EESE Strategy Statement No. 2

The Uses of History in Literature Studies

Thomas Kullmann (Göttingen)

The editors of EESE have decided to divide their responsibilities in the field of literature studies on historical lines; the present writer has been assigned the responsibility for nineteenth-century British literature. This decision implies a conception of literary scholarship which is based on history rather than other aspects, such as genre, gender, or theoretical background. In this contribution to Publishing on the Internet I should like to substantiate the suggestion that literary studies should have a historical orientation (in the widest sense of the term) and that the historicity of a scholarly approach is indeed an ideal yardstick with which its scholarly quality in general, and its suitability for publication in EESE in particular, can be measured.

One of the chances of electronic publishing seems to lie in the opportunity of restoring to scho,arship one of its original elements: its dialogic quality. In order to arrive at a conclusion which is plausible to his or her colleagues, a scholar should invite criticism of his/her own proposals. By a give-and-take process of argumentation conclusions could be reached which are mutually satisfactory; if this is not possible, the sources of the differences will at least become clearer. EESE should therefore not just publish articles and reviews, but also responses to these articles and reviews, which when published should in turn be open to comments by the original author or reviewer, as well as by other scholars who wish to join the debate. Such a debate could go on for as long as anybody offers any substantial contribution (A similar system of dialogue is currently being attempted by the journal Connotations). It seems evident that an electronic journal is better equipped to give a forum to a scholarly debate than traditional printed media, where usually a long time elapses from submission of the manuscript to publication.

However, in order to make a debate possible, a proposal should offer points which could be subjected to empirical tests and, perhaps, be refuted (This, of course, corresponds to the theses of Sir Karl Popper concerning scientific theories; see, e.g., Objective Knowledge, 1-31). It is here that history comes in. If scholarly proposals are based on historical data, these data can be challenged or supplemented. A historical datum can be a specific text, literary or otherwise. In order to elucidate a text's meaning, or its significance in a certain context, a scholar will adduce other material, i.e. other historical data, such as dictionaries or other literary or non-literary texts which have been written at the same time and/or by the same author, or are in some other way related to it. Any scholar who disapproves of the conclusions reached by his or her colleague will be able to adduce further material which the first scholar had ignored. This procedure does not imply any prejudice as to the way history works, but allows for different attitudes towards the question of the relationship of a literary work to its social, political, and psychological, etc., contexts. It is essential, however, that these attitudes are corroborated by data which refer to particular phenomena.

This means that literary studies should not, or not exclusively, rely on general theses which literary scholarship itself can neither prove nor disprove. It would be outside the range of a scholarly journal to decide if it is true that what people ultimately strive for is money and material welfare, as some Marxists would have us assume, or power, as Michel Foucault's writings seem to suggest (cf. Easthope, 119 f.), or if any other "over-arching concept of hegemony" (Easthope 129) should be taken for granted. It is difficult to argue with scholars who base their arguments on the supposed truth of such a theoretical or philosophical assumption. This does not mean that Marxist or "Foucauldian" studies cannot claim to be scholarly or historical; these studies, however, should be based on historical data (which might then be shown to be in unison with theoretical premises). It should further be obvious that scholars should be aware of the specificity of a given text and the problems involved with any kind of generalization (cf. Easthope 123-125).

The historical orientation precludes a systematic study of literature as a whole. History looks for what is particular rather than what is general. The Romance language scholar Karlheinz Stierle expressed his dissatisfaction with this fact in his study Text als Handlung: Perspektiven einer systematischen Literaturwissenschaft, where he programmatically outlines a process of substituting historical studies with systematic approaches (Stierle 189, 218f.). It seems uncertain, however, whether such a systematic approach is feasible in cultural contexts. If we could deduce general facts from unquestionable "axioms", as in mathematics, there would be no need to look at individual literary texts at all, and such an approach should not be called 'literature studies.' Most systematic approaches, moreover, use axioms which are by no means unquestionable. In most cases, a certain ideology or weltanschauung is posited as a "theorectical base", which is then applied in examinations of selected "cases." These, however, do not contribute to the result which has been determined beforehand, through theoretical speculation. Scholarly studies, as well as scientific experiments, best seem to make sense if the result is not known in advance and can even be a surprise to the researcher. It is only through being open to surprises that we can enlarge our knowledge and our horizon. Before claiming to know how cultural processes function in general we should therefore attempt to acquaint ourselves with particular cases which may run counter to established assumptions.

