Reconceptualizing American Literature Curricula: Preliminary Reflections from a Ukrainian Perspective
No matter how well we are aware of the arbitrary and constructed nature of our temporal landmarks, millennial impulses irresistibly entice individuals and communities to embark upon the arduous task of reappraising what they’ve been doing in various spheres of human activities and charting new routes for the future. Literary studies are by no means an exception to the general rule. The project of remapping the ways literature is both taught and researched in the United States has been the focus of academic debate at the very least since the mid-1990s, treated both as a specific subject in its own right and within the broader contexts of globalization, postmodern turn, or ecocriticism1. What will follow are some considerations on the possible applications of various ideas put forward in the course of these discussions for teaching American literature in Ukraine, with my inspiration stemming both from extensive experience as a university lecturer, and exposure to a broad array of American views on the issue.
To begin with, it is not solely (and, most probably, not primarily) “fin de siècle” attitudes that give rise to the current preoccupation with revamping literary studies. Of considerable importance is the growing perception of this field among American academics as a “discipline on the wane” (Masao Miyoshi) and one under the threat of becoming “ever more marginal in the university of the future” (Paul Jay). As a matter of fact, the more or less “marginal” position of the Humanities in Western education is not altogether a novelty - modernity following in the wake of the Renaissance celebration of studia humanitatis eventually shifted the emphasis to technical progress, with “liberal arts” being slowly but steadily pushed to the periphery of desirable knowledge. What is new about the present situation is the unprecedented scale on which this process is unfolding throughout the world. Regrettably, we in Ukraine can relate to what Masao Miyoshi characterizes as the “sharp decline” evident “in the interest in literary studies as a whole” (Miyoshi, 2001 p. 288). Notwithstanding the substantial differences in social and cultural locatedness, our humanities are confronted with a challenge that is not dissimilar to the one faced by American universities, though caused by a somewhat different set of circumstances. Paradoxically, guaranteed (even though low-paid) employment and almost complete lack of incentives for professional growth under the Soviet regime allowed literature-minded students in Humanities departments to indulge in “reading” for the pure pleasure of it, to paraphrase Roland Barthes; it did not matter very much what they learned at the university, as long as their further promotion was hardly merit-based. The situation has changed dramatically with Ukraine embarking upon the road towards market economy: today a command of another foreign language, PC literacy or, say, a driving license can land a Humanities student with much better prospects for a remunerative job and open wider career opportunities, both at home and abroad. Given the sad fact that a day has only so many hours, painful choices must be made: whether to read another book, or to take another course in management, for example, with the result, predictably, not in favor of literature in many cases (though by no means in all of them). Consequently, the issues of curricula development and teaching methods acquire crucial importance in our attempts to lure young people into reading practices, supply them with useful and rewarding experience as students of literature, and train a portion of them as professional literary scholars.
Let me now provide a brief overview of some strategies proposed by American academics for refurbishing the discipline, while examining both their relevance for the Ukrainian environment and some possible alternatives.
A preliminary remark might not be amiss at this point to the effect that American literature is taught in different contexts in our two countries (a fact that has a direct bearing on teaching and learning practices). In American universities it would be typically a portion of the broader “English” curriculum, or, to a lesser degree, of “American Studies,” whereas in Ukraine it is traditionally dealt with in the framework of a “World Literature” course, the latter being, with a few exceptions, a Eurocentric euphemism for Western literature. (American Studies is still a budding discipline in this country). American literature may also be a short survey course (usually one semester) required by the English Department syllabi at Foreign Language Teacher Training Colleges.
Many suggestions aimed at restructuring literary studies in the United States seem to be propelled by the desire to move away from binary oppositions like “national/transnational,” “social/aesthetic,” or “diversity/unity” and to offer a paradigm that does justice to complex configurations in contemporary culture requiring close attention to historically evolving relationships between its various components as reflected in the texts.
