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English after the Fall: From Literature to…

English after the Fall: From Literature to Textuality

by Robert Scholes

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really appreciated Scholes's consideration of the place of the English Department in an academic world that's increasingly about students studying the practical, the career-oriented. On the one hand, I agree with him that the teaching of reading and the teaching of writing retain a significant importance, even if we become more and more a "service" department. I agree that the modernist privileging of difficult works needs to be dethroned, and that cultural studies should become an important part of what English departments do. On the other, many of his examples struck me as quixotic in the extreme, to the point of derailing his arguments. The first few chapters are absolutely the strongest. ( )
  chelseagirl | Jun 13, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In this slim volume, Scholes presents his plea for the continuing relevance of the humanities as both a body of scholarship and a uniquely powerful tool for understanding and sorting the information with which we are daily saturated. Scholes deftly analyzes of a variety of different forms, from scripture to opera, in defense of his position that textuality -- what people really read and write -- rather than literature, should be the proper object of instruction in literature courses. ( )
  dianegreco | Mar 6, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
LibraryThing user dekesolomon's review of English After the Fall is succinct and accurate - unlike Scholes' own treatise on the evolution of English studies. The premise of Robert Scholes' text is one I certainly agree with - he identifies a need for English department to evolve, both for their own survival and for the benefit of students. As one of the "lowly" adjuncts both Scholes and Deke identify, I have very strong opinions about the state of compositional studies, and some specific ideas about how to change things for the good of all; I do not think Scholes would agree with many of my assessments.

Scholes suggests that the way to extend the life of English departments is to look beyond the traditional canon and recognize other genres as texts worthy of study. This would likely have been a radical idea twenty years ago, but my own experiences as a student suggest that Scholes is behind the curve; I, for example, took courses on Japanese theatre, contemporary fiction, American travel narratives, and a host of other genres that are traditionally "nonliterary" as an undergraduate, and continue to use "nonliterary" sources in my own courses. Much of Scholes' arguments are lost in his enthusiasm for specific texts, and for a reader unfamiliar with the operas and films on which he fixates, his text as a whole loses its power.

Whiles Scholes certainly identifies many of the problems now facing English departments, his "solution" seems to aggravate many of the current difficulties of teaching the subject by continuing to present material that undergraduates will not find compelling (i.e. opera), as opposed to addressing some of the most immediate concerns: a need for students to learn how to communicate effectively, whether or not they pursue English courses beyond the requirements of Freshman Composition. ( )
  Luxx | Jan 2, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Disclaimer: I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program.

I read this book from 23 Nov – 13 Dec 2011 and the bottom line is that I enjoyed it and recommend it.


Prologue: English after the fall
Ch. 1: Literature and its others
Ch. 2: The limiting concept of literature
Ch. 3: Textuality and the teaching of reading
Ch. 4: Textual power—sacred reading
Ch. 5: Textual pleasure—profane reading
Epilogue: A sample program in textuality
A Note on Sources
Works Consulted
Index [missing in this uncorrected proof copy]

This book is a follow-on to his previous book, The Rise and Fall of English, which he claims “came about because of the alluring but ultimately fatal choice of literature as the central object of the English curriculum” (xiii). I have not read that book but will probably do so now; I will certainly be looking into other books and writings by Robert Scholes.

The Prologue gives us an overview of how the book came about, what the Fall of English is, provides a quick overview of the argument for “textuality,” provides Scholes’ qualifications and interests in this arena, and outlines the rest of the book.

“This book is simply a profession of faith in that fallen field of studies and an attempt to suggest a direction for its future” (xiii).

“The fall of English is actually part of the fall of all the humanities in a world that is driven by technological progress and the bottom line” (xiv-xv).


history of ‘literature’
how a constricted notion of literature contributes to the fragmentation of the field
expanded field of textuality
illustration 1: the sacred
illustration 2: the profane

The prologue is quite understandable and provided me a bit of enthusiastic anticipation for what followed.

Ch. 1: Literature and Its Others

This chapter provides a rapid-fire intellectual/conceptual history of the concept of ‘literature.’ While it was interesting, it was not at all as clear as I had hoped it would be. This is definitely the weakest link in the book and its argument. Thankfully, it really isn’t required for the argument in any serious way; although it could certainly strengthen the argument if done well.

Intellectual history, and its close kin conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte), are my favorite kinds of history and I was highly interested in learning about the concept and idea of ‘literature’ as it has developed. Sadly, I am still pretty much in the dark after reading this romp of a chapter. I do understand Scholes giving just under 10% of the text to this chapter, seeing as it isn’t really fundamental to his argument, but I am still disappointed. Thankfully, this is really my only disappointment with the book.

Ch. 2: The Limiting Concept of Literature

Discusses the limits put on the concept of ‘literature’ within English departments and how that constrains what is taught.

“At the simplest level, as we have seen, this literary designation may rule excellent written texts out of consideration in our basic courses in reading, writing, and thinking. And that is one reason why we need to free ourselves from a restricted notion of literature” (23).

“We would not deny that certain kinds of texts, like instructions, are usually very low on the literary scale, but we all believe that there is a scale, and that there are poems, plays, stories, and expository texts all along that scale. This scale is a measure of a quality we may call “literariness” (which I would define as a combination of textual pleasure and power), but it is neither easy nor right to draw a line across the scale at some point and call everything on one side of the line literature” (24-5).

Provides a couple examples of the literary used for other forms of teaching and of the ‘nonliterary’ as examples of the literary.

Ch. 3: Textuality and the Teaching of Reading

(Some) problems with the restricted notion of reading:

“you can read it but you can’t write it”
“led to the separation of the study of reading/literature … from the study of writing/composition”
led to hierarchical structure of faculty
“further split between those kinds of writing that can be designated as ‘creative’ and those that cannot.”
“now have programs claiming creative status for certain sorts of writing not included in the restricted notion of literature, like the personal essay.”
“tied too tightly to the book”
“tied to a narrow view of what makes a text creative or literary”
“prevents us from demonstrating in our classrooms the relevance of the texts we cherish to the actual lives of our students” (33-34)

“To solve these problems we need to redefine English as the study of textuality rather than literature. Such a redefinition has a number of aspects, but it begins with the recognition that English is all about teaching—not research—and that this teaching has two main branches: reading and writing. That is, the business of English departments is to help students improve as readers and writers, to become better producers and consumers of texts” (34, emphasis mine).

Scholes claims that “textuality has two aspects:”

“broadening of the objects we study and teach to include all of the media and modes of expression.”
“changing the way we look at texts to combine the perspectives of creator and consumer, writer and reader” (35).

“The basic purpose of humanistic education is to give students perspectives on their own cultural situation, opening the past so that they can connect it to the present” (35-6).

Ch. 4: Textual Power—Sacred Reading

“… we should treat all texts held to be sacred with interpretational respect. That is, we must see them as attempts to present a true version of events or a valid way of life, even if they seem to contradict our own views. Which does not mean that we need to believe any of them—even our own. Respect is different from belief” (53, emphasis mine).

Sacred reading includes both main sources of sacred texts: religions and governments.

“To simply make sense of it [notion of 'sacredness'] in a basic way, however, we must perform an imaginative act, which tells us, I believe, that no text can be perfectly sacred in actuality—precisely because it is a text” (57)

US political sacred documents are “ideal for the study of interpretation” because we do know a lot about who wrote them and how they were composed (59).

“The textualist reader, then, must acknowledge the seriousness of fundamentalist readings, while resisting and criticizing the zeal that often results in interpretive leaps to an unearned certainty of meaning, achieved by turning a deaf ear to the complexity of the texts themselves, their histories, and their present situations” (63).

“them, there, then” ==> “us, here, now” “… “we must try to determine the text’s proper bearing on our own values and our conduct in the world” (71).

Ch. 5: Textual Pleasure—Profane Reading

“All texts that are not accorded sacred status may be considered profane—especially if we can do away with the semi-sacred category of literature” (89).

Focuses on musical drama and, in particular, opera in this chapter.

“Because performative works depend on audiences, the question of what they mean to “us, here, now” gains in importance. We live in a performative world, which is another reason why we should pay special attention to enacted stories in our classrooms” (92).

This chapter focused a lot on performance and roles.

