Disclaimer: I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program.
I read this book from 23 Nov – 13 Dec 2011 and the bottom line is that I enjoyed it and recommend it.
- Prologue: English after the fall
- Ch. 1: Literature and its others
- Ch. 2: The limiting concept of literature
- Ch. 3: Textuality and the teaching of reading
- Ch. 4: Textual power—sacred reading
- Ch. 5: Textual pleasure—profane reading
- Epilogue: A sample program in textuality
- A Note on Sources
- Works Consulted
- Index [missing in this uncorrected proof copy]
This book is a follow-on to his previous book, The Rise and Fall of English, which he claims “came about because of the alluring but ultimately fatal choice of literature as the central object of the English curriculum” (xiii). I have not read that book but will probably do so now; I will certainly be looking into other books and writings by Robert Scholes.
I have included a fair few quotes from the book to give you an idea of his style.
Prologue: English After the Fall
The Prologue gives us an overview of how the book came about, what the Fall of English is, provides a quick overview of the argument for “textuality,” provides Scholes’ qualifications and interests in this arena, and outlines the rest of the book.
“This book is simply a profession of faith in that fallen field of studies and an attempt to suggest a direction for its future” (xiii).
“The fall of English is actually part of the fall of all the humanities in a world that is driven by technological progress and the bottom line” (xiv-xv).
“In the case of English, the more obviously useful features of the field have been relegated to the bottom of the reward system, …. What is needed, as I understand the situation, is a broader reconsideration of the purpose of English studies. We need to see the main function of English departments as helping students become better users of the language—basically, better readers and writers. Literary works have a role to play in this function, but they are a means to, not the end of, studies in English, though they have often been treated as the end. In this book, I want to make the case for a shift in the field—from privileging literature to studying a wide range of texts in a wide range of media—so that what I call “textuality” can become the main concern of English departments” (xv, emphasis mine).
English as an academic field and the rise of such departments is about a century old. They replaced departments of rhetoric and took students from classical studies (xv-xvi) and this change coincided with the rise of modernism in literature and other arts (xvi).
- history of ‘literature’
- how a constricted notion of literature contributes to the fragmentation of the field
- expanded field of textuality
- illustration 1: the sacred
- illustration 2: the profane
The prologue is quite understandable and provided me a bit of enthusiastic anticipation for what followed.
Ch. 1: Literature and Its Others
This chapter provides a rapid-fire intellectual/conceptual history of the concept of ‘literature.’ While it was interesting, it was not at all as clear as I had hoped it would be. This is definitely the weakest link in the book and its argument. Thankfully, it really isn’t required for the argument in any serious way; although it could certainly strengthen the argument if done well.
Intellectual history, and its close kin conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), are my favorite kinds of history and I was highly interested in learning about the concept and idea of ‘literature’ as it has developed. Sadly, I am still pretty much in the dark after reading this romp of a chapter. I do understand Scholes giving just under 10% of the text to this chapter, seeing as it isn’t really fundamental to his argument, but I am still disappointed. Thankfully, this is really my only disappointment with the book.
Ch. 2: The Limiting Concept of Literature
Discusses the limits put on the concept of ‘literature’ within English departments and how that constrains what is taught.
“At the simplest level, as we have seen, this literary designation may rule excellent written texts out of consideration in our basic courses in reading, writing, and thinking. And that is one reason why we need to free ourselves from a restricted notion of literature” (23).
“We would not deny that certain kinds of texts, like instructions, are usually very low on the literary scale, but we all believe that there is a scale, and that there are poems, plays, stories, and expository texts all along that scale. This scale is a measure of a quality we may call “literariness” (which I would define as a combination of textual pleasure and power), but it is neither easy nor right to draw a line across the scale at some point and call everything on one side of the line literature” (24-5).
Provides a couple examples of the literary used for other forms of teaching and of the ‘nonliterary’ as examples of the literary.
Ch. 3: Textuality and the Teaching of Reading
(Some) problems with the restricted notion of reading:
- “you can read it but you can’t write it”
- “led to the separation of the study of reading/literature … from the study of writing/composition”
- led to hierarchical structure of faculty
- “further split between those kinds of writing that can be designated as ‘creative’ and those that cannot.”
- “now have programs claiming creative status for certain sorts of writing not included in the restricted notion of literature, like the personal essay.”
- “tied too tightly to the book”
- “tied to a narrow view of what makes a text creative or literary”
- “prevents us from demonstrating in our classrooms the relevance of the texts we cherish to the actual lives of our students” (33-34)
“To solve these problems we need to redefine English as the study of textuality rather than literature. Such a redefinition has a number of aspects, but it begins with the recognition that English is all about teaching—not research—and that this teaching has two main branches: reading and writing. That is, the business of English departments is to help students improve as readers and writers, to become better producers and consumers of texts” (34, emphasis mine).
