This year, no MLA. I had no reason to go beyond wanting to see, once and for all, the city of Seattle, which I've never set foot in. (Nor have I ever visited Portland, which I want to visit even more after a mini-marathon of the Carrie Brownstein-Fred Armisen zaniness known as Portlandia. The show is so bizarre and hilarious that it probably has planted an irrevocably skewed vision of the city in my head and any time spent there will be a let-down, but nevertheless, I'd love to go there.) Nevertheless, I did see that, according to Stacey Patton in The Chronicle of Higher Education, at this year's conference the major focus will be a justification of why teaching literature--and by extension, the humanities and cultural studies--matters. As many a major scholar (Judith Halberstam, Rita Felski, etc.) has articulated far better than I, literary studies faculty have for decades now not made a compelling or convincing case, particularly to those outside academe, for studying literature or for the importance of various critical and methodological approaches, which have become caricatures in portrayals by people on the right and even among journalists and non-academics. This is not to deny that a good many scholars and literary critics have engaged people outside academe and some, like bell hooks or Stephen Greenblatt, to name two, regularly reach audiences outside university and college walls. But I do sometimes think that important conversations occurring within academe often don't filter out, and that the many valuable aspects of these conversations are not self-evident without some explanation, some guidance, some justification, however rendered, to people outside academe.
We live in an age and in a society in which "expert" knowledge is viewed with perhaps more skepticism than an any other time over the last 200 years (and I certainly do acknowledge that this is perhaps a bit hyperbolic and that, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out half a decade ago, the US in particular has always possessed a strong anti-intellectual strain, even as it has produced some of the major thinkers, scholars, and creative people to have emerged over the last two centuries). Just saying that scholarly and critical work, especially literary scholarship and criticism, and the teaching of literature, are important, or that it's necessary for professors to pore over a given work, and to teach students how to do so, to do so with them, to guide them in doing so, holds less weight with many outside academe than it once did. Yet, as I have pointed out more than once to my students and to friends and colleagues, our contemporary political sphere undoubtedly draws a great deal--too much--of its water from the well of a not-very-good work of prose fiction, a novel, Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I would venture that far more people animated by Rand's thought and ideology have read this work or her other creative texts, like the better written but still stilted The Fountainhead than have puzzled through her more overtly economic or philosophical treatises. In fact, these books are among the most effective vessels of and for her ideas; what someone teaching literature can do is explain, perhaps in ways that someone who doesn't do so, is why and how.
One area where this intra-academic knowledge in some ways appears to to have filtered out and yet at others has not is with what is now falls under the broader rubric of queer studies. In the current issue of the Chronicle, both Michael Warner, chair of Yale's English department and a major scholar and critic, and William Germano, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Cooper Union, muse on the end of Duke University's Series Q, an imprint of influential books in queer studies--and lesbian and gay studies before that--and on the current state of the field, which, it has struck me as I have begun teaching what I think is the first course in my current department in LGBTQ literature and theory ("American LGBTQ Literature Since Stonewall"), and here I echo both Warner and Germano, is as germane as ever. In some ways, the popular discourse about lgbtq issues is much further along than it was when I was an undergraduate in the late mid-to-late 1980s, or when I was in graduate school in the mid-to-late 1990s. But in as much as some of the key insights of many figures of that era have diffused throughout popular discourse, and we are further along politically and socially, I and anyone else who opens her or his eyes on a daily basis can see how certain things still carry over. It is no longer surprising to me how frequently people adhere to binary notions of sexuality; how frequently offensive terms like "tranny" are tossed about, and how transvestitism, transsexualism, and transgenderism pose a quandary for many; how confused many people still are about the differences between sex, sexual orientation, sexual object choice, and so forth; and how the unrepressed, the normative--heteronormativities and now, homonormativities--not only never left, but in some quarters are thriving. Outside of Logo and MTV, turn on the TV, and what do you see? I think the answer to this question is clear enough.
Lesbian and gay studies, and queer studies coming shortly thereafter, unpacked and examined a great deal of what lies at the core of these issues, and for some in the academy, I sometimes think it really may feel as if the matter, the issues, were long settled. (Or maybe that's just my perspective as I listen to people talk about lgbtq issues within academe vs. outside it.) But in fact, it's not even settled in academe itself. I can recall, as I told my class on Wednesday, how a colleague on the board of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center in the late 1990s spoke enthusiastically of a "post-gay" moment, and many, perhaps most people present, agreed with him. In many senses, particularly in the wake of queer theory and queer studies, we were at a point where we could speak, at least in academic terms, of moving away from the sorts of identitarian-dentificatory-based (i.e., linked to individual psychologies, with communities arising from these identifications) ways of thinking about the world to approaches that examined larger structures, institutions, the fluidities and mobilities and intersectionalities of self-fashioning and presentation, of performance in the world, in varying contexts, and this was, certainly, exhilarating. But those older approaches were not without their value, because outside the walls of academe, they were and still are in contestation.
Think about the It Gets Better series of videos and the discourse around this, and how there's little discussion of how other issues, like race and ethnicity, class, gender variance and dissidence, and so forth, factor into how young people not only may be treated but whether or not they'll be able to deal with bullying, homophobic, and heterosexist violence and oppression. It may get "better" if you are young and white and male-identified and queer and upper-middle-class, and have support networks around you, but if not, then what? That is not to say things are hopeless, but rather that the insights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies, and queer studies, especially as they have explored the state of the world with increasingly greater nuance, do offer ways of addressing some of the questions the standard responses in the It Gets Better videos have set forth.
I say all of this to suggest that teaching literature and the insights gained from doing so over the last century have have many purposes, offer many tools, in the world. One, as the Chronicle article says Stephen Greenblatt suggests, is bringing us towards an understanding of "aesthetic pleasure" and appreciation. Implicit in the idea of the "aesthetic," as not only Clyde Taylor, who wrote a superb critical book some years ago about the European idea of the aesthetic and its multiple, sometimes problematic valences, but going millennia back, Plato and Aristotle themselves would suggest, are questions of the political, the economic, the social and cultural. Literature can help us to better understand these aspects of the world; it never appears in a vacuum and some of the most important things that professors teaching literature do include (but are not limited to) introducing students to works they have not read before; guiding them through and teaching them new ways of reading those works--including ways that they may already be familiar with; helping them understand how those works function in relation to other works, to the times in which they were written, to other periods and times, and to the present moment; exploring the various registers of literary texts, for every work operates on a variety of frequencies, some quite obvious, some quite hidden; and inculcating the multiple potentialities and worths, which should include skepticism of those very values at times, of literature, art and the humanities as human enterprises, of reading and writing, of language and languages themselves, which constitute the primary ways we as human animals, all of us, not just some select few of us, communicate. Of course, as I said, scholars far more distinguished than I have already hashed this out with brio and panache, and are certainly doing so at the MLA right now (or have been doing so). But in case any J's Theater readers wonder what people do in literature classrooms, it's a lot more important and engaging than tossing around gobbledygook. It goes to the very heart of who we are as human beings and creatures in this large and vast world.