Wednesday, January 10, 2007

An Example

To illustrate the point I was making in the previous post:

I just had the opportunity to read a paper completely outside of my field, in 20th-C / contemporary ethnic literature. The paper analyses novels which depict different kinds of immigrant and second-generation ethnic experience in America (say, the genre in which The Kite Runner exists, though about different ethnic groups, etc.). This was a good paper: it held my interest, deployed its theoretical material with confidence (i.e., not endless block quotes from Major Theorists) and showed some sensitivity to the literature. This paper has obviously been well-received.

And there was, to my eye, an enormous, gaping, hideous lacuna right in the heart of it.

In a paper that for twenty pages engages with issues of language--everything from accent, English as a second language teaching, to language performance, to code switching and use of multiple linguistic registers--there was NO engagement at all with work on language acquisition, second language performance, the phonology of 'accent,' code switching or any of the multitude of analytical tools that could come from contemporary linguistics (not to mention historical linguistics). Nothing at all.

I am thus relatively certain that the author of this paper, who obviously went to a top-knotch literature program and is also obviously very smart, has not the faintest idea that there is an enormous body of knowledge that could be usefully deployed to support and enrich the arguments of the paper. The paper is instead 100% politics. Some of it sophisticated, some less so, but everything is taken as politics and nothing more.

Now I'm not arguing that there should be no politics. In fact I can imagine that earlier criticism might have characterized the novels being analyzed entirely in terms of laws of sound change, second language acquisition, etc. without ever engaging in the politics of an ethnic, immigrant experience, and that would have been unfortunate: the analysis would have been incomplete. The political discussion in the paper actually is interesting and useful. But it is radically impoverished by the lack of engagement with Language, and I think this is exceedingly unfortunate, because other departments can do politics and sociology, and probably can do them better than English professors. But only English professors are trained (or used to be trained) to be able to analyze language: that should be our great advantage, the strength we should bring to the game.

But instead, we're transforming what should be our own field into someone else's and, let's face it, we are never going to be as good at analyzing politics as the political scientists, as sharp on sociological discussion as the sociologists or as good at philosophy as the philosophers: there simply isn't enough time to learn those things and to learn about literature and culture. Thus we end up doing politics-lite or sociology-lite or philosophy-lite (see Scott Nokes here) and also not doing justice to the things we are actually good at doing. It's no wonder our departments have sunk in prestige compared to our colleagues: it's not troglodyte conservatives whipping up the alumni and the general public against leftist politics (all the departments of higher prestige are just as full of leftist academics); it's our own bizarre decision to play in their games by their rules and to pre-emptively surrender our greatest advantages.

I want to emphasize that I am not making the argument that there should be no politics or sociology or philosophy in English. And I don't actually see how one could have language analysis without history. But those other disciplines should be subordinate to what we should be able to do best: analyze language, narrative and culture in ways that are not easily accessible to political scientists, sociologists or philosophers. Our game should be played on our home field.

2 comments:

John Cowan said...

Perhaps not subordinate, but definitely coordinate.

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