Recent events in Cambridge, of which some of you may have heard, have persuaded me to bring forward some material which I was preparing for a course of five lectures in the autumn.footnote* Because the material was originally conceived on that scale, the prospect for this crowded hour can be considered daunting. But it seems important to try to set out a general position now, rather than leave so many of these issues in the air until they can be more fully examined. My main purpose is one of identifying and briefly explaining some currently controversial positions beyond the labels which are being so loosely attached, but I have a quite different argument to put in front of that, which seems to me to go to the centre of the controversy. Within both Marxism and structuralism there are diverse tendencies, and there is further diversity in other tendencies in part influenced by them. Several of these tendencies are in sharp opposition to each other. This has to be emphasized not only to prevent reductive labelling but for a more positive reason, that some of these tendencies are compatible with the existing dominant paradigm of literary studies while
Now of course the definition of an object of knowledge that is perceived in certain ways becomes hopelessly confused within any dominant paradigm with the object about which the knowledge is to be gained. This is clear now in some uses of the term ‘Literature’, which is, after all, in its most common general sense, not often produced by literary departments but is still held in some way to be possessed and defended by them. This takes variable forms. Thus it is said that it is our business to teach ‘the canon of English literature’. This use of ‘canon’ borrowed from Biblical studies, where it meant a list of sacred writings accepted as authentic, is significant. For of course the ‘canon of English Literature’ is not given, it is produced. It is highly selected and in practice reselected. In its simplest version it was decisively challenged by Richards in his experiments in practical criticism. He showed that even highly trained students could be taught the canon but could not in majority produce for themselves its implicit valuations. Indeed, they often preferred writing which was well outside the canon. These findings forced the most effective modern redefinition of the paradigm, though it did not replace it. In this redefinition, Literature came to be paired with Criticism. For since, by contrast with Biblical studies, scholarship could not itself establish the literary canon (though it could do local verification inside it), a new process—critical judgement—had to be taught as the condition of retaining the defining idea of Literature.
Literature had once meant, at least until the early nineteenth century, a body of printed writings; indeed that neutral sense survives in such contexts as ‘literary supplement’ or ‘literature stall’. This use, obviously, had the effect of a specialization to print, and this was quite generally appropriate to the period between the seventeenth and the early twentieth centuries, but then with certain anomalies. There was drama, which was writing not to be read but to be performed. There was what was called, from earlier periods, ‘oral literature’—a strange and often misleading classification. There was eventually the problematic status of writing in modern forms such as broadcasting, film and revived oral production. But then increasingly through the nineteenth century there was a further specialization of the term, based on what are now evidently anomalous categories. Literature came predominantly to mean ‘imaginative writing’
So, if someone now says: ‘Literature is more important than all the isms’, it can seem a persuasive idea when the isms are, for example, those strangers: Marxism and structuralism. But one ism does not so often get mentioned: criticism, which is now, by this redefinition of the paradigm, actually incorporated in ‘Literature’ itself (is indeed what defines it and can even come to dominate it). There is often then the paradox that what most people are actually doing in literary departments is criticism or critical scholarship, and that this is seen as a proper literary activity, though it is so unlike what others—writers of novels, poems, plays—are doing, always elsewhere.
So you have in sequence, first, a restriction to printed texts, then a narrowing to what are called ‘imaginative’ works, and then finally a circumscription to a critically established minority of ‘canonical’ texts. But also growing alongside this there is another and often more potent specialization: not just Literature, but English Literature. This is itself historically a late construction, since for mediaeval writing, at least to the seventeenth century, it is obviously uncertain. Is ‘English’ then the language or the country? If it is the language, there are also fifteen centuries of native writing in other languages: Latin, Welsh, Irish, Old English, Norman French. If it is not the language but the country, is that only ‘England’ or is it now also Ireland, Wales, Scotland, North America, Old and New ‘Commonwealths’?