kerr’s joke ‘polyversity’ of disparate entrepreneurial faculty heads, united solely by a shared grievance about parking. In this respect, in a muted way, literature took on the role of a unifying principle of Wissenschaft and Bildung.

We have now been through two ways in which conceptions of the university as a whole have determined the object ‘literature’. (a) The ideal of the autonomy of rational enquiry, which in practice become the ideal of the autonomy of the discipline, manifests itself in the purist and usually formalist drive to isolate ‘literature as literature’, or, in the approach, still dominant at Oxford, to ignore the question of the distinct nature of the literary altogether and to treat texts as the object of empirical, historical research. (b) The general idea of the university as a site of cultural legislation served to underwrite a vague and expressly anti-theoretical notion of English as a kind of ‘meta-subject’, centre of a process of liberal education. A great many of the controversies in criticism throughout the twentieth century might be characterised as the oscillation between these two forms of claims to legitimation. New Criticism, for instance, drew on both of them, which may be one reason for its relative durability. In both claims to legitimacy institutional values seem to determine what is taken as literary force.

Such claims to legitimacy have long since collapsed. What is attractive about Young’s and Readings’s approach to the so-called crisis in English studies is that they see it, to a large a extent, as a function of a crisis in the concept of the university as a whole. Hence many workers in literary studies now justify their work by seeing it as anti-institutional in some way. Such a stance may embrace people of otherwise opposed views, whether they be intellectuals who see themselves as fighting for the representation in the academy of previously excluded or marginalised groups, or self-proclaimed traditionalists who lament the loss of a once-respected institution to a lot of ‘tenured radicals’. The broader cause, then, of many of the issues and disputes in the humanities, is not even an academic matter. It is that the idea of the university has collapsed, and that the humanities have lost their institutional mission to the ethos of professionalism and the meaningless pursuit of excellence, a vacuous term that has become so ubiquitous in university documents that it effectively functions as the modern idea of the university. Arguments, whether on the ‘left’ or the ‘right’, that the other side has an unjust hold over the institutions of culture, each presenting itself shrilly as marginalised by the other, mask the deeper issue that the centres of power in contention no longer really function as privileged sites of national cultural self-definition. Young writes:

Whereas, formerly, those in the institution could paradoxically claim to see the outside from a privileged point of exteriority more or less unavailable to those who really were outside, the situation now has been reversed. If today’s culture is marked by an institutional anxiety about the institution’s outside, its effect is to position the latter in the place of knowledge. The history of the institution is made up of these two transcendent impulses: the speculative moment in which the institution itself forms the point of exteriority through which it can comprehend and account for the world [the German idea of the university], and the empiricist counter-movement in which the institution’s removal from the world is reversed so that it is posited as an inside which neglects the outside world, which now becomes the point of exteriority. (1996: 17)

Young already describes here the third idea of the modern university in Reading’s scheme, the modern ‘University of Excellence’. An institution that seems geared to no higher idea than its own maximised self-perpetuation according to optimal input/output ratios.

Since English was set up as a result of the struggle for hegemony between two factions of the bourgeoisie during and since the industrial revolution, contemporary debates about literature should not ultimately be seen as a struggle within the boundaries of English: they are a contestation of those boundaries and of the terms in which the whole area of intellectual activity was institutionalised. Ultimately, they cannot but be about other parts of the university and the university as a whole.

When traditional critics found themselves having to defend their practice against the neo-utilitarianism of governments since 1979, they had the whole weight of the nineteenth century defences of the imagination against utilitarianism and political economy behind them. For others the situation was – and is – not so simple. Robert Young writes of the bizarre position in which defenders of literary theory find themselves within their institutions:

The difficulty for literary theorists, when faced with a new ‘technologico-Thatcherite’ assault on the humanities, was that the terms by which their subject was established historically, and the only effective ones in which it could still be defended, were those of the cultural conservatism and humanist belief in literature and philosophy …When theorists found themselves wanting to protect their discipline against successive government cuts… they discovered that the only view with which they could defend themselves was the very one which, in intellectual terms, they wanted to attack. You might say that the problem was that the oppositional literary or theoretical mode was not the oppositional institutional one. (Young, 1996: 205)

Is, then, the notion of literature to be deemed past its sell-by date, as many workers in cultural studies would have it? I will devote the second part of this paper to a defence of the literature in the university that does not subsume literary force into institutional values, but which offers a far more fluid and uncomfortable account of why literary study can be said to matter in a corporate university whose main terms of legitimation become self-perpetuation at minimum cost.