One of the concerns shared by a number of scholars is the presumed need to transcend, or at least modify, the traditional nation-state approach to literary studies. Such a move seems necessitated, on the one hand, by the rapid globalization process that renders nation-states themselves (albeit theoretically) obsolete in the long run and portends new life for the Goethean Weltliteratur concept. On the other hand, customary practices tend to downplay the extent to which English and American literatures have been politically constructed to meet their states’ needs. The first step towards answering the call of the global might include expanding literary studies in the United States both “horizontally” and “vertically” (Buell 1998, Jay 2001). “Horizontal” expansion implies blurring demarcation lines between British and American writings and bringing instead into clearer focus transatlantic encounters. The “vertical” approach favors a hemispheric orientation, reminding us that “America” is much more than the United States and urging for turning “American Studies” into “Americas Studies” (Dayan 1995, Cheyfitz 1995). The question arises whether it is possible (and advisable) to reconcile this quest for broader vistas with American literature’s proverbial search for its distinctive self. While some American academics seem understandably eager to free literary curricula from what they see as unhealthy exceptionalism, shall we in Ukraine strive to discard “American-ness” altogether for the sake of more global perspectives? My inability to give an unambiguous answer to this question stems from the specific moment of Ukraine’s current development. As its not very clement historical fate would have it, Ukraine has only recently acquired the opportunity to become a nation-state. Global motion towards “supranational communities” (Arjun Appadurai 1996) can hardly be expected to elicit enthusiasm in Ukraine, where nation-building rhetoric is very much the hot topic in political and cultural discourse, which is natural (not to say inevitable) for a nation long deprived of statehood. This situation, in my opinion, is not unlike theoretical tension arising from the conflict between the postmodern discarding of “subjectivity” and newly empowered (formerly subaltern) subjects’ refusal to comply with it. In this context an appeal for “denationalizing” literary studies can have only slim chances of being fully endorsed by the academic community. On the other hand, introducing at least some elements of transnational vision (in this case, of American literature) might be instrumental for turning the mindsets towards regionalist and international patterns that are, in my opinion, unavoidable in the modern world. Another argument against the overall dismissal of “American-ness” (as captured by the national literature) is the role it can play in transforming frames of consciousness in Ukraine in the ways conducive to building a civil society. To be more explicit, “American-ness” here alludes to the principles of democracy, self-reliance, individual freedom and responsibility, as well as inherent polyvocality, associated with the formation of American nation and American literature. Despite the fact that traditional values come under severe attacks launched from various quarters and a range of perspectives within the United States (including both the country’s failure to act upon them and their intrinsic inadequacy), no better standards have been elaborated yet as foundations for a democratic society.
Another problem causing anxiety among scholars is the growing “balkanization” of American literary practices and studies brought about by a powerful multicultural drive. The body of both primary and secondary texts seems to be rapidly splitting along ethnic, gender and other lines, rendering the very notion of “American Literature” hollow and devoid of contents. In this context the subtitle for the American Literature special issue - “No More Separate Spheres!” - sounds like a desperate cry for recovering the common ground. Historically, these developments make perfect sense - focusing on previously marginalized sectors, the “older” academy is doing its best to redress past grievances, and the “younger” generation of humanitarians, many of whom belong to various “groups” themselves, often find it natural to address their “own” material. But, as Werner Sollors, one of the most insightful theorists, asked some time ago, will it do to pigeonhole American literature in the name of pluralism? Reconfirming his stand more recently, he states that he still finds “the group-by-group method […] untenable as an exclusive organizing device” (for literary studies - N.V.) and makes his case for “transethnic reading” that shifts into focus the interaction and interpenetration between various social and cultural groups and texts (Sollors, 1995 p.152). Therefore, the group-by-group approach to American literature has an alternative in viewing it as a basically hybrid totality. There is a feeling that “democracy of dispersal” (Miyoshi, 2001) is past its prime and that, as Lawrence Buell puts it, “there’s something to be said for totalization, for letting yourself be bold about reenvisaging U.S. culture as conceptually unified” (Buell, 1998 p. 469). The idea of a literary “rainbow coalition” (with colors coexisting side by side without merging) is giving way to a “mélange.” The case is made for a need “to reconceptualize American literature and culture as itself radically comparative, hybrid and transnational in its origins, constitution and dynamics […]” (Erkkila, 1995 p.589). Consequently, the interpretation of literary multiculturalism as retaining mainstream in its place, but complementing it with contributions made by blacks, women, gays and lesbians, etc. is being currently revised. What comes instead are re-readings of the national literary history aimed at proving that both “mainstream” and “minority” writings have come and are still coming under diverse influences that belie any claims at cultural homogeneity. As Shelley Fisher Fishkin convincingly demonstrates, there is an increasing flow of publications showing the ways “black” and “white” texts, for example, were mutually constitutive. She concludes her survey by stating that “we are now and have always been a culture in which a vast range of voices and traditions have constantly shaped each other in profound ways,” and calling upon academics to “take into account our increasingly complex understanding of what our common culture is and how it evolved” (Fishkin, 1995 p. 456). In fact, the metaphor of “searching for the roots” as applied to the national literature is being superceded by the Deleuzo-Guattarian “rhizome” implying multiplicity of origins, or by “tracing the routes” through which it came into being.
In spite of the appeal transethnic approach has for me personally, as a Ukrainian teacher and scholar I cannot help agreeing with what Katrin Shwenk refers to as “a somewhat more open concept that does not deny literary interplay but nevertheless insists on the legitimacy of a group-by-group description, if only for reasons of historical necessity” (Shwenk, 1996 p. 3). In our case, the necessity is caused by glaringly insufficient knowledge of “non-mainstream” American literature in Ukraine. For most of my compatriots, the melting-pot is still the most appropriate metaphor for American culture, without making any allowance for possible alternatives. Considering the fact that Ukraine itself is a polycultural entity, discussion of the ways cultural diversity is being dealt with in the USA, both theoretically and practically, cannot be overestimated as a valuable resource for shaping our own cultural policies. And coming back to literary matters, Ukrainian readership at large (including Humanities students) is mostly unaware of the immense investments into American literature by ethnic and cultural minority groups. Though a decidedly potent factor in the contemporary literary process, writings by Asian Americans, Native Americans, Chicano(a)s and others still remain terra incognita in Ukraine. With the exception of African Americans, no works by ethnic writers have been translated into Ukrainian to date, and it is only now that they make their long overdue appearance as an object of critical study2. For all these reasons I side with Katrin Shwenk in advocating the legitimacy, at least to a certain extent and at a certain stage, of group-by-group analysis, recognizing concurrently its temporary and intermediate nature and never losing sight of the need for a more holistic vision of American literature.
In teaching multicultural literature in Ukraine, one of the objectives is to overcome a prejudiced view of minority writing as limited in its meaning and significance to the group from which it comes, as too “particularistic” versus presupposed and unquestioned “universalism” of mainstream texts. The prejudice works both ways, averting potential readers from what they perceive as ultimate “otherness” with no usable implications for themselves, and restricting scholarly research of minority texts on the pretext that you have to be a group member to have the right (and the capability) to discuss them. When confronted with a similar problem in his teaching, Italian Americanist Mario Materassi made a witty point by pushing the argument to its extreme and demonstrating that since we cannot actually “become” somebody else, the only “writer” each of us is competent to explore and/or teach is, not surprisingly, him/herself (Materassi, 1996 p. 118-119.) (I would only remark that our self-knowledge is also far from reliable). Lending my ears to Doris Sommer’s warning to “proceed with caution” when handling minority writing since its texts might deliberately preclude access through narrative strategies aimed at “marking cultural distance” (x) and evading “appropriation,” I still believe that the primary goal of anyone’s engagement with literature is transcending necessarily limited boundaries of her/his personal experience as a human being.
Two current turns in literary criticism - ethical and ecological - are bound (I would even say, doomed) to find response in the Ukrainian ambience. Of course, the ethical dimension has in fact never left literature, but for some time it has been overshadowed by New Critical and later (post)structural concern with pure non-referential textuality. Its comeback into the critical discourse will be, no doubt, hailed by average readers exasperated by incomprehensible theoretical jargon - and, on the other hand, it is indicative of the professionals themselves being no longer satisfied to play the sophisticated “bead game” of signifiers and signifieds (Edward Said’s insistence on the “worldliness” of the text can serve as a good example). In the remote and not so remote past, Ukrainian and Russian writers and critics were often forced into assuming the roles of moral teachers (or even preachers) by the policed states that prevented normal development of social and philosophical discourses in our countries. Unfortunate as it might have been for literature, this situation has programmed the readers to form certain prejudgments when engaging with a piece of literature - it is supposed to teach a moral lesson. So, approaching a text from an ethical perspective would fit in with Ukrainian readers’ horizon of expectations (later I will address some of its limitations).
