June 23, 2004

Call for Canon

Over at Erin O'Connor's blog a post about a call for papers has turned into a debate of sorts about what falls under the purview of the English scholar. At issue there is whether video games, as a visual storytelling medium, are worthy of serious scholarly study and debate and if they are, whether English majors should be doing the studying.

I have a rather jaundiced view of this whole "all media is literary" approach, primarily because my experiences with it were, if not negative, then hardly intellectually stimulating. In our grad department, the folks who wanted to quickly get a paper accepted to a conference or by a journal to pad the vitae wrote for the "emerging media" studies audience, or for the "marginalized groups" audience. Everything else was just too hard to get into if you weren't an established scholar. So in terms of helping lowly MAs cobble together an impressively long list of scholarship, calls for papers like the one Erin refers to were useful. Whether they are academically useful is harder to prove.

Here's UPenn's CFP index, which helpfully categorizes submission requests. The diversity of English scholarship is astounding, to say the least, but I detect more than a little "mission creep." Science and Culture is an entry. Well, okay, but one would hope that those within the sciences would be able to address those topics, and while a different point of view might be interesting, how exactly does it add to the study of English? Is it because scientists write down their findings that the English major feels compelled to weigh in? Same thing with Gender and Culture Studies. Why is this here? Because someone wrote about being gendered and coming from a particular culture? Perhaps I could do a call for papers on the Culture of the Office Post-It Note. It's a written medium, and you can argue that they accurately reflect a particular corporation's communication culture.

Where does this stop, then? If communication isn't just written, but visual (see film studies), then why not do a call for papers on Weeble and Bob's contribution to our culture? It would be fun, sure, but how does it add relevance to the discipline? How does it advance knowledge in a meaningful way? I can list every Star Trek the Original Series episode for you, in chronological order. It's knowledge, but not terribly meaningful to anyone but me and some other hardcore Trekkies (or Trekkers, as modern usage prefers). The expansion of the English discipline seems to be creating the same effect: little enclaves of scholars merrily pursuing increasingly esoteric avenues of scholarship while insisting that "No, really, this is a metaphor for our culture at large! This is Really, Really, Important!" To which the rest of the world replies, "Well, okay, if you say so," and kvetches over spending 100 grand on junior's degree in "underwater basket weaving."

I'm not asking this just to be facetious. Part of the reason I left academia was because I was too "teaching focused" to really embrace the po-mo movement and its attendant "anything goes" attitude toward scholarship. I had students with no concept of sentence structure, no idea how to frame an argument verbally or on paper, and no ability to read critically. And our ever-brave department wanted me to introduce Derrida to them? They needed four years of remediation to begin to be able to approach cultural and literary theory properly, but they probably left college with a BA or BS and no idea how to construct a sentence, since we were too concerned with the semiotics of the body to stop and diagram a freaking sentence or define "ad hominem argument" for them.

That's why the expansion of the discipline bothers me: not because I don't think there's room in the canon for people other than Milton, but because the more we toss in, the less focused we get, and the only people who suffer are the students we're supposed to educate.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at June 23, 2004 09:12 AM

Funny, because these are all problems I have found in anthropology and communication studies. Is there a traditional discipline that has not been replaced by video game studies? I should my favourite course to * teach * is one on digital media and culture...

Posted by: Ghost of a flea at June 23, 2004 10:00 AM

Certainly not music history, in which I did some graduate study in the early 90s. (We spent more time reading Foucault, Gadamer, and their ilk than we did any writers who actually talked about MUSIC.)

Posted by: UnderARock at June 23, 2004 11:50 AM

Ironically, Erin O'Connor's own contribution to "English" scholarship is a book called "Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture" (see Amazon.com). With chapters on amputation, cholera, breast cancer, and 19th century freak shows, it seems to contain little (if anything) pertaining to actual literature. It seems that O'Connor is the pot calling the kettle black here....

Posted by: Josh Kirrin at June 23, 2004 01:45 PM

Well said, BAW.

My very cynical hunch about that call for papers is that most of the participants are going to do little more than hastily apply their favorite theories to video games in an attempt to pad their CVs and appear "hip" to some of their more impressionable students. The dirty little secret about such "scholarship" is that if you know the buzzwords, writing a paper is easy and requires shamefully little in the way of actual, original thought.

