The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Literary Subfields, Ecocriticism, and the Eclipse of the Humanities

Len Gutkin in Liberties on the decline of the humanities.


The Spring 2024 issue of Liberties features an essay, "Curricular Trauma" by Len Gutkin, on the decline in the humanities, with a particular focus on the study of literature. The cause of this decline is "overdetermined"; "anyone who claims the crisis is univariate is propagandizing." There are external pressures that have constrained the humanities, to be sure, but there are also problems that have festered within.

One development Gutkin discusses is how traditional areas of study have been supplanted by politicized subfields (perhaps in an effort to make the study of literature more "relevant").

Traditionally, English literary studies has been organized in two principal ways: by period ("Elizabethan," "nineteenth century") and by genre ("poetry," "the novel"). Often but not always, a faculty position consisted of some combination of period and genre ("We seek a scholar of the English literature of the eighteenth century with particular expertise in its poetry"). There are a few murkier designations, too, such as "modernism" and "Romanticism," which name both periods and aesthetic tendencies. Finally, there are, or there used to be, a handful of single authors considered so important that they constitute fields in themselves: in English, Shakespeare first of all; then Chaucer, Milton, and, distantly, Spenser. (Of these, only Shakespeare still survives as a hiring category.) While other major figures — Dickens or Wordsworth or George Eliot or T.S. Eliot, say, and more recently Thomas Pynchon or Toni Morrison or John Ashbery — have long enjoyed robust scholarly communities, there have almost never been faculty positions devoted exclusively to them. Finally, there were the small number of subfields proper, which tended to demarcate minority literatures in a particular period (like "twentieth-century African American literature").

This was a broadly if never entirely coherent system, with rough parallels in other humanistic fields. But in the last decade, it broke down almost completely. The rudiments of the old categories persisted — or at least some of them did; others, like "modernism," flickered out of existence entirely — but the real energy was in the subfields, like "ecocriticism." The proliferation of subfields can look bewildering and baroque to an outsider, both weirdly random and oddly specific. A perusal of some recent job advertisements gives the flavor. Skidmore seeks a medievalist "with research and teaching experience in the field of premodern critical race studies," especially one who might bring "an intersectional approach." The University of Saint Joseph, in Connecticut, wants to hire a scholar of Renaissance literature who can also teach "gender studies, postcolonial studies, and/or social media writing." Colby College needs a scholar of pre-1800 British literature (a capacious swath!) and is "especially interested in candidates whose work engages the environmental humanities or premodern critical race studies." (Perusing these ads, one notices how common is the "or" linking two utterly disparate subfields, as though the hiring committee couldn't help but admit to the arbitrariness of the whole business.) Santa Clara University would like to hire a medievalist or early modernist with expertise in "culture, race, social justice, and Digital Humanities." Vanderbilt is looking for an English professor "whose research engages the study of race, colonization and decolonization, diaspora, and/or empire"; period is unspecified, but "substantive investments in periods prior to 1900" are welcome.

The Vanderbilt posting represents the completion of the takeover of the field by the subfields. Period is left vague; genre goes completely unmentioned. Both are replaced by a list of linked historical topics. The uninitiated might wonder: Why is this a job in literature? The answer has to do with the political commitments, implicit in some cases and explicit in others, of the subfields, commitments that are much less obviously entailed by the older period or generic categories. This is not to imply that "race, colonization and decolonization, diaspora, and/or empire" are somehow invalid fields of academic inquiry. They are urgent topics for political, sociological, and historical analysis. But they are also, in the context of a literary studies department, frank political signals. Less sophisticated than Vanderbilt, Santa Clara gives the game away by including "social justice" in its litany of subfields.

One specific area he discusses is ecocriticism, and the tendency within the field to focus on activism at the expense of actual literary analysis or engagement with text.

"It seems like a little bit of a falling off," [John] Guillory said on American Vandal. "It's very hard to say what literary study is doing on behalf of the climate crisis by talking about a particular poem by Wordsworth. Not that there's not a relation between Wordsworth and the environment, because we rediscovered the whole subject of nature in Romantic literature by way of the climate crisis. But what is it doing? What is that criticism doing for the climate crisis?" Here we must admit that the concerns of [Hilton] Kramer and Co. had a certain prescience. Questions like Guillory's can be asked of almost all of the currently fashionable subfields claiming some version of [Caroline] Levine's "affirmative instrumentality." Either the theoretical frame is inadequate to the political mission — as in ecocriticism — or else an achievable mission is bathetically disproportionate to the theoretical armature in which it is cloaked. My favorite recent instance of the latter is the professor of geography at a SUNY school who offered a lecture on "Decolonizing your Garden." Attendees would "learn to enjoy the benefits of a chemical-free garden using local hardy native species." The Home Depot near me offers the same service, although they don't call it decolonization.

He closes with a warning about the tendency to allow fear of trauma to constrain literary study (as if important artistic works should not have an impact).

When students and faculty converge on a conviction that large swathes of literature and art are too poisonous to approach, the disciplines undergirding the various subfields will become anemic indeed. How can you persuade people about the essential importance of art if you make yourself complicit in their fear of it? Skepticism is one of the habits of mind that the humanities classroom is designed to inculcate. But horror, revulsion, the easy and self-congratulatory condemnation of the aesthetic artifacts of the past? The discovery of "trauma" in the contents of the syllabus? The transformation of the representational concerns of the project of canon-revision into therapeutic concerns about safety and harm is not the only face of the crisis of the humanities, but surely it is one of them.