Scholes claims that “textuality has two aspects:”
- “broadening of the objects we study and teach to include all of the media and modes of expression.”
- “changing the way we look at texts to combine the perspectives of creator and consumer, writer and reader” (35).
“The basic purpose of humanistic education is to give students perspectives on their own cultural situation, opening the past so that they can connect it to the present” (35-6).
“…, we must find ways to make what students actually want and need more rewarding for their teachers, and we must find ways of making what teachers wish to teach more interesting and useful for those who may come to them for instruction. The solution, in my view, is to put these two aspects of English education back together. That is, teachers must not simply advise students how to consume texts but help them understand how these texts were constructed in the first place. The study of textuality involves looking at works that function powerfully in our world, and considering both what they mean and how they mean” (37).
“Cultural studies have actually been a part of the English curriculum for a while now. I am suggesting that English departments move these studies to the center of the historical dimension of their enterprise, using the connections between contemporary audiovisual media and the earlier print media as a way into our cultural past. This action also means historicizing cultural studies, …” (47).
“If English teachers can accept the responsibility to teach all aspects of textuality—the production, consumption, and history of texts in English—we will have a curriculum that can be competitive in an academic world in which the humanities have been marginalized.
In what follows in this book I take up some of these issues and pursue them to greater depths, concluding with some attempts to illustrate the kind of cultural work I think we should be doing, using the full range of texts available to us in the realm of textuality” (48).
He lays out and considers 3 levels or phases of reading, which are also further considered in rest of the book:
- Reaction – personal response
- Criticism (50-2)
Ch. 4: Textual Power—Sacred Reading
“… we should treat all texts held to be sacred with interpretational respect. That is, we must see them as attempts to present a true version of events or a valid way of life, even if they seem to contradict our own views. Which does not mean that we need to believe any of them—even our own. Respect is different from belief” (53, emphasis mine).
Sacred reading includes both main sources of sacred texts: religions and governments.
Several sections are included in this chapter:
- The Nature of Sacred Texts
- A Fundamental Problem
- A Failure to Communicate
- Lots of Folks Forget That Part of It
“To simply make sense of it [notion of 'sacredness'] in a basic way, however, we must perform an imaginative act, which tells us, I believe, that no text can be perfectly sacred in actuality—precisely because it is a text” (57)
US political sacred documents are “ideal for the study of interpretation” because we do know a lot about who wrote them and how they were composed (59).
“One of the main functions of textual education is to help people learn how to see things from more than one perspective, and to understand that these perspectives are not exactly matters of choice for many people, but ways in which they have been conditioned to see the world. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is important, but so is the ability to see others as they see themselves” (61).
“The textualist reader, then, must acknowledge the seriousness of fundamentalist readings, while resisting and criticizing the zeal that often results in interpretive leaps to an unearned certainty of meaning, achieved by turning a deaf ear to the complexity of the texts themselves, their histories, and their present situations” (63).
“them, there, then” ==> “us, here, now” “… “we must try to determine the text’s proper bearing on our own values and our conduct in the world” (71).
Ch. 5: Textual Pleasure—Profane Reading
“All texts that are not accorded sacred status may be considered profane—especially if we can do away with the semi-sacred category of literature” (89).
Focuses on musical drama and, in particular, opera in this chapter.
“Because performative works depend on audiences, the question of what they mean to “us, here, now” gains in importance. We live in a performative world, which is another reason why we should pay special attention to enacted stories in our classrooms” (92).
This chapter also has several sections:
- Sacred versus Profane on Screen and Stage in the Twenties
- Can’t Help It
- Nobody’s Perfect
- I’ve Become Lost to the World
- The Pleasurable Pains of Opera
- Send in the Clowns
- Put on the Clown Suit
- It Ain’t Over ‘Till the Fat Lady Sings
This chapter focused a lot on performance and roles.
Epilogue: A Sample Program in Textuality
“The essential matter for teachers of textuality is to get the interpretation of sacred texts into the curriculum, and to help students take pleasurable texts seriously—and to care about both the texts and the students” (142).
He ends with a “suggestion for a core of courses to be followed by advanced work drawn from whatever curriculum is already in a given institution” (142).
Most of these courses probably already exist, at least in title and with some applicable content. They would need to be restructured to focus on the textuality of the, hopefully, broadened range of texts used to comprise the content. I do see this as a totally doable venture, though.
Recommended! In particular, I feel that, at a minimum, the following folks could benefit from reading and thinking about this text: Lit majors [all languages], writing majors, and humanists of all stripes including digital humanists. This includes everyone from undergrads and their parents, through grad students on up to professors, department chairs and anyone else involved with or concerned with curriculum of literature(s) and writing.
This is a short but, nonetheless, important book. It is a quick read but supplies plenty to think about and act on.