The Obsolescence Anxiety of Literature

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, writes this in a review of Marjorie Garber’s book, The Use and Abuse of Literature:

IN A TIME when reading has devolved into a means for the efficient conveyance of information, and sustained reading is in decline even as the techniques for distributing “text” multiply by the hour, lovers of literature insist, or pray, that their stock-in-trade not be dehydrated, shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried, shaken down, translated, or otherwise reduced to shadows of grander somethings—ideologies, deep structures of consciousness, hard-wired linguistic capacities, or some other fundamentals. If literature were a person, she would be freaking out. 

Actually, she is. Literature’s anxiety about its own obsolescence worsens both inside and outside the academy. But it was already acute more than a half-century ago, when Saul Bellow warned, in a little flight of disdain called “Deep Readers of the World, Beware!” that “meanings”were “a dime a dozen.” It was better, Bellow wrote, to read literature “from the side of naïveté than from that of culture-idolatry, sophistication, and snobbery.” Bellow dug deep into his own well of sophistication—more or less Freudian, at that juncture— suspecting that “the deepest readers are those who are least sure of themselves” or, even more disturbingly, that “they prefer meaning to feeling.” Nowadays, those who write about literature seem even less sure of themselves.  

The situation is worse in the academy, where literature migrated to take refuge from the gross marketplace, only to discover that the professors no longer found literature quite so interesting or exclusive. There were, after all, plenty of “literatures” to choose from. Today, with Taylorite bean-counters prowling the universities like John Boehner on a budget-slashing tear, demanding that the humanities prove their utilitarian value in a hyper-competitive, resource-stretched world, even English departments are understandably prone to obsolescence anxiety. From a practical (that is, fundraiser’s) point of view, provosts want to know, what is the study of texts worth? Neuroscience labs, econometric models, and computer science are obviously sexy, but who really needs George Eliot?

– “Reading Deeply” (The New Republic)


One thought on “The Obsolescence Anxiety of Literature

  1. Do you think the lowly status of the humanities reflects the over-emphasis on STEM subjects or an evolution (degradation?) of the humanities?

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