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’?
The idea of a ‘national literature’ is a historical production of great importance for a certain period. The term Nationalliteratur began in Germany in the 1780s, and histories of ‘national literatures’, with quite new perspectives and emphases from older and more general ideas of ‘humane letters’, were being written in German, French, and English from the same period in which there was a major change in ideas both of ‘the nation’ and of ‘cultural nationality’. Subsequent historical developments, especially in our own century, have made these ‘national’ specializations uncertain, and have created anomalies which have to be temporarily regulated year by year by examination rubrics and so on. ‘For the purposes of this paper, English should be taken to mean . . .’ In fact this is a very potent anomaly, since the question of ‘Englishness’, so often adduced in English literary studies, is now for obvious social and political reasons very critical, full of tense and often highly emotional problems of
Now, for various reasons, both Marxism and structuralism, in their different ways, have impinged directly on the paradigm and on its anomalies. Indeed the surprising thing is that in so many of their actual tendencies they have been accommodated, or have accommodated themselves, within the paradigm, where they can be seen as simply diverse approaches to the same object of knowledge. They can then be taken as the guests, however occasionally untidy or unruly, of a decent pluralism. However, certain other tendencies are not so assimilable and are indeed quite incongruent with the received definition. It is these that are involved, not without dust and heat, in the current crisis. For this crisis is, above all, a crisis of the dominant paradigm and of its established professional standards and methods. Yet for the reasons just given, this acquires a resonance well beyond the terms of a professional dispute. It is, in the fullest sense, one of the key areas in which a very general cultural crisis is being defined and fought out.