I think this is also why some scholars think they're being "hip" and "daring" when they don their pith helmets and venture into the wilds of pop culture, a phenomenon I wrote about last month here:


Posted by: J.V.C. at June 23, 2004 03:52 PM

I hate to take the other side, but it is a fact that video games have a large effect on culture. Even BAW's example of Star Trek is interesting, because many of the concepts and language from that TV series are now part of normal conversation for even non-geeks.

In fact, I think it would be a interesting topic (possibly even for English majors) to study how modern video games depend ever more on what's called "back story". In the old days, a hack and slay game was just that -- the bad guys were bad and you slew them. But games like Castle Wolfenstein and Doom had some story being put in to set up the "mood" of the game. Very thin stuff, but still something. But now successful games require very well developed back story. See the WarCraft series, StarCraft, Homeworld*, even Unreal. Why is this? Is that an appropriate topic for English literature?

* My older boy (about 4½ at the time) broke down in tears while watching one of the "cut-scenes" from this game because the story line. It made absolutely no difference in the game itself, it was purely "mood", yet a powerful one.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at June 23, 2004 06:02 PM

Perhaps Josh Kirrin is unaware that I have written at length about my own misguided foray into cultural studies.

See http://www.erinoconnor.org/archives/000681.html, and http://www.erinoconnor.org/archives/000678.html, and http://www.erinoconnor.org/archives/000675.html, and http://www.erinoconnor.org/archives/000674.html.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at June 23, 2004 06:54 PM

Not one person in a hundred knows what an ad hominem argument is : it appeals to the interests of the opponent (``a smart person like you sees immediately that ...'').

Everything you learned about diagramming sentences is wrong too. English sentences don't come apart the way they say in high school English classes.

I myself was pleased to learn that subjects of nonfinite verbs are in the objective case, in English. Gee, like Latin! (``He was not happy about me finding that out.'' Me is the subject of finding. You can see how received diagramming screws you up. Perhaps an advance due to Chomsky in fact, though I don't know the history.)

Posted by: Ron Hardin at June 23, 2004 10:06 PM

Actually, I believe the forays into subjects away from traditional materials is the fault of the universities.

Where I used to teach, the university -- (start sarcasm) in all of it's infinite wisdom (end sarcasm) -- abolished core requirements.

Students graduating from the university were no longer required to have basic reading or math skills in order to obtain an undergraduate degree.

That's when all of the departments started coming up with new and "hip" classes aimed at getting the kids (and their parents' money) into their coffers.

Posted by: di at June 24, 2004 08:37 AM

I guess I'm out of touch, but I really didn't understand that there was so much of just applying theory to text. That's a bit scary, actually, because the theory may lead you to ignore, discount or misinterpret things.

It would be interesting to apply opposing theories to the same text - that is, if there are any theories that truly oppose each other. I get the impression that they're all from a left perspective.

I've forgotten exactly where I've heard this - perhaps about J.R.R. Tolkien's or C.S. Lewis's colleagues. The remark was to the effect that they all thought that no intelligent people should need to have contemporary literature explained to them in a course and if they couldn't figure it out for themselves, they were idiots.

Posted by: Jim C. at June 25, 2004 01:34 AM

So here we have someone who acquired her doctorate and her tenure with treatises on amputated limbs and freak shows lambasting other English professors who dare study video games? Jesus, what *is* the world coming to.....

Posted by: DR at June 26, 2004 09:00 AM

Part of it is the adventure of breaking some new ground. "To boldly go where no one has gone before."
Pardon the split infinitive or whatever is is.

Posted by: atlas at June 28, 2004 09:52 AM

The cynicism here is incredibly thick - what is happening with all you humanities scholars? The sciences just are not so diluted with "new" topics,so I can't relate.

As for the video game/English studies connection, here's a thought - 100 years from now, we may be using virtual computer technologies to “read” literature. These games could very well represent the embryonic beginnings of that kind of technology, so the fields of video game technology and literature may increasingly overlap with time.
I wouldn't dismiss this as an area of scholarship so negatively.

Posted by: Pegie at June 28, 2004 12:07 PM