Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities

Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities

Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities

Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities

Synopsis

Literary studies are in danger of being left behind in the 21st century. In this transformed world, William R. Paulson argues for a radical renewal of literary studies.

Excerpt

This book owes its sweeping title and bulging subject matter to my attempt to bring together several topics usually placed in separate categories: the world's changing economy and ecology, the role of science and technology in culture and society, the rise of electronic and audiovisual media and their effect on bookish institutions, and the state of the literary disciplines in the academy. It belongs to the curious and not always respectable genre of the “mid-career” book, whose author has come to look askance at his or her field and who tries to muster nagging doubts into a magnum opus.

In my case the doubts had two main points of departure. The first was the all too banal realization that the rapidly changing media environment was calling the boundaries and objects of literary studies into question. Many suspect that we are living in the beginning of the end of the book era. Those who welcome such an event attempt to hasten it by urging that we turn away from print, literature, and the past so as to put our critical acumen in the service of studying audiovisual and electronic media, popular culture, and the present. Not only the definition but the very continuation of literary culture is, in effect, put in play by a scholarly and educational turn away from a literary corpus strongly identified with the printed book.

My second major concern about the state of literary studies arose from a deceptively simple question: among the New Social Movements of the late sixties, why had environmentalism had the least influence in literary studies? Why was there comparatively little “ecocriticism” alongside minority, feminist, and gay/lesbian studies? The answer seemed to be that the latter fields are the direct work of groups of scholars and students seeking to claim and explore their cultural identity. There can be no such constituency or project for a category as nonhuman as “the environment” or “the biosphere.” This thought led me to ponder the implications of the tautology that the humani-

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