Monday, December 05, 2005

Article Note: Fasting and Feasting on Literature

Citation for the article:

Machosky, Brenda. "Fasting at the Feast of Literature." Comparative Literature Studies 42.2 (2005): 288-305.

I read the article through Project Muse.

This article discusses the condition of humanities and literary study, and it looks at the scholar in these fields as a starving artist. The basic idea is that "the literary scholar desires literature and, at least to a point, is willing to fast in reality in order to feast in print. The current crisis in the humanities centers on this 'point.' At what point is one no longer willing to fast in order to feast?"(289, emphasis in original). This is a fair and valid question. It is a question that those outside humanities, usually in more lucrative careers, simply answer as "one should not starve at all. Go do something else that actually earns money." And this is not just a crisis in humanities. Education and librarianship are two places that starve their workers. Machosky further writes, "from what I have seen and heard, the choice to leave academia is a traumatic one, which I take as evidence that literary scholars are as devoted to their profession as any artist is to hers, no more, but also no less" (289). Again, teachers in public school who decide to leave due to pay (or the lack thereof) face a similar trauma. Moulthrop in the book Teachers Have it Easy have a chapter that discusses this trauma for teachers who choose to leave the field because they cannot afford to stay.

Machosky summarizes the findings of the Modern Language Association (MLA) regarding professional employment. She mentions the suggestions of the report: decreasing admissions and degrees, offer alternative career paths, and work to increase tenure lines. If you ask me, these seem pretty empty. Reliance on part-timers and adjuncts with no benefits is a shameful part of academia that is pretty much accepted now and will continue to rise. I don't think a sudden spurt of common decency is going to overtake academic departments to increase those tenure lines or ever offer the adjuncts full-time employment with benefits. Machosky points out as well why the suggestions are empty: "The MLA neglects to acknowledge the uncommon ground that is common to all professionals they represent: the uncommon ground of literature and language, which, for most of us, constitutes the appeal of our profession" (291).

I will go on to add that suggestions like the ones MLA gives its members are why librarians, especially candidates, find ALA's constant platitudes about a librarian shortage empty. For one, they fail to reflect the reality, and when they suggest there are other career paths, paths which are very worthy, ALA does not acknowledge the reason(s) many chose to pursue the MLS or MIS in the first place. The similarities in fields like literary studies, librarianship, and education seem clear in this regard. Going into these fields is not an easy choice. The hunger for what we do drives us, but I think it does so only so far.

Machosky observes that the MLA looks at the problem in terms of the institutional system. She asks what if the problem is actually the literature itself? She argues that literature, something that hard to define, is a part of the crisis in literary studies. That the problem is that literary scholars have no footing because "we are too often trying to stand on someone else's ground--the social-scientific ground of anthropology, the economic ground of commerce, the factual ground of history. These territories can and should be shared, but literature must maintain its own field, slippery though its slope may be" (294). I recall in my days as an English major that a running joke in literary theory was all the theorists from other fields, such as psychology, practicing literary theory. Some of us thought they were just rejects from their fields and ended up in literary theory. I know, maybe pretentious on our part, but those were the days. Fascinating as other fields are, it does beg the question of where does literary study actually stand. I think this slippery slope or lack of definition reflects how scholarship is becoming more interdisciplinary, which I find exciting. Is Machosky suggesting a backing away from this? I don't think so, but she is asking tough questions from her colleagues. She states that,

"not only do the MLA reports and committees not resist the power of a repressive system, but its representatives cannot define the term 'crisis' and do not even ask the question, 'what is literature?' Even the most practical and banal concerns of departments that profess to teach literature are inextricably bound to this question and should be held responsible for defining the terms. The surest way to hasten the disappearance of literature from the curriculum is to ignore it by neglecting to define it" (295-296, emphasis in the original).

I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we replaced "literature" with librarianship in that last statement. Our profession is undergoing a process of change and evolution, yet in the haste to worship at the altar of technology, or the concern that libraries will lose relevancy (closings, funding cuts), are we neglecting to define what it is we actually do? Change and evolution are good if they mean improvement and better lives. In this process, definitions will be rewritten and/or new ones adopted, but we should be the ones defining. The surest way to extinguish our profession, to paraphrase Machosky, is to neglect or refuse to define where we stand and what we are. I have seen other writers point this out: it is not what libraries do, it's what librarians do. The library is a building, a tool, and we are the ones who wield it to best serve the patrons. It is what we do and how we do it that defines librarianship, and there is a lot we do by the way. This in itself I find intriguing and alluring, but it can also be a threat to some. Going back to the question of what is literature, Machosky reminds us that "there is no one answer--such is the unique difficulty and limitless reward of literary scholarship" (298).

The article suggests that the professional crisis in literary studies is an allegory for the crisis of literature itself. However, literature has always been in crisis when it asks questions of itself, and we hunger for the answers to the questions. "Literature demands hunger, and we cannot fast in the presence of literature any more than we can feast on it" is the author's conclusion. The article sparked connections to my experiences and profession. Maybe others should be asking some questions as well.

No comments: