Auetsa Conference

By Leon de Kock

Easily the most controversial paper at the Auetsa (Association of University English Teachers of Southern Africa) conference (12-15 July, Rhodes University) was delivered by Gareth Cornwell, professor of English at Rhodes.

Cornwell ended his paper, “Literary Studies: What Went Wrong”, with a “set of adjurations” towards the emergence of a “renewed literary criticism”, encapsulated in the following precepts:

  1. A literary text should in the first instance be honoured as a speech act, an act of human communication, and read so as to attempt to ascertain the author’s intended meaning whilst paying careful attention to how that meaning is conveyed.
  2. The appropriate way to go about this is to read in a writerly way, that is, closely, as closely as writers read.
  3. While the text is the primary source or object of enquiry, any information extraneous to the text that might assist in the hermeneutic or interpretative endeavour should be made use of (historical and cultural context, authorial biography, and so on).
  4. It must be borne in mind at all times that the text is an aesthetically valent artifact, and that the activity of interpretation is inseparable from the activity of evaluation.
  5. To use a literary text for a purpose other than that for which it was intended without first reading it in the way adumbrated above is unethical. While there must be a place for such instrumental readings – that is, readings that proceed inductively and use literary texts in order to demonstrate or substantiate arguments or theories about philosophy, history or culture – I am not convinced that that place is in a department of literary studies.
  6. Only works of real quality should be included in the syllabus – that is, texts that are worthy of close attention for their own sake, rather than for what they unconsciously reveal about the context of their production, etc.
  7. No critical writing should be so difficult or obscure as to be inaccessible to a third-year student. It is time that we abandoned the Hermeticism, the pretense that we have some secret knowledge transferable only in an argot that solely the initiated can comprehend.
  8. No teaching should be used deliberately to further any political agenda, however fashionable or however passionately espoused. As Stanley Fish argues in his 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, the duty of university teachers is to “introduce students to bodies of material new to them and equip those same students with the appropriate (to the discipline) analytical and research skills . . . neither less nor more” (168).
  9. Finally, we must do all in our power to discover or invent a new critical language capable of conveying with cogency the affective dimension of the reader’s experience of a literary text. We also need to develop more precise and sophisticated ways of articulating the recognition of quality and value in writing.

In his paper, Cornwell argued that the “emergent discipline of literary studies calling itself ‘English’ in the Anglo-American world spent the first half of the twentieth century defining its object of investigation and refining its methodology”. It spent the second half of the century, suggested Cornwell, “ undermining these achievements and destroying the consensus on which they depended”.

Cornwell continued: “If anyone is to be fingered for this sad turn of events, it has to be the French, more specifically a handful of French intellectuals associated in their salad days with the avant-garde journal Tel Quel (1960-1982). It was thinkers like Sollers, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Blanchot and Kristeva who provided a public intellectual face for the student revolt and general strike of May 1968, when the French nation teetered on the very brink of revolution and anarchy. News of the rising in France, together with the highly sophisticated discourse of its apologists, was welcomed by a generation of students and teachers in the USA and the UK already fuelled by the amorphous rebelliousness of the youth counterculture and familiar with a politics of protest.”

The major legacy of the French experience for the boomer generation, Cornwell argued, was arguably the notion that one could live an otherwise bourgeois life and yet practise radical leftist politics through one’s work in the academy.

Cornwell qualified his argument by making it clear that he did not “deem these causes unworthy”. It was just, he said, that they did not “resort under themes or categories that fall within the purview of the ‘literary’ ”.

“For almost forty years, now,” Cornwell argued, “English studies has been producing soft-core philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, and so on, sexed up with jejeune ideological critique and political posturing.  It’s worth adding that English departments in South Africa – although only from the late 1970s – were no less eager to absorb these subversive intellectual technologies, in order the better, presumably, to combat apartheid.”

What Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion”, Cornwell argued, were weapons that had been employed by academics to “abuse literature over the past several decades“.

“[S]o-called literary studies are today mostly not about literature: they involve the plundering of literature for purposes that may be social- or human-scientific, but are just not literary. As a figure of speech, the phrase ‘literary studies’ is today an exemplary instance of catachresis (or, in Latin, abusio).”

The “intellectual catalyst of this debacle ... English’s classic misadventure”, was enabled by a development commonly known as the “linguistic turn” in the humanities, and the theorization that accompanied it, Cornwell argued.

An abridged version of Cornwell’s talk is presented as a Guest Blog on this site. Click here to read it.