Literary Force

Let me first outline – schematising with all the dangers which that entails – what I understand by the phrase ‘literary force.’ The relation of literary force and institutional value cannot be one of opposition, but is one of a complicated mutual implication. Part of the force of literature, however, is to be transgressive of institutional boundaries and values. Literary studies is, in its very constitution, a field whose object embraces issues that immediately transcend the competence of any one discipline: like the paradoxical topology of a greater space contained in a smaller. This is not just to say that defining the ‘literary’ involves interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary forms of competence, but that the would-be discipline of English cannot define itself (or its object) without consideration of the way its legitimacy as a field is bound up with that of the university as a whole and the very possibility of disciplinarity. In short, literary studies has provided and continues to provide an unstable and invaluable place of intersection and contestation between various other disciplines, and spaces outside the academy.

1. An aporetic relation between the singular and the universal.

In a late chapter of his Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction, Geoffrey Bennington considers the nature of an ‘index’ (1994). What is an index, and what sort of considerations are involved in the compiling of one? Bennington refers to the traditional distinction between an ‘index nominorum’ and an ‘index rerum’ (index of names and index of things). Compiling an index of names is not a particular problem: one could nowadays do it by using the ‘Find’ command on a word-processing program. The problems of self-reference which Bennington considers (of how an author refers to his or her self or work in the text and then index) are not my concern here. This is the peculiar and thought-provoking issue thrown up in trying to compile an ‘index rerum’. An ‘index rerum’ is not a concordance. One cannot simply list every word. There are difficult principles of selection:

Compiling an index rerum involves weighty philosophical decisions. It suggests as a basic principle that the compiler is able to distinguish between a purely verbal occurrence of a word, and a thematically or conceptually significant occurrence. It also assumes that the compiler is able to recognise the presence of a concept or theme in the absence of its name. The compiler of the index for the English translation of [Derrida’s] La Verité en peinture soon realised that something about that book made it virtually impossible to compile a satisfactory index rerum and wondered why. (Bennington, 1994: 277-8)

The difficulty is that of distinguishing the ‘conceptual’ from the ‘merely verbal’, i.e. discerning a concept (which need not coincide necessarily with one specific word or term), as something with a clear organisational role in an account of some overall argument enacted by the text. In a literary text, or a text which deploys literary effects such as Derrida’s La Verité en peiture, distinctions of the conceptual and the merely verbal, the significant or insignificant occurrence of a sign, the implicit or explicit work of a concept, etc., are all very problematic. It is no accident that while literary texts may have a concordance, usually as a separate publication, they almost never have an index. Imagine trying to compile an index to the first act of Hamlet! How could one – for example – talk about ‘the poetry as opposed to the ideas’ when what is specific is a certain generative undecidability between them.

Such undecidabilty, I suggest, is one gauge of a text’s force. One might say that literary language is characterised not by polysemy, but rather that it puts to work an undecidability about the status of its language which both compels and resists interpretation. One can’t talk here about studying ‘literature as literature’ or distinguishing ‘the poetry’ from the ‘ideas’ because its precisely the impossibility of doing so that is, paradoxically, the distinctive trait of the literary.

By skewing the distinctions of the verbal and the conceptual in generative ways literary language marks an aporetic relation between the singular and the universal. That is to say, any particular mark or sign (say the term ‘visage’ in Hamlet [‘visage’ = I,i: 81; II,ii: 554; III,i: 46; III,iii: 47; III,iv: 50]) is the place of a certain undecidability as to whether its occurrence is to be taken under some more general conceptual framework, subserves several distinct concepts or is relatively insignificant (e.g. the word ‘visage’ could be replaced by ‘face’, or omitted, without significant loss). Literary language has, so to speak, the topology of a greater space contained within a smaller – to repeat the phrase I used earlier to describe the relation of literary studies to the university in general. No procedural rule can be formulated as to how to read it.

