Thou art That – History and Literature

This is something of a rant…

Often I have students tell me in evals that what I do isn’t “appropriate” for an English Lit course, that it is more history than lit. Often I have students tell me in evals that what I do isn’t “appropriate” for an English lit course because it is too stridently feminist. These two things concern me and I think they are stemming from two different understandings of what it is to be literature.

The first criticism implies that literature is instantly recognizable as such by the present day reader. That those texts which are “literary” are those texts that are poetic, novelistic, or dramatic. Problem, of course, is that such a reading siphons off the political import of textual production. That is, if literary production only equals the poetic, the novelistic or the dramatic, then note how utterly powerless those media are in today’s world. They construct identity, to be sure, but compare the cultural impact of a novel, even a novel like Harry Potter, to a law that outlaws abortion and the reactions to that. If literature is understood only to be textual products that are at best on the sidelines of society, then what we study in English literature departments is merely how to make the institutionally weakened weaker.

In this understanding of “literature” one knows one’s place as utterly ineffectual from the start. Art doesn’t change the world, it tells pretty stories. In fact, the stories that are told and told again only reinforce dominant cultural norms of patriarchal privilege – again, see Harry Potter, which, though it is a delightful romp, really reinstantiates white, male, abled, hetero privilege at the expense of literally everyone else in the world. Students come to class only seeing “literature” as meaning X, yet when I try to point out how X is either reinforcing patriarchal norms or it is a totally marginalized discourse (poetry), they don’t want to think about it.

Perhaps not. Perhaps it is that they don’t want to think about it in a course that is by definition historical. That is, I don’t think they would have a problem recognizing that modern poetry by dub poets or visual poets is marginalized as a discourse. And indeed, I don’t think that they would have a problem recognizing how that marginalization works to reinforce certain hegemonic norms of value and ideology that reinforce the powers that be. But when it comes to history and the creation of the canon, I think that they tend to want something else from it than they do from contemporary lit.

From contemporary lit, they want to see how the systems of power that are alive today are being resisted, corrupted, subverted through textual means. They want to see how the things that they enjoy (like Harry Potter) are working within a much larger world of power and privilege.

From historical literature, they want to see the certainty of the canon. They want to see the power and privilege of the canon so they can react against it. They want to set up a contrast between the past and the present. Bad past, good present. The past is that thing we react against, the present is the battleground of personal identity.

I don’t let them do that. The past, obv, is created by the present. The terms of subversion and resistance that we priv today are overdetermined just as the past itself is a realm that is determined by those terms. No wonder they don’t get it. I’m not clear about the role that the canon plays in their own minds. They presuppose certain things to be literary (plays, novels, poems) and thereby cut out a wealth of other possibilities (sermons, biographies, hagiographies, diaries). When those other possibilities are cut out, not only are you forced to see the past in terms that reflect more about you than about the past, you limit the possible stories you can tell about the past to those things that reinforce patriarchal, hegemonic norms.


The past becomes a world against which we can define ourselves, but little else. What I try to do is to point out that because you made the past, thou art that.



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