Predisposition to embrace ecocriticism, in its turn, relies both upon Ukraine’s tragic Chernobyl experience aggravated by serious environmental problems, and Ukrainian culture’s special ties with nature that were due to its predominantly rural modus until comparatively recent times, and have not been entirely severed even under civilization pressures. The idea of establishing linkages between cultural and biological diversity and their consideration within the same frame of reference, though novel for the Ukrainian context, sounds promising and might be worthwhile incorporating into American literary studies. Nature writing, too, has a long-standing tradition in Ukraine, and the present attempts at theorizing environmental literature as distinct from age-old references to nature in the multitude of texts produced within numerous cultures (Buell, 1995) can be of no small interest for literary criticism.
Another suggestion that might yield positive results is organizing the curriculum around “clusters” of texts belonging to various discourses and that differ in genres and modalities. One of its advantages will be an interdisciplinary approach allowing the integration of literary and cultural studies. At present they are “separate spheres” indeed at our universities, and I do not rule out possible resistance on the part of some faculty to the idea of integration - people teaching cultural studies might be unwilling to cede a portion of their territory to “trespassers,” while literature professors might not be overenthusiastic about having to learn something beyond their own province. Even so, there seems to be no viable alternative.
Broadening the generic scope is also important as it can counterbalance, albeit partially, the traditionally prose-centric (or more specifically, novel-centric) orientation of most literary courses in Ukraine. Bringing up the issue of genre can be useful in more respects than one. It can draw the students’ attention to the problematic nature of the novel itself (seen as basically dialogical by Mikhail Bakhtin or as basically authoritarian by Edward Said), while sharpening their sensitivity to particular techniques employed by poetic texts to keep lyrical outpouring within formal borders, or by drama to structure its innate heteroglossia. Furthermore, exposure to diverse modes of writing is critical for changing not only our students’ ideas of what literature can be and can do, but also their vision of the world and their place in it. Lawrence Buell’s remark on the “desire to contain and control authoritatively that is embedded in realist narrative practice” (Buell 1998, p. 468) correlates with some of my students’ failure to enter relationships with non-realistic texts and even a reluctance to do so. Even though they are young people raised after the fall of the totalitarian regime, this might be due to its vestiges in their mental frames. They expect the text a) to provide all the necessary guidance as to how it should be interpreted (implying that there can be only one valid interpretation); b) to have direct referent in reality, and c) to teach an easily grasped moral lesson. Apparently, they see classical realist texts as models of what literature is about. No wonder, then, that they should feel disoriented and even offended encountering texts that tend to defy these principles and try instead to get them entangled in intricate labyrinths of multiplayer play (be it a text by Rabelais or John Barth). For this reason reading texts that deploy diverse strategies and learning to enjoy them can have a liberating effect on readers’ minds and encourage them to put more faith in their own agency as interpreters or even (as is the case with much of contemporary literature) co-authors. In doing so, however, it is desirable not to throw the baby out with the water, that is, to keep students on the brink of total relativism and have them preserve their belief in moral feeling as literature’s integral component.
To sum up the above considerations, American literary study in Ukraine seems confronted with a task not unlike the one set by a despotic king to a smart peasant girl in a popular folk tale: she had to make her appearance at the court neither undressed, nor clothed, neither barefooted, nor shod, neither on foot, nor in a cart…Naturally, following the rules of the genre, the girl finds the way to outsmart the king. Will we be knowledgeable and smart enough to present American literature within our tight syllabi framework as both nationally distinct and crossing national boundaries? As both diversity and totality? As both morally and socially meaningful and aesthetically autonomous? As both a continuous flow and a selection of titles? My belief is that it is not so much the result of our efforts that matters, but the process itself, or, rather, two interrelated processes - one of American literature incessantly (re)constructing itself as a project unfolding in time, and the other, ever asymptotical, the process of our looking at it (and, yes, appropriating it) from our specific position as teachers and students of American literature in Ukraine. And - one final afterthought - are we not, after all, only mediators, whose ultimate goal is achieved when our students leave us behind to engage directly with texts in a far vaster “ocean of stories” than we could ever have navigated?