Comparative Culture Wars and the Deaths of Literature
Editors for the NYRB retitled Andrew Delbanco's "The Decline and Fall of Literature," for the cover of the November 1999 issue.
In addition to my main research projects, I continue to be interested in the history of what I'm calling anti-critical discourse, from around 1980 to the present, and related discourses on the many deaths and lives of "the humanities." This work is ongoing at a low-level of intensity for me, and has no final shape. But my goal is to work toward a more complete understanding of how debates from the 1980s and 1990s on the nature and purpose of literary activity might help us understand the predicament of the literary humanities today.
That's a huge topic, of course, and to date I have only focused on the infamous "implosion" of the Duke English Department, c. 1998. I've written a short online essay for the Stanford Arcade that jumps off from the Duke case to sketch some directions this broader project might take, or at least some questions it might ask.
The blog post and the interviews -- with Thomas Pfau (Duke), Stanley Fish (formerly of Duke), and David Yaffe (author of the famous Lingua Franca piece, "The Department that Fell to Earth") -- are linked below.
I'd welcome correspondence and collaboration on this semi-deferred exercise in disciplinary history. As is all too well known, our moment in the humanities is characterized by universalized austerity, widespread adjunctification, and the broad-based attrition of literary thinking in a society seemingly unable to work outside of the dictates of market rationality. How might our position within the crumbling University now alter our understanding of debates in the 80s and 90s about the literary endeavor -- polemics crystallized in episodes like the Sokal Hoax, the Bad Writing Contest, and "The Closing of the American Mind"? And could fresh attention to that moment help us, somehow, to reimagine our own?