Culture as Resource? the Function of Literary Research and Criticism in Canada

By Dobson, Kit | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2006 | Go to article overview

Culture as Resource? the Function of Literary Research and Criticism in Canada


Dobson, Kit, English Studies in Canada


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. …

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