Among the many activities to keep me busy at Kalamazoo 2012 is a presentation for a roundtable on teaching the canon sponsored by the Graduate Student Committee of the Medieval Academy. The event has been organized by Elizaveta Strakhov, and I sent her the following abstract yesterday. Warning: it paints its argument in VERY broad strokes.
Taking as a point of departure two recent collections of essays in early modern studies (ShakesQueer and Ecocritical Shakespeare), I will speak about what it means for medievalists in English Departments to have no figure comparable to William Shakespeare exerting an inexorable authorial gravity -- a pull that can be productive (creating the commonality that may foster community), but can also be a black hole (triggering compression and attendant squabbling over shrinking territory). Though Chaucer looms large in medieval studies, he never dominated the field so thoroughly as Shakespeare does the Early Modern. Medievalists have always been working in a non-canonical discipline requiring work in multiple languages, so that often our work has more in common with scholars who work in (say) literature of the Americas or postcolonial studies than those whose fields have tended to roam an "English only" ambit. It is possible, however, that an implicit canon does exert its lingering effects: Latin theological works that long after D. W. Robertson continue to ground medieval meanings in Christian meanings while ignoring more secular possibilities.I posted this abstract on Google+. Soon afterwards, Roland Greene was kind enough to comment and direct me towards his provocative essay "Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies," where he describes the "in Shakespeare" problem:
consider what it means to examine social, historical, and intellectual issues entirely within literature, as though the empirical world has been reduced to a perspective within a literary horizon.Greene offers some cogent explanations for why this problem should be so enduring: longstanding and unspoken tradition; the professional reward system; publishing houses that demand a titular Shax citation because more books are thereby sold. I'd also add to the list the academic pressure of teaching Shakespeare unceasingly. Controversy unfailingly always erupts whenever an English department abandons its Shakespeare requirement, but as departments that never had such requirements have long known, students love and demand these courses, required or not. Shakespeare classes invariably fill, regardless of curricular mandates. That means that Early Modernists in English Departments (which are certainly the largest employers of literary Early Modernists) must teach a great deal of Shakespeare, creating some ambivalence about his works, but also ensuring that Shakespeare is always on the scholar's mind, for good or ill.
I pose the problem this way because in my main field, which is early modern English, Romance, and transatlantic literatures, it's not uncommon to find projects that treat some hyper-canonical author, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes, not as a participant in the wide-ranging discourses of the period but as a horizon itself.
When I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, I called it the "in Shakespeare" problem. Suppose I'm conceiving a new book on sixteenth-century aesthetics, or political or scientific thought, or knowledge of the Americas. I can treat Shakespeare as one voice among many, including non-literary writers as well as people who not only write but do things; this way, I can attend to what literature makes possible that other discourses and enterprises cannot. Or I can install my hyper-canonical figure as the project's horizon: political thought in Shakespeare.
Somehow we've made an industry in which literary critics are rewarded for conceiving their work in this latter way. No one objects to the foreshortening of ambitions, or to the cynicism involved in pretending to consider real-world issues within the safety zone of a canonical figure.
The problem with this circumscribed-in-advance horizon, writes Greene, is twofold:
To follow the "in Shakespeare" model of criticism is to make two kinds of mistake: a methodological one, in which the critic attempts by sleight of hand to seem to be addressing topics of wide interest without leaving the zone of canonical literary works—and ends up creating a project that doesn't matter to anyone except a dwindling population of professional readers; and an ethical one, in which he or she evades the responsibility to take literature seriously, which means (against some people's expectations) not treating it as the scene of everything important.The medievalist version of this problem would be an exclusive focus upon literary documents as if they were revelatory of all that is important within an age. That dwindled perspective is a difficult one for even a medievalist trained in a literature department to inhabit, since what counts as literary and artistic is more of a problem than a given, and medieval studies is ideally thoroughly interdisciplinary; but such literary overreaching isn't an impossible approach, of course. Offhand, I can't think of many medieval studies books with overinflated titles to compare to, say, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, but there must be some. And there are projects that claim too much for their perhaps too rarefied texts to support. Still, without a Shakespeare to exert such ineluctable magnetic pull over the field, I wonder if medievalists in literature programs struggle with the same problems of canonicity, predetermined horizon, and terrain. What do you think?