English Studies: The State of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future

Perhaps all I wanted to do was to confide or confirm my taste (probably unconditional) for literature, more precisely for literary writing. Not that I like literature in general, nor that I prefer it to something else, to philosophy, for example, as they suppose who ultimately discern neither one nor the other. Not that I want to reduce everything to it, especially not philosophy. Literature I could, fundamentally, do without, in fact, rather easily. If I had to retire to an island, it would be particularly history books, memoirs, that I would doubtless take with me, and that I would read in my own way, perhaps to make literature out of them, unless it would be the other way round, and this would be true for other books (art, philosophy, religion, human or natural sciences, law, etc.). But if, without liking literature in general and for its own sake, I like something about it, which above all cannot be reduced to some aesthetic quality, to some source of formal pleasure, this would be in place of the secret. In place of an absolute secret. There would be the passion. There is no passion without secret, this very secret, indeed no secret without this passion. In place of the secret: there where nevertheless everything is said and what remains is nothing – but the remainder, not even of literature.

–   Jacques Derrida, ‘Passions: “An Oblique Offering”’, trans. David Wood, in Derrida, On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 27-28

Less well-known than his more famous (and frequently bowdlerized) elaborations of ‘textuality’, this formulation of Derrida’s pertaining to ‘literary writing’ articulates an unconditional relation to such writing which would put some pressure on familiar historical attempts to ‘defend’ literature qua sub-field of the ‘humanities’. If the homology isn’t hubristic, a similar concern lies behind our attempt, in this book, to bring together a collection of approaches to the discipline of English Studies which affirm literature in all its difference.

English StudiesEnglish Studies: The State of the Discipline, Past, Present, and Future, is a text which hopes to articulate something of what is affirmed by the singular investments made in this subject by its practitioners, whilst avoiding the good conscience and defensive commonplaces found in the frequently-reductive journalism on the topic. The last hundred or so years of literary scholarship (and yes, ‘theory’) have given the lie to the claim that our wing (or crypt) of the humanities must or can somehow be ‘defended’; for who could presume to ‘defend’ something so dangerous, so enigmatically performative (and performatively enigmatic), as literature?

The book comprises a sequence of essays – organized, with a little licence, around the idea of the ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ of the discipline – which cohere around the necessity not of intervening on behalf of the discipline, but gesturing toward some of the ways in which this intervention is constitutive of the discipline. Accordingly, the publicity material for the book will tell you that it ‘[Brings] together a proposal for English to be understood as a “boundary practice”; an exploration of the study-guide genre; an account of Derrida’s “the university without condition”; a consideration of how the subject might negotiate current technological changes and government interventions; the dilemma of cognitive literary criticism; a case study of English and “employability”; and the relationship between English in Higher Education and Secondary Education’. Nowhere in this collection is the ‘identity’ of the subject taken as read; indeed, an interrogation of this putative identity is shown to be methodologically fundamental to the affirmations of English Studies we find here. At some remove from ponderous debates about ‘canon’ (which take as read an idea of the discipline’s unwavering formal interior), and equally apart from insolent attempts to define the ‘essence’ of literature, the essays collected in this volume localize the importance of English Studies and its constitutive autocritique, historically, politically, epistemologically, and ethically.

English Studies… began life as a conference held at Queen Mary in June 2013. Our call for papers began: ‘Faced with pressure to quantify and commodify our research and our teaching through the narrow and potentially homogenizing parameters of concepts such as “impact”, many researchers and teachers in English departments seem to retreat from the challenge of affirming what it is that we value in the study and teaching of English.’ These pressures, if anything, have been exacerbated since then, and so this book is intended not as an overview of the ‘state of the discipline’, but as an invitation to continue discussions in this vein – discussions which, we believe, are crucial to the discipline’s future(s).

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