Cultural Decoder Rings
Anyone who read my recent post on J.J. Long’s new book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity witnessed some of my unease with Long’s approach. There’s too much theory and way too much academic prose for my taste. But a recent post by Dan Green over at The Reading Experience brought into focus one of my other quibbles with Long’s book. Green writes a little about his own disaffection from the world of literary academia:
My alienation from academe was in part a reaction against the prevailing modes of academic criticism, which in my view had essentially abandoned “literature itself” in favor of critical approaches that were mostly just a way of doing history or sociology by other means. I had pursued a Ph.D in literary study in order to study literature, not to validate my political allegiances on the cheap, or to study something called “culture,” an artifact of which literature might be considered but given no more emphasis than any other cultural “expression.”
It is this very tendency (perhaps too mild a word) to push literature over into the arena of cultural studies that bugged me from page one of Long’s book. Perhaps a dozen times I wrote in my notebook “He’s not reading Sebald!”. When applied to literature, cultural studies often seems like a method of decoding texts rather than actually reading them and struggling with them – as texts, not as encoded cultural messages. One of the times that I made this note occurred when Long talks about Museums and Modernity. In one long sentence he summarizes the numerous types of collections that appear in Sebald’s (“Collections of various kinds are everywhere in Sebald’s work: zoos, menageries…”) and then he provides a four-page outline of how “systematic collecting” is implicated in the history of Europe since the seventeenth century (“hand in hand with changes in the relationships between knowledge and power…”) without ever again referring to Sebald or quoting from one of his books.
Long, to his credit, seems to recognize at least some limitations to his methodology of applying cultural disciplines to Sebald’s texts. Midway through the book is a short section called The Limits of Discipline where he writes: “Sebald’s work is also, however, abundant in moments that dramatise the limits of discipline.” Having earlier, for example, discussed the role of maps in Sebald’s books, Long now notes an example from Vertigo “that demonstrates the failure of the map” at a point when “Sebald’s map proves completely useless” (in spite of having map in hand, the book’s narrator becomes thoroughly lost in Venice and is mugged).
I’m a product of academia myself and my quibble is not with any kind of cultural studies. But increasingly I think that literature is not well served by a strong-handed cultural approach.