March 15, 2007

Devolving English Literature

UK Crown

Robert Crawford begins his introduction by considering the term ‘difference’ and its various manifestations: Derrida’s différance and its ‘enormous geographies of debate’; difference as a means of thinking about ‘how writing occludes, constructs, or distorts racial and sexual difference’; and “making in difference” in terms of ‘theoretically orientated investigations’ (1). However, Crawford asserts that, ‘there were also areas of difference which almost all the consciously theorized writing of that period, as well as the more traditionally orientated criticism, obscured or ignored in a gesture which, deliberate or not, curiously reproduced distortions perpetuated by traditional literary criticism or historiography’ (1). England is often thought of as an island and its inhabitants are usually all English. For example, in 1879, J.C. Shairp wrote a book on Robert Burns for the series, English Men of Letters. Thinking about the twentieth century, Crawford comments sarcastically on Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island, a book that ‘ignores Scottish and Welsh writing , so surely he should be free to simplify cultural geography by assuming that England’s boundaries extend to Aberystwyth and John O’Groats’ (2). For Crawford, there is, ‘a noticeable slipperiness in the use of the term ‘English’, the term which, among other things, labels, or fails to label, the academic discipline of English Literature’ (2).

Crawford believes that the coupling of the words ‘English’ and ‘Literature’ cannot be left unexamined. He notes how the terms dominate literary courses at universities and how outside specific regions, areas such as Australian Literature, Scottish Literature, Welsh Literature etc are sidelined. However American Literature is represented in faculties and Crawford wonders whether, ‘this is a question of literary merit, or of American economic and political power’ (2). In considering minor literatures, Crawford notes: ‘Questions of cultural authority constantly arise in discussions of ‘minor’ literatures, such as Caribbean or Irish writing, where there is a repeated and troubled interaction with Anglocentric values’ (2). For the discipline of English Literature, there is no dilemma over including certain figures from minor literatures such as Smollett, Carlyle, Eliot and Joyce.

Some literary theorists have written on cultural difference, for example Said’s Orientalism, Spivak’s In Other Worlds and Dabydeen’s The Black Presence in English Literature, but they do not focus so much on more subtle variations. Crawford asserts: ‘Far less attention has been paid to less immediately visible cultural differences within “English Literature”, or if that attention has been paid, all too often it has been confined to academic ghettos – Scottish Literature specialists, or those especially interested in Anglo-Welsh writing’ (3). Crawford finds this particularly annoying because the Scots contributed so much to the creation of ‘English Literature’.

There have been those wanting to represent minor cultures. Crawford points to Paul de Man’s wartime journalism which highlighted the exigencies of subjects speaking the minor language of Flemish. Crawford is interested in de Man, because in writing through the medium of French, de Man showed an interest in, ‘how a literature which could be seen as provincial might preserve an independence while being written in the language of another dominant culture’ (4). Unfortunately de Man’s concern for national identity led him mistakenly towards the Third Reich, but later after moving far away from Belgium to the US, de Man was still concerned with questions of cultural nationalism.

According to Crawford, Anglo-American critics have on the whole dismissed minor literatures and their cultural identities. Even Derrida’s theorising is to Crawford, ‘an avoidance of the adoption of any stance on these matters as it is a subversion of the discourses of authority’ (5). Crawford worries that post-structuralism sometimes works to maintain the status-quo rather than undermine it. A new project needs to be created in its stead: ‘Often what small and vulnerable cultural groups need is not simply a deconstruction of rhetorics of authority, but a construction or reconstruction of a ‘usable past’, an awareness of a cultural tradition which will allow them to preserve or develop a sense of their own distinctive identity, their constituting difference’ (5).

Crawford explains that the push and pull between historicist reconstruction and poststructuralist mistrust of historicism is clear in feminist literary studies. He directs his point to Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own , a work of literary historicism that works against post-structuralists like Kristeva and Cixous, theorists whose writing is ‘far removed from the circumstances and possibilities of actual cultural or social change’ (5). I disagree with this point, particularly in the case of Kristeva, because many of her works, such as Strangers to Ourselves, directly address problems in modern society and seek to find a way of being in the world that will change certain cultures of discrimination and exclusion. Apparently, Crawford is drawing on Feminist Literary History by Janet Todd.

However, Crawford does suggest that minor literatures might have lessons to be learned from feminist literary studies. Crawford is inspired, ‘by Todd’s arguments in favour of the need for close empirical re-examinations of writing produced by a marginalized group and tied to the circumstances of particular cultural studies’ (6). Crawford directs the reader here to Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature which argues that through deterritorializing the English language and a commitment to the collective, political voice, a minor literature with a place on a world stage can be constructed. Crawford notes that in his analysis he is dedicated to ‘manifestations of a collective identity’ and to specific ‘cultural traditions’; ultimately his project is ‘devolved’ and it rejects ‘a totalitarian or centralist approach to English Literature’ (6).

Crawford also notes that he will differentiate between ‘Scottish Literature’, ‘British Literature’ and ‘English Literature’. Also, for Crawford, the title, Devolving English Literature, not only calls for power to be redistributed in the margins as well as the centre; it also recognises that the margins have been challenging and structuring ‘English Literature’ for centuries (7). Running counter to hegemonic ‘English Literature’ is ‘devolutionary momentum’ (7). The writers to be discussed all represent this, since they deny ‘the traditionally dominant London-Oxbridge English cultural centre’ (7).

However on the whole, Crawford discusses Scottish Literature, because:
• ‘it offers the longest continuing example of a substantial body of literature produced by a culture pressurized by the threat of English cultural domination’ (8);
• it offers, ‘ a model for writers in other countries concerned to escape from being England’s cultural provinces’, e.g. Americans, Canadians and Australians (8);
• ‘Scottish writing in English (like Welsh writing in English) is particularly vulnerable to being subsumed within English literary tradition’ (8);
• and, ‘Scotland […] was crucially instrumental in the development of the university teaching of English Literature’ (8).
Crawford asserts that the book is not a Scottish literary history. Rather it, ‘is intended to stimulate further debate by its emphasis on the way in which the ‘provincial’ energies so important to Scottish writing, and the anthropological viewpoint developed by Scottish writers, fed into American writing and into the essentially ‘provincial’ movement that we know as Modernism’ and writers beyond that movement in the late twentieth century (9).

Crawford, Robert. Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Harvey Lemon

    “Crawford points to Paul de Man’s wartime journalism which highlighted the exigencies of subjects speaking the minor language of Flemish.”

    Flemish, to be correct, is not in fact a language. Rather the language of the flemish, natives of Flanders, is Dutch. Sometimes flemings refer to their language as Flemish, as Americans might refer to speaking “American” not English. It is also a term used to describe the regional dialect, although this too is not strictly correct as there are multitudes of local dialects, all rather distinct form each other. Flanders as a province has a rich European history and is found largely in present-day Northern Belgium and bits of Holland(the Flemish, contrary to popular misconceptions, represent the majority – 60% – of Belgians).

    16 Mar 2007, 14:33

  2. Thanks for this. I’m not sure whether I misinterpreted what Crawford said here or not. I’ll have to check teh text which I don’t have in front of me at the moment. However the clarification is useful. I guess that I should have noticed the discrepancy having visited Belgium a number of times.

    16 Mar 2007, 15:52

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