Sojourns: Varieties of Academic Reception

Over a year ago, Perry Anderson pronounced in The London Review of Books that Pascale Casanova’s La République mondiale des letters, translated into English last January as The World Republic of Letters (Harvard, 2005) “is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact at large as Said’s Orientalism, with which it stands comparison.” I remember thinking at the time that this seemed unlikely, that whatever strengths Casanova’s book might have as a study of how national literatures compete for attention in the global marketplace it would probably not have a paradigm shifting influence in the literary humanities. While it is too soon to know for sure, the early returns seem to suggest I was right. Casanova’s book has been received as important—noteworthy even—but not as something being read across the discipline, something that everyone in English or Comparative Literature has to read to remain part of the academic conversation.

By now I hope it is clear that I’m less interested here in the content or quality of Casanova’s book than in the hype that has attended its appearance. This sort of hype is not a new thing. Only four years ago, Emily Eakin wrote a rather silly article in The New York Times pronouncing that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire had become gospel for theory starved professors of literature now that deconstruction had passed out of fashion. Needless to say, Eakin had little idea what was going on in the humanities. Whatever else one might say about Hard and Negri—and again, their work has been well received and influential—it has not spawned a school or a movement with close to the impact that Derrida and DeMan had in the seventies and eighties. Emily Eakin is no Perry Anderson of course. But what interests me in this sort of prognostication is the recurrent desire to herald the next big thing in the literary humanities, the book or critic or school of thought that is likely to shake English departments out of the doldrums and back into the center of academic life. For some time, those outside of English (and some within it) have waited for this next big thing to happen. And it hasn’t. And it most likely won’t for some time. And that is probably a good thing.

I had a sense that Casanova’s book was not going to have the impact of Said’s because I knew intuitively that no book could. Why is this so? Wide-ranging impact within the academy (or, to be immodest, paradigm change) requires a vertically organized discipline with a relatively shared set of concerns. That is to say, the writing of a comparatively small number of scholars must be regarded by the wider professoriat as the state of the art. At the same time, the discipline as a whole must have something of a coordinated language of inquiry, one that can be addressed, criticized, and moved in one direction or another. The impact of Said’s Orientalism provides a case study of just this structure of reception. So too do the other great works of criticism and theory written during the heyday of English: Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet. These were books that reached beyond their particular concerns and shaped the language of an entire field of study and with that the larger academy. They gave an élan to English as the discipline of disciplines. Something appears to have changed within the broader intellectual culture over the past decade and a half to make that position untenable. Many books within English have an impact on their specific sub-fields, few or none on the discipline as a whole. The structure of reception that would provide the sort of canonization achieved by Orientalism—that is, the ability to reach across sub-fields to change the language of the discipline—is no longer in place. The vertical organization of English has loosened, as there are simply more books, published at all levels of the university system, than Said or Jameson could probably have imagined. (The reasons for this range from heightened demands for tenure to the democratization of the discipline itself.)  The result is a certain centrifugal dispersion of the discipline at large complimented by a centripetal pull within each sub-field. I cannot name a single book read by all of English over the past decade but I can name several read by all of my particular sub-field. I just won’t bore you by naming them.

English does not have a shared method of study or a single object of analysis. Perhaps it never did. But the moment when the discipline was organized in such a fashion to produce the illusion of such coherence has surely passed. What we see in even as astute a thinker as Perry Anderson is a certain nostalgia, one that will most likely continue to produce the occasional anointing of the next big thing, the newest trend, the latest method to capture the mind and habits of the literary humanities. And those pronouncements will continue to ring false and to seem a little passé.