THE SESSION at ACCUTE's 2007 conference that prompted this Readers' Forum was, I think, a unique one because of the combination of bombast and honest inquiry with which Stephen Slemon wrote the initial call for papers. I felt that I was included in that session in part as a representative of those students who have recently undergone what Slemon called in his CFP the "bait-and-switch" methods of graduate programs, having been promised the possibility of intellectual inquiry and pleasurable reading and then discovering the necessity of conforming to our rigid codes of academic conduct. I recently completed my PHD at the University of Toronto and am hence certified in what Slemon called the "manufacture of tortured analytical documents." As I attempt to go on into an academic career via my current postdoctoral position at the University of Guelph, my hopes lie in institutional change, in the possibility of writing differently, and in the possibility of presenting challenges through my work. Myriad difficulties stand in the way, however, of mine and my colleagues' attempts to gain entry through the gatekeeping system of literary criticism. My goal here is to briefly consider some of what I see as the rising challenges to English Studies in Canada and to suggest where hope might lie for those of us entering the field. I argue that the economic rationalization of our academic work threatens our already compromised academic freedom, limiting us to writing the sorts of self-contained literary analyses with which we are so familiar and hindering our examinations of the material elements of textual production.
I approach the nexus of competing academic and literary struggles by asking the perhaps obvious legal question of cui bono. That is, who benefits from literary criticism? Who benefits, moreover, from the particular forms that it has taken? The phrase cui bono carries with it a sense of hidden guilt, I think, or a slightly conspiratorial meaning that suggests that an act might be to the benefit of actors unseen or unsuspected. So, cui bono? In an obvious sense, I think, literary criticism is a circular process, benefiting those who write it, edit it, and circulate it. The benefits are often tangential: by writing a paper or an academic book, one might find oneself interviewed for a position, given a salary increase, or be successful in one's tenure review. Similarly for those who participate in the publishing process. In all of these senses, there is an economic benefit to literary criticism. There is, of course, an intellectual benefit as well, as our ideas circulate in order to create an abstract collective benefit, one that allows us to participate in academic discussions, furthering knowledge. But at this point we might begin to have new questions. What does it mean to further knowledge? Why do we want to do so? These questions link, for me, into the questions that I have for our funding bodies. Why should our research be funded? Why should a body like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) give tax dollars to the tortured forms that literary criticism has taken? Without trying to sound like the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation or the Fraser Institute, I think that these are genuine questions. This questioning will readily come from those outside of the discipline, and it is, therefore, important that we consider these questions critically so that we can have good answers.
The answers that I have so far come up with, however, do not particularly comfort me. Culture and knowledge are being seen in Canada--and the world over--as resources that can be mobilized for the creation of sustainable communities. The further beneficiaries of cultural work and production, in this model, become nation states or, more broadly, structures of governance. On the surface, such uses for culture do not seem to be much at odds with critical projects that seek to create an equitable world through cultural work. However, today's mobilizations seek to create specifically economic outcomes from culture, deploying it in order to create communities based upon the capitalist bottom line. We may laud these efforts in some respects: well-funded organizations, both governmental and non-, are recognizing the importance of culture. The way in which this recognition takes place, however, should make us think about how culture and knowledge are being produced in Canada. I would like to focus for a moment upon the recent SSHRC transformation into a "value-added knowledge council" in this context (25). SSHRC asks that we create research that will help us to "manage" our affairs and to "invigorate the economy" (9). This is but a small instance, one of many, of how the "knowledge economy" that the Harper government has been fond of touting is changing how we work with culture and knowledge, but it is, of course, a very important change for those of us who work in the humanities. Examined more broadly, Canada is reflecting the move toward what George Yudice has discussed as the "resourcification" of culture, in which culture is increasingly seen as an expedient means of creating development. One result of this shift, I think, is that our research is being pressed into modes that contain a de facto acquiescence to the capitalist aesthetics of development.
We are being implicitly asked to produce work that fulfils an economic function. The new SSHRC mandate, expressed in its strategic plan for 2006-2011, suggests that the value of knowledge lies in its social applicability, in its ability to connect citizens to one another, to participate in projects of ethical nation-building, and so on--what SSHRC calls the ability of research to "provide the understanding to build a truly successful, resilient, modern society" (7). I am not opposed to the applicability of knowledge; however, I do question how, exactly, applicability is being thought of in this context. As was repeatedly noted during the consultation process that SSHRC underwent in order to formulate its new mandate, a concept of knowledge founded in applicability may prevent or hinder some forms of research. My primary concern is for research that falls outside of the economic indicators through which applicability and development are often measured, extending from counter-capitalist critiques to modes of research in the humanities such as historical textual scholarship. Pushing research toward adopting management models, SSHRC states that Canada is "in dire need of advanced humanistic and social scientific knowledge to manage our affairs in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world" (2). In this process of rerouting the function of knowledge, its use value risks becoming its exchange value, its economic benefit. The extent to which knowledge can be applied toward some sort of social good that can be defined in economic terms is now set to become one of the key arbiters of fundability that SSHRC asks its adjudicators to consider.
SSHRC states that "social sciences and humanities research is vital to building a just, prosperous and culturally vibrant world" (11). This notion of prosperity--of bono, of benefit, good, or profit--is, of course, the point with which I am concerned. SSHRC sees itself and Canada as actively participating in the global "knowledge economy," an economy in which, as I have suggested, more and more forms of return on investment, that is, of value, come to be reduced to those that can be measured by economic indicators. If we do indeed live in a knowledge economy, we need to retain an awareness of the concept of value itself, especially as it is represented in the processes of exchange, lest knowledge, in all of its forms, be reduced to an economic bottom line. Lorraine York has noted that "literary academics are ... extremely reticent about discussing market forces" (97), and this may be, in part, because we are too caught up in them to see the directions in which they are taking us, leaving us with the possibility of either producing self-contained and inoffensive critical pieces or of demonstrating the economic or developmental importance of our work. Archana Rampure argues in the recent Esc Readers' Forum on feminism that ours is "a profession that has been corporatized beyond belief" and whose "conditions of employment are abysmal" (43). In her vision, academic freedom is disappearing, leading to the survival of only the most banal and inoffensive criticism imaginable, which either reinforces the status quo or else leaves it unchanged. The challenge to researchers in the humanities, I think, is to retain some modicum of autonomy lest we simply become the in-depth market researchers necessary for funding bodies to determine where they should invest their funds. If there is a future to our research, then it is to come from the maintenance of intellectual spaces that escape from the commodification of thought within the culture-as-resource management model.
Thanks to Aubrey Hanson and Smaro Kamboureli who read and critiqued early versions of this paper. My continued thanks to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the support that made this paper possible.
Rampure, Archana. "'Perestroika in the Groves of Academe': Feminism and the Future of the Humanities as a Profession." English Studies in Canada 31.2-3 (2005): 39-43.
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Strategic Plan 2006-2011. Ottawa: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 2005. www.sshrc.ca/web/about/publications/ strategic_plan_c.pdf
York, Lorraine. "'He Should Do Well on the American Talk Shows': Celebrity, Publishing, and the Future of Canadian Literature." Essays on Canadian Writing 71 (2000): 96-105.
Yudice, George. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke un, 2003.
University of Guelph
KIT DOBSON is the first post-doctoral fellow of the TransCanada Institute at the University of Guelph. He recently completed a PHD at the University of Toronto. His work focuses on the rise of a transnational literary sensibility in Canada, as well as on international trade, arts funding, and the marketplace.…