Well, my book lust for The Use and Abuse of Literature by Marjorie Garber has come to an end. Not because I read the book, but because of the confluence of a few things lead me to believe the book will only disappoint me. One branch of the confluence is a comment Rohan made in the comments to one of my post (can’t remember which one, sorry!) that she was reading the book and not liking it. The second branch of the confluence is a review of the book at Slate that is not at all positive. The third and final branch leading to the confluence is A Manifesto for Literary Studies.
This slim book consists of a short introduction and two essays. Neither of the essays really has anything to do with the other. Well, I take that back, what they have to do with each other is that each one is about how literary studies has collaborated in cheating itself out of areas of study that should rightly belong to literary studies.
The first essay is called “Who Owns ‘Human Nature’?” In it Garber argues that literature and literary studies has been delving into human nature since the beginning but now the examination of human nature has been co-opted by other areas of study, namely science, that put down literature and its study while at the same time allude to literary characters and metaphors when explaining their own findings.
Garber suggests that the “current estrangement between the humanities and human nature” have to do with pluralization, verbalization, and interdisciplinarity. Garber defines pluralization as the fear of the Universal; verbalization as the fear of taking language seriously; and interdisciplinarity as the return of human nature.
When the humanities gave up culture for cultures, history for histories, feminism for feminisims, it was good for politics but bad for the humanities. In one respect, abandoning the universal acknowledged that some areas of humanistic study were elitist, overspecialized, and had no redeeming social value. The humanities don’t have a fear of taking language seriously, but science does. Garber uses a statement E.O. Wilson made about language as an example of how the sciences see language as being only pretty surface decoration.
As for interdisciplinarity, in and of itself it is a good thing, but when combining science and the humanities, the sciences tend to put the humanities in second place; there is a lack of equity. What the humanities need to do is reclaim the right to study and make statements on human nature.
The second essay is called “Historical Correctness: The Use and Abuse of History for Literature.” In this essay Garber argues that when literary scholars approach literature from the notion that “history grounds and tells the truth about literature” they are making a big mistake. I won’t go through her argument point by point. I found the essay sort of boring and having nothing to do with anything that might concern a general reader. Neither of the essays are for general readers really, they are intended for scholars working in the humanities. Part of the point of the essays seems to be to scold scholars for their role in allowing literary studies to become less than it used to be, for ceding areas of study that used to belong exclusively to literature and the humanities to other disciplines. The other point of the essays is a sort of call to action to take back what used to belong to the study of literature, to loose the bonds of subjugation to other disciplines.
After reading the Manifesto and the Slate review of Garber’s new book, I has a sneaky suspicion that her new book grew out of the Manifesto which was published in 2003. I say this because of something the Slate article mentions about the new book, how Garber talks about “asking literary questions.” In the short introduction to the Manifesto there is a sentence about asking literary questions that is exactly the same as the one Slate quotes from the new book. Hmm.
I am probably not being entirely fair to Garber. I, after all, am not her intended audience. I am not an English professor, but sometimes the essays felt like sour grapes and at other times just a continuation of the ongoing argument seeking to define what literary studies is and what is should do (this is also a continual argument, it seems in library science. What is it with certain disciplines and their underdogginess and what does it say about me that I am attracted to them?). Anyway, I suppose if I were an English professor these essays might be interesting and more meaningful, but as a general reader, not so much.