In order to make possible a scholarly debate, the second principle should be that a textual basis is provided. Arguments about literature and culture should refer to concrete literary texts. Analyses of texts should observe basic philological skills; the accuracy of any philological analysis can of course become the subject of an ensuing debate. It should be noted that philology, the endeavour to understand the surface meaning of a text correctly, itself constitutes a historical approach, as it takes into account shifts of meaning and usage occurring at historical points of time which can be specified.

While these two principles should be observed, the range of approaches could be as wide as possible. We should not confine ourselves, for example, to any canon of literary texts which may have limited the horizon of earlier and more traditional approaches to literature. Neither should we confine ourselves to those literary works to which we ascribe a high literary quality. We should welcome studies about forms of popular literature (including popular ballads and songs, melodrama and those books which George Eliot called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists") as well as about novels and poems which belong to the so-called mainstream. We should also invite contributions on children's and young-adults' books, particularly if we are concerned with nineteenth-century literature. Neither should we exclude contributions on borderline areas such as journalism and scientific prose.

With respect to the historical orientation outlined, it appears as a matter of course that co.tributions should be particularly welcome which link literary texts to other sources in the areas of political, economic or cultural history. This includes that vast complex which has recently been called cultural studies. We should welcome studies which are based on the assumption that literature is not only inextricably linked with history, but itself just one of several manifestations of culture.

To illustrate the range of possible approaches I should like to provide some examples. Studies which take Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol as their textual basis could, for example, be concerned with the role of this story in the development of the genre of "short story" or "short novel"; they could discuss the use of ghosts, possibly relating Dickens's ghosts to supernatural elements found in other nineteenth-century texts. Another topic could be Dickens' interest in the human psyche, within the context of contemporary psychological concepts. A study on A Christmas Carol could also take up the meaning of Chr)stmas in both the story and in early Victorian society, maybe establishing a relation to other elements of folkloristic and religious practice. Another study could take up the ways social conditions are described, and discuss the relationship of this story to the prevailing political system. Another study will focus on the representation of middle-class families offered by the story, possibly raising questions about the status of women. Other papers could focus on the contemporary reception of Christmas Carol and on the implications of the economic success of Dickens's Christmas books. Finally, it may be of interest to examine the subsequent reception of Dickens's story as a 'classic', or as a 'children's book'.

All of these approaches have in common their reference to a specific text, and the endeavour to provide historical analyses of cultural phenomena. All of these studies would be based on historical material which can be examined, and perhaps challenged, by readers. All of the approaches listed would bear on other approaches, and contribute to an understanding of Victorian culture, and perhaps culture in general.

With regard to the fashionable subject of "Cultural Studies", however, some further remarks may be appropriate: A problem may arise from the fact that those scholars who propagate cultural studies often do so from an ideological point of view, seeing themselves opposed to colleagues who pursue more conservative philological approaches. Anthony Easthope, for example, calls for a "new paradigm" of cultural studies, although he defends the concept of the specificity of individual texts. He specifically names several "concepts" on which any analysis should be based, including "ideology", "gender", "the other", and "institution" (130-135). He totally rejects the traditional concept of "literary value" (60f.).

Such a specification, however, may limit our scope of discussion. While some of the attacks levelled by Easthope and other cultural scientists against traditional scholarship may be justified, ideological antagonisms do neither seem to further an understanding of the issues of scholarship nor of specific points of controversy. If general assumptions about mankind cannot be challenged in a scholarly way, neither can political assumptions as to what the sense of studying literature and culture is. New approaches should 'speak to' old ones by challenging them at particular points or possibly even substantiating old findings from new perspectives. To give an example of how this could be done, I should like to refer to Antony Easthope's list of possible "readings" of G.M. Hopkins' poem "The Windhover" (25-42), which Easthope enumerates to demonstrate the poem's "potentially unlimited polysemy": an "authorial reading", an "institutional reading", a "reading in the context of conventional linguistics", a "literary formalist reading", a "reading as discourse", a "reading in the context of Christian ideology", a "reading in the context of Romantic ideology", a "Marxist reading", a "colonialist reading", a "fascist reading", a "gender reading", a "gay reading", a "psychoanalytic reading in terms of the genital phase", an "Oedipal reading", a "Lacanian reading", an "epistemological reading", several deconstructive readings and even an "ornithological reading" (28-33).

It seems remarkable that Easthope should illustrate a text's "polysemy" by isolating "readings" which focus on one particular aspect, apparently dismissing all other possible aspects, for the moment, at least. In listing these readings Easthope obviously alludes to the widespread scholarly practice of focussing upon one particular aspect of a literary text. 'One-track' approaches such as the 'Marxist reading' and the 'gay reading' mentioned by Easthope can indeed discover implications hitherto overlooked. However, these examples reveal the scholarly tendency of trying to relate everything in one text to one particular reading, at the expense of interpretations which have appeared as obvious to other readers. A consequence of this tendency lies in the fact that any 'communication' with other readings becomes difficult. The interpreting scholar does not enter into any explicit controversy with other readers. These other readers will, in turn, find it difficult to argue with somebody who explains everything in a text like "The Windhover" as indicative of Marxist ideology or gay experience.

