The Function of English Studies at the Present Time

This short paper was presented for a discussion session on English Studies at the End of the Millennium, which formed part of a symposium, What is the Future of English Studies?, organized by Douglas Freake and Faye Pickrem of York University's Department of English and held in York University's Bethune College Gallery on February 1, 1996. The keynote speakers were Linda Hutcheon and Christopher Dewdney; I was joined in the discussion session by Arun Mukherjee, Christie Carlson, and Diana Brydon. This paper has not previously been published.


Douglas Freake has asked us to be concise. If as a result some of what I have to say seems either elliptical or insufficiently nuanced, I hope there may be a chance to unfold some of the pleats during the discussion period.

I would like to begin by complicating my title, with the addition of a subtitle: “Cultural Politics as Palimpsest.” Let me remind you that a palimpsest is a piece of parchment or vellum on which an original text has been erased, and a secondary text overwritten; under certain conditions the reinscription can itself fade, and the original text again become legible.

I want to say something today about the cultural politics of English studies, in the context of the cultural politics of what surrounds us. I want to raise the question—as a question—of strategies of resistance to the implementation and the imposition on us of a corporate agenda. And I want to suggest that one of the shapes that agenda takes is a haunting of the academy by a paradigm out of our own disciplinary past.

My Arnoldian title is meant as a reminder of the logic of cultural legitimation on which the discipline of English studies was founded. That logic, I would argue, was one which combined deliberate mystification with something I would like to call “subtractive politicizing.” By “subtractive politicizing” I mean a kind of metonymy-in-bad-faith, in which a part is made to stand for the whole—but with tendentious results. E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture can serve as a familiar example. Subtracting from his image of early modern England all expressions of dissent, heterodoxy, or subversion, Tillyard was left with a chorus of voices praising hierarchy, order, degree, and due subordination: he had subtracted from the whole a large part of what the textual archive contains, and his representation of Elizabethan literary culture was thus heavily politicized—but subtractively politicized.

Matthew Arnold's true importance is as an ideologue, the inventor of a mode of argument that subtractively politicizes literary culture by separating it from the categories of the “practical” and the “political” while at the same time mobilizing it, in an eminently practical manner, in support of a cultural politics defined for him by such thinkers as Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Joseph Joubert. This, in brief, is the argument of Arnold's most famous essay, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.”

At a key moment in that essay, Arnold reveals in its full perversity the logic of cultural justification that impels his argument: “Joubert has said beautifully: 'C'est la force et le droit qui règlent toutes choses dans le monde; la force en attendant le droit.' (Force and right are the governors of this world; force till right is ready.) Force till right is ready; and till right is ready, force, the existing order of things, is justified, is the legitimate ruler.”

Joubert's epigram is elegantly Machiavellian in its suggestion that “right”—the whole array of legal, legislative, and cultural institutions and persuasions in terms of which the legitimacy of a governing order is constituted—is in effect the continuation, the consummation of a regime of governance based on brute force. But Arnold coarsens the thought through his addition of the harshly paradoxical notion that force is legitimate, both before and after it has been legitimized. Through this addition, “right” becomes not merely a supplement to force, but a superfluity. (When, let us ask, will right be ready? If that which has not been legitimized is in fact always already legitimate, is there any reason why its legitimation should not be indefinitely deferred, leaving us forever, like the tramps in Beckett's play, en attendant Godot?)

I think that the Arnoldian logic of cultural legitimation is doubly pernicious. Insofar as it has been accepted, in one or another form, by practitioners of literary studies within the academy, it has in the past blinded us to the significance of our own practices. And insofar as it has become common currency among those outside the academy who would advocate a monologic and repressive “common culture” as a means of fending off the canonical redefinitions that result from transcultural exchanges and the minglings of populations, and as a means of resisting the claims of women and of minorities of all kinds, it has provided neoconservatives like Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball, William Bennett, Christina Hoff Sommers—and in Canada, John Fekete and Neil Bissoondath—with a repertoire of maneuvers, hallowed by custom, that they have not hesitated to deploy in their defences of what Fekete calls the “body of culture,” once “robust,” but now, alas, “infected with the viral cancer of half truths.” (What a remarkable statement that is: Fekete seems not to have absorbed Susan Sontag's observation that the application of disease metaphors to socio-political debates is an invitation to violence. A cancer, left unchecked, will kill the host organism. And how do we deal with cancers? We cut them out with a scalpel, or we seek to kill the cancerous cells with radiation or chemotherapy.)

During the past half-dozen years our profession has been subjected to virulent attacks of an unprecedented intensity, the cumulative (and intended) effect of which has been to make the public feel that people who devote themselves to training up new generations of “cultural storm troopers,” “moral vigilantes,” “Red guards,” “new puritans,” “PC thought police,” and “neo-McCarthyists” can make no very strong claim for public support.

The PC furore and a longer-term withdrawal of public support from institutions of higher learning are together aspects of a larger cultural and political crisis—the most notable signs of which include an ever more overwhelming dominance of narrowly economic, corporatist, utilitarian, and instrumentalist habits of mind, and a correspondingly steady shrinkage of the public space within which genuinely critical analysis of the present state of affairs is possible.

How are we to respond to this depressing situation? Well, in one sense—his activities and his commitments as a public intellectual—Matthew Arnold provides us with a useful example. We must, in brief, take up our responsibilities not just as scholars and teachers, but as public intellectuals. And one of the first questions we need to confront is that of developing strategies of oppositional engagement—of resistance, in the first instance, to hypocrites, buffoons, and liars of the type that presently adorn the Cabinet of the government of Ontario. (This may seem strong language, but what else is one to say of people like our Education Minister John Snobelen, who came into office proclaiming his intention to “invent” or “create” a crisis in our education system, and to mislead the public as to the state of that system—and who then, when these remarks were made public, retreated into the pathetic pretence that in the jargon of corporate consultants, “create a crisis” means something altogether different than what ordinary humans might understand by the words?)

We need, then, to defend our interpretive and teaching practices—no-one else is going to do it for us—within what remains to us of a public sphere, or within what we can reconstruct of a public sphere, an oppositional critical space. We need to be aware that part of what we will have to confront is a palimpsestic re-emergence, in the hands of contemporary neoconservatives and other courtiers of corporatism, of an Arnoldian paradigm of literary, cultural, and political legitimation that once animated our own discipline.

In confronting this ghost, it may help us to remember two lines from a poem written a millennium ago to commemorate a battle in which people whose distant ancestors had been raiders and looters found themselves obliged to take up arms against invaders who continued to follow these ancient professions—in effect, against practitioners of a paradigm that the defenders had long since abandoned. I am referring, of course, to the anonymous Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, and in particular to those lines in which, as the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall crumbles, one of the older warriors expresses his devotion to the cause:

Hige sceal thé heardra, heorte thé cenre, 
Mod sceal thé mare, thé ure maegen lytlath.

(Thought shall be firmer, heart keener, 
Courage shall be greater, as our might lessens.)