2. A historicality which is ‘to come’.

Because the literary puts to work an aporetic relation between the singular and the universal, its force of undecidability always exceeds whatever may be conceptualised in any one reading or in any one context. This applies even to historicist readings which aim to reconstruct, as fully as possible, the text’s original context and hence, supposedly, original ‘meaning’ or force. Yet, as readers of Derrida know well, such a project is fraught with difficulty. Its conditions of possibility, one says, are also its conditions of impossibility. The fact that Hamlet is still legible, with definite semantic effects, long after its inscription, tells us that the historicality of a text is also its ability to function in ways that could never have been programmed or foretold at its composition. The project of delimiting a context is also problematic: when, for example, did the French Revolution end? Is it yet only a thing of the past? Peggy Kamuf writes:

A literary work has a historical context, as we call it, but no more or less than any document or artefact produced in the past; but the work, if it is still read and studied when this ‘context’ will have subsided into archival compost, has a relation as well to the future, by which it remains always to some extent incomprehensible by any given present. This is the dimension of the work’s historicality, which is therefore not to be simply confused or conflated with historical ‘context’….. What we still call literature (but perhaps for not much longer) would be one means of this withheld stability of meaning, or to put it differently, it would be the reserve of every present, instituted meaning and thus the possibility of its transformation, that is, the possibility of a future…. Despite the fact, therefore, that academic study has largely misrecognised this dimension of a, by definition, unknowable future ‘literature’, the latter will nevertheless have been working to transform its own institution. (1997: 164).

I will return to Kamuf’s last point later.

3. Defamiliarisation/fictionalisation.

A literary text not only makes statements, describes or expresses, it is also always readable as language that presents or even dramatises itself as so stating, describing or expressing. This putting into inverted commas is always possible. Affirming this possibility is a familiar strategy of reading. For instance, Shakepeare’s Henry V can be read, not as the celebration of an ideal monarch and military leader it appears to be, but as an ironising presentation of such a figure and the kinds of language associated with him, bringing out the way he constructs or presents himself. Many of Blake’s songs of innocence, with their childish speakers, can be read ‘straight’ as expressions of a sentimental Christianity or as ironic stagings of such views. Exactly the same sequence of words can be subjected, in effect, to opposite interpretations. Peggy Kamuf: ‘the study of literary language installs critical relation to the institution of all serious values – that is, to their interiority to themselves, to their self-evidence’ (1997: 137).

4. Singular Institutionality.

Literary force is a force of instituting, which is why the relation of literature to institutions is not a simple one. A literary text is a performative singular event that, to the degree that it is singular and sets to work the generative undecidabilty already described, institutes the rules of its own intelligibility and interpretation. Such a text must posit certain instituted procedures and codes, it is inventive. Literature is itself, a ‘strange institution’, to use Derrida’s phrase. He writes:

[I]t is an institution which consists in transgressing and transforming, thus in producing its constitutional law; or, to put it better, in producing discursive forms, ‘works’ and ‘events’ in which the very possibility of a fundamental constitution is at least ‘fictionally’ contested, threatened, deconstructed, presented in its very precariousness. Hence, while literature shares a certain power and a certain destiny with ‘jurisdiction’, with the juridico-political production of institutional foundations, the constitutions of States, fundamental legislation, and even the theological-juridical performatives which occur at the origin of law, at a certain point it can also exceed them, interrogate them, ‘fictionalise’ them: with nothing, or almost nothing, in view, of course, and by producing events whose ‘reality’ or duration is never assured, but which by that very fact are more thought-provoking, if that still means something. (1992: 72)

Let me try to put that in terms closer to questions of practice in the university. In institutional terms, the aporetic relation between singularity and generality may mean that is also undecidable which modes of competence and expertise are applicable to the text. Literary force is not inter-disciplinary (if that is understood to imply a space of intersection between constituted fields and competencies), it is cross-disciplinary in difficult and undecidable ways. It is easy to agree that Ulysses (to return to my opening example) concerns such classical concepts as justice, filiality, nationality. It is far more difficult to state as an argument the precise inflection or revision which the text brings to such things without immediately mistranslating and betraying the force of the text, which is precisely a singular and resistant contamination, generative of the very interpretations it also resists, between the conceptual and general and the idiomatic. It is incontestable that, for instance, one can learn more about nineteenth century London from the non-realist texts of Dickens, than one can from many straightforwardly constative historical works, or more about Augustan Rome from The Aeneid than from a Roman historian, but not perhaps in ways that admit of being institutionalised into a teachable series of statements or propositions.

