The Decline and Fall of Literature

In: English and Literature

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The Decline and Fall of Literature

November 4, 1999

ANDREW DELBANCO

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[pic]In Plato’s Cave[pic] by Alvin Kernan

A couple of years ago, in an article explaining how funds for faculty positions are allocated in American universities, the provost of the University of California at Berkeley offered some frank advice to department chairs, whose job partly consists of lobbying for a share of the budget. “On every campus,” she wrote, “there is one department whose name need only be mentioned to make people laugh; you don’t want that department to be yours.”1 The provost, Carol Christ (who retains her faculty position as a literature professor), does not name the offender—but everyone knows that if you want to locate the laughingstock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English department.

The laughter, moreover, is not confined to campuses. It has become a holiday ritual for The New York Times to run a derisory article in deadpan Times style about the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, where thousands of English professors assemble just before the new year. Lately it has become impossible to say with confidence whether such topics as “Eat Me; Captain Cook and the Ingestion of the Other” or “The Semiotics of Sinatra” are parodies of what goes on there or serious presentations by credentialed scholars.2

At one recent English lecture, the speaker discussed a pornographic “performance artist” who, for a small surcharge to the price of admission to her stage show, distributes flashlights to anyone in the audience wishing to give her a speculum exam. By looking down at the mirror at just the right angle, she is able, she says, to see her own cervix reflected in the pupil of the beholder, and thereby (according to the lecturer) to fulfill the old Romantic dream of eradicating the…...

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