In the current furore over changes to the teaching of English, a number of commentators have accused "postmodern" theorists of destroying the study of English literature (see for example, Dumbing down: outcomes based and politically correct—the impact of the culture wars on our schools, Donnelly 2007).
One of the dramatic claims made in the debate is that postmodernists see no difference between studying Shakespeare and reading a bus ticket or an SMS message. Educational standards and cultural traditions are at risk if postmodernists gain control of the curriculum, we are told.
Critics can even point to curriculum examples that seem to prove their point: such as Western Australia's forthcoming Literature Course of Study, which includes opportunities for students to study graffiti, among other kinds of text.
Contrasting English literature's greatest icon with such a mundane and ephemeral object as a bus ticket or a text message certainly makes for a striking argument. The claim is all the more effective because the literature-versus-bus-ticket argument has not been made up: it actually comes from the work of one the best-known theorists, the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton (Literary theory: An introduction, 1983). I have repeated it myself (Criticism in the postmodern age. CCI512 Seminar, Moon 1987), as a way of illustrating some points about post-structural approaches to literature. But context is everything, and the devil is in the detail. What sounds like an alarming assertion becomes much less scandalous when the reasoning behind it is revealed and understood.
The point that many commentators have failed to grasp is this: there is more than one way of studying those cultural phenomena that we call texts, or writings, or literary works.
The approach that most people are familiar with (to varying degrees) is called Literary Criticism. "Lit Crit" is a discipline with a long history in western culture, though its formal development occurred within English universities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It concerns itself with making aesthetic and moral judgments about those texts that we call works of literature - which generally means creative works of fiction that portray and comment on aspects of human experience.
The literary critic uses a variety of methods, including historical research, biography, close reading, and various kinds of textual interpretation. The immediate aim of criticism is to decide which works of literature offer the greatest insight into the human condition, and to describe, if possible, how they do it; the broader aim is to improve society by cultivating individual taste and morality, using the "best" works of literature as a kind of moral compass.
Within the literary-critical tradition, the work of writers like Shakespeare has special value, because critics have judged such work to be of lasting value to the culture.
But Literary Criticism is only one of the games that we can play with texts, just as soccer is only one of many different games that we can play with a ball. In recent years, we have seen another game and another set of players, arrive on the academic scene.
The people playing this new game have decided to look at cultural phenomena in a different way. We could describe them as cultural “scientists," because some of their methods are similar to those of natural scientists: they are interested in observing, classifying, and explaining cultural objects without making aesthetic or moral judgments. They treat works of literature in the same way that a geologist treats rocks - as objects that we find lying around in the culture, and which we might stub our intellectual toes on.
To these cultural "scientists," works of literature sit alongside a whole range of other cultural objects - billboards, bus tickets, popular songs - that are made out of the same substance: language. Like physicists arranging elements on a periodic table, they try grouping together objects with similar properties and compositions, to see what patterns are revealed.
These groupings sometimes include books. That means the work of such “scientists” occasionally overlaps the field of Literary Criticism. But even if both disciplines have an interest in books, they are not playing the same game with them. This is an important point to grasp.
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