The White Male Aesthetic of the English Discipline

I read no literature by a white male author for one year, and it was beautiful. It was relatively easy to do, given that the English courses I enrolled in were Global Women’s Literature, Postcolonial Archipelagos and Transnational Literatures of the Chinese Diaspora. Through these classes, I learned the role of imperialist histories in personal and collective identity (re)formation. I learned how literary forms could both give voice to the subaltern and also contribute to its silencing. I learned how authors with marginal identities maintained their individual narrative and artistry in the face of the overwhelming burden of group representation. I learned how to destabilize the nation as a colonial unit, position communities within a multiethnic context and challenge the conventional power structure between the mainland and the diaspora, the imperial center and the colonies. Through these classes, I also learned that the English major was predominantly comprised of women of color. This lesson was refuted shortly after.

This semester, I enrolled in a 400-level seminar, designed “to teach students the vital intellectual skills of how to frame a research question and conduct independent research,” according to the course description. So this semester, when I attended classes to embark on a very serious and intensely theoretical study of the literary discipline, the demographics of the classroom and the contents of the syllabus abruptly shifted. Gone were the short story collections written by island authors, and conventional, canonical texts took their place. Postcolonial, critical race, feminist and queer authors and theorists, as though inconveniencing the contributions of their formalist predecessors, were relegated to a few weeks at the end of the semester. Missing from these courses was a sustained consideration of sociopolitical context in order to favor a consideration of the ‘literary.’ Questions that asked, “What is of aesthetic value?” overwhelmed those asking, “Who determines aesthetic value?”

If a primary role of literature is to challenge the ‘objectivity’ of language, the ‘singularity’ of narrative and the ‘inevitability’ of history, then there is room for improvement in our English department. The only content-based requirement for an English major is a pre-1800 requirement. This is a justifiable requirement, but there is no requirement that requires a single semester of study focused on non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender or non-Western authors. Furthermore, courses that engage texts written by authors with marginal identities are often distributed as 200-level “foundation courses” or occasionally as 300-level “topics in film and cultural studies” courses, while 400-level seminars utilize canonical text for “independent inquiry, critical and theoretical issues.” In Naoki Sakai’s essay, “Dislocation of the West and the Status of the Humanities,” he writes about two distinct flows of knowledge:

“The first is a centripetal flow from peripheral sites to various metropolitan centers in Western Europe and North America … Such information is regarded as too raw or particularistic to be understood by a non-specialist metropolitan readership because of its dense empirical content … The second movement is a centrifugal flow of information about how to classify domains of knowledge, how to evaluate given empirical data … Academic information of this second kind is generally called ‘theory,’ and its production has largely occurred according to a historically specific division of intellectual labor in which ‘theory’ is associated with that historical construct, ‘the West,’ and moves from there to the Rest of the World.”

This construction is relatively unchallenged by our English department, which places postcolonial, feminist, queer and racial texts in lower-level courses and reserves the realm of ‘pure’ theory and ‘pure’ aesthetic for the likes of Shakespeare or Keats. This course distribution suggests that certain texts are reserved for more superficial consumption while others deserve sustained conceptual engagement.

This problem of marginalization in the literary discipline is not purely economic and thus is not simply temporary. That is to say, even if there was enough funding to hire an English professor to teach Asian American, Latinx or global south literature, a significant proportion of English majors would not enroll. I would diagnose this fundamentally as an evaluation issue, both on the parts of students and faculty. If English majors do not recognize that postcolonial, critical race, gender and queer literary theory are not just niche approaches reserved for those who possess such identifications, then they will not attend those classes, regardless of how many or how few are offered. If college faculty does not view sociohistorical scholarly criticism as “English-y” enough to displace the comfortable position of formal abstraction, then those courses will not be taught, regardless of how many students demand them.

This “dilemma of diversity in higher education” undoubtedly extends far beyond the English department. We can do more than sit on our hands until the next influx of grant money flows in that allows for the token hiring of a visiting professor who will depart after a few years due to lack of institutional support. It begins now with a reevaluation of what we view as containing value. It begins by reconsidering what we view as central and what we view as peripheral.