Literary texts then, may bear a certain coup de force in relation to institutionality. They cannot merely be read ‘as literature’ precisely to the degree that they institute ways of reading and, to that extent, must perform their own reader. For the same reason they cannot be simply parsed for their content or, if you prefer, translated into fully conceptual or philosophical terms. We are thrown into a cross-disciplinary space in which the modes of competence required are multiple and uncertain.

Literary force/institutional values: this is not then an opposition between some affirmed force of the literary, as against its dubious appropriation in institutions of education, for purposes of acculturation or whatever. That one cannot simply oppose literary force and institutional value is evident in the fact that the most exciting and liberating movements in criticism in the twentieth century have been largely academic. In the institution of formalist and historicist forms of criticism, and their subsequent contestation, one sees the extent to which the history of criticism plays out the inherently unstable economy of relation between institutional value and literary force. Cross-disciplinarity crosses, defines and constitutes the object ‘literature’ in such a way that any discipline of literary study cannot but be in a state of continual crisis both as to its relations to other disciplines, to the university as a whole, and to the question of criticism’s relation to the university’s outside.

Such cross-disciplinarity has always functioned in literary study, whether openly or covertly, and has been one reason for its vitality or, if you prefer, its continuing crisis. I have tried to outline, albeit imperfectly, a defence of literary study against the compartmentalising and neutralising professionalism of the University of Excellence. The issues involved in any consideration of this question are so broad, various and incalculable that this has not been an academic paper in a familiar way. It’s not a closely defined discussion of issues in which the terms of discussion and the areas of expertise are clearly defined. In saying this I’m not only making the usual personal apology for incompleteness or lack of expertise. My method here is a calculatedly anti-professional one: my aim has been to trace the exigency by which, time and again, major issues within my supposed field of expertise – English – transgresses the boundaries of the very area in which I, for example, feel most comfortable. I suggest that this kind of responsible anti-professionalist procedure is one way in which thinkers can engage on a broadly deconstructive analysis that has immediate institutional, professional implications, and resists the irresponsibility in relation to questions of the university as a whole that attends professional specialisation. In effect, one pushes to the limits of its capacity the kind of competence nurtured in a particular discipline, reaching a point which calls out for discussion and negotiation from colleagues in other disciplines and from outside the academy. It may do so in ways that necessarily concern the nature of the interrelation of disciplines and the mission or missions of the university as a whole. This last would then become an open point of debate instead of an imposed managerial program.


1. Useful general accounts can be found in Elinor S. Shaffer, “Romantic philosophy and the organisation of the disciplines: the founding of the Humboldt University of Berlin,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 38-54; Theodore Ziolokowksi, German Romanticism and its Institutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 218-308. The founding documents for the University of Berlin are gathered in, Idee und Wirklichkeit einer Universität: Dokumente zur Geschichte der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1960). For an abridged English translation of von Humboldt’s proposal see “On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin,” Minerva 8 (1970) 242-50.


Bennington, Geoffrey (1994) Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction. London: Verso.

Court, Franklin E. (1992) Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750-1900. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1992) ‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’, in Derek Attridge (ed.) Acts of Literature. London: Routledge.

Doyle, Brian (1989) English and Englishness. London: Routledge.

Kamuf, Peggy (1997) The Division of Or Literature: or The University in Deconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1992) The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Leavis, F.R. (1943) Education and the University : A Sketch for anEnglish School‘. London: Chatto & Windus.

Newman, John Henry (1976) The Idea of a University. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Readings, Bill (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Schiller, Friedrich (1980) “Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert Man Universalgesichte”, Sämtliche Werke, 5 vols. Carl Hanser: Munich.

Weber, Samuel (1987) Institution and Interpretation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Young, Robert, J.C. (1996) Torn Halves: Political Conflict in Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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