Easthope's point in listing these readings, however, seems to be that some of the readings are indeed incompatible with one another. He implicitly seems to suggest that no 'definite' or 'objective' reading could possibly be reached. He illustrates this by reference to a scholarly controversy about the meaning of the imperative "Buckle!" in line 9 of "The Windhover", claiming that "it causes some scandal to conventional literary study with its trust to 'the words on the page' on the page that certain individual words are so ambiguous" (26). Easthope seems to be unaware of the fact that philological controversies like the one he mentions have for centuries constituted one of the favourite pastimes of philologists. Rather than being 'scandalised', 'conventional literary scholars' will probably have exulted at coming across a philological problem like that of the meaning of "Buckle!" as it allowed them to display their philological acuteness.

To Easthope the 'scandal' seems to be that scholars have so far been unable to agree on the meaning of "Buckle!". This, however, does not disprove that Hopkins could either have had one particular meaning in mind or (which is more probable) that the ambiguity is intentional. Implicitly, even Easthope makes use of the concept of a definite meaning, otherwise he would not have cared to inform us that "a wimple is a nun's linen head-covering and 'sillion' is a dialect word meaning the smoothed earth turned up by the concave side of a plough-blade" (25). (The second of these explanations, by the way, can be doubted. According to OED, "selion"/"sillion" usually means something else; I rather believe that Hopkins gave the word a new meaning, in analogy to French sillon -this could be the start of another philological debate.) Statements such as Easthope's glosses or such as are implied in the 'Marxist' and 'gay' readings mentioned only make sense if their author believes that they could possibly be true. So in order to mean something, any 'reading' of a literary text must in some way relate to the supposed 'definite' meaning(s) of a text - which may or may not correspond to the author's conscious intentions (as scholars may or may not be able to determine).

If there is no such thing as truth in connection with literary studies, then, of course, any dialogue between different 'readings' is pointless. But if there is, any scholar's prime concern should be to examine the relations and compatibilities of his or her interpretation with, and consequences upon, other possible readings. Anybody who undertakes, for example, a "Lacanian reading" as outlined by Easthope, considering "the process of the subject's desire as it runs across the text" (31), should state the consequences and repercussions of this 'reading' upon other interpretations, above all the "reading in the context of Christian ideology" (29), as the Christian implications of a poem with the subtitle "To Christ our Lord" are obvious.

I have discussed Easthope's discussion of readings of "The Windhover" with two objects in mind: On the one hand I wished to call for a dialogue between scholars who interpret a certain text differently. This may include open controversies between adherents of different scholarly or even ideological persuasions. An electronic journal such as EESE should be able to assist in bringing about such a dialogue. On the other hand I believe that such a dialogue is possible, if it is based, as Easthope's 'readings' are, on a specific text. Such a dialogue, however, necessitates a historical perspective. Only in adducing additional material, and interpreting it in its historical contexts, can we come closer to any agreement about the plausibility and compatibility of different interpretations.

If we base our deductions on specific texts, we should also be able to cross the border between literary studies and linguistics. Linguistic approaches which relate to literary texts will certainly further the dialogue about these texts and should therefore be welcome in EESE. The journal should also be open to 'inter-disciplinary' approaches of other kinds, in the sense that the expertise of scholars in other disciplines should be made use of to advance our understanding of, for example, Victorian British culture. These other disciplines could include other literatures, such as French or German, as well as History, Economics, Psychology or Medicine.

Concerning papers in EESE, one final point should be made: If, as in this paper I propose to do, we consider the furtherance of dialogue to be one of the principal aims of literary scholarship in general and EESE in particular, papers should possess a certain pedagogical quality. Any scholarly statements should 'speak to' as many readers as possible. I should even like to suggest that the ability to establish a communication with readers is one of main points which determine the quality of a scholarly paper.

Literature quoted:

Easthope, Antony, Literary into Cultural Studies (London, 1991).

Eliot, George, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists", in Thomas Pinney, ed., The Essays of George Eliot (London, 1963), 300-324.

Popper, Karl R., Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford, 1979 [1972]).

Stierle, Karlheinz, Text als Handlung: Perspektiven einer systematischen Literaturwissenschaft (München, 1975).