Epilogue: A Sample Program in Textuality

He ends with a “suggestion for a core of courses to be followed by advanced work drawn from whatever curriculum is already in a given institution” (142).

Most of these courses probably already exist, at least in title and with some applicable content. They would need to be restructured to focus on the textuality of the, hopefully, broadened range of texts used to comprise the content. I do see this as a totally doable venture, though.

Recommended! In particular, I feel that, at a minimum, the following folks could benefit from reading and thinking about this text: Lit majors [all languages], writing majors, and humanists of all stripes including digital humanists. This includes everyone from undergrads and their parents, through grad students on up to professors, department chairs and anyone else involved with or concerned with curriculum of literature(s) and writing.

This is a short but, nonetheless, important book. It is a quick read but supplies plenty to think about and act on.

For my full review with more sample quotes, see: http://marklindner.info/blog/2011/12/21/scholes-english-after-the-fall/
  mlindner | Dec 21, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Robert Scholes has previously argued that English departments that focus on Literature with a capital “L” are headed for (or have already taken) a fall (The Rise and Fall of English). In his latest book, he suggests that teaching English in its fallen state might not be so bad after all. The problem with the traditional English department is, as he sees it, that they force students to read stuff that just isn't a part of their lives, when what they really need to learn is how to read (and write) well. So Scholes says English departments must move away from literature, classically conceived, toward what he calls “textuality”: the written word in all its many guises. The blurbs promise Scholes will outline a new direction that English programs should follow (either his or something like it) in the coming age. Scholes himself says, in the prologue, that he is unaware of any departments that are "following my advice for making the fall of English a fortunate one."

What he offers, though, looks to me very much like the same old postmodernism/deconstructionism that currently does seem to dominate many English departments. I teach philosophy, the longtime foe of rhetoric, so I'll readily admit that I may be insensitive to the differences between his proposals for textual studies and simple—one might even say, "classical"—deconstruction. But textual study certainly has a familiar odor about it since many of his illustrations involve taking icons of Western culture and exposing their misogynistic and colonial underpinnings for criticism.

There is, nonetheless, something more dignified and respectful, even reverent, about Scholes's approach than one finds in younger slash-and-burn postmoderns. When I started reading English After the Fall, I fully expected Scholes to recommend elevating various trends in popular culture, such as rap music, video games, manga, anime, graphic novels, or even interactive advertisements, to the status of an academic discipline. Instead, to my delight, I found that his idea of textual studies meant looking at brilliant essays, sacred scripture, writings of ancient historians, Broadway shows, movies, German art songs, and grand opera, not as isolated samples of writing, but as influences upon and as works influenced by great writings. His was not a project for licensing students to free-associate smugly within their existing comfort zones, but for showing them how to seriously, attentively, and thoughtfully read literature by opening up its frequently uncomfortable rhetorical contexts. So, for instance, he might indeed encourage students to look at advertisements, but not our advertisements. He would look instead at the ads between which the serialized installments of a Dickens novel were sandwiched as originally published. In this way, students begin to appreciate what Dickens was really doing, and to whom.

Scholes's programmatic suggestions take up no more than four pages in an epilogue; however, the longest two chapters, “Textual Power—Sacred Reading,” and “Textual Pleasure—Profane Reading,” illustrate vividly how a teacher might deconstruct different texts to students by judicious observations and questions with an eye sensitized to inconsistencies, borrowings, omissions, odd implications, and other puzzling features of the text itself. For instance, he points to discrepancies between the headings of the Declaration of Independence as signed on parchment and as later printed and distributed. Scholes does not want students to limit themselves to understanding what the text's words mean for them, but to approach an understanding of what they must have meant for the author and for the author's audience. This requires opening up topics in history, translation, and cultural studies.

Given the necessarily multidisciplinary requirements of textual studies, the postlapsarian English course, if Scholes had his way, would require more expertise than any one person—particularly a young person—could reasonably be expected to bring to the classroom. This creates an administrative barrier to such courses, in which texts would have to be taught in conjunction with other disciplines, in order to unpack them by means of insights gleaned from all fields that touch or are touched by great, powerful writing. How could one create such courses without a small army of co-instructors?

Overall, I found this book charming, personable, and comfortably curmudgeonly. It gave me some great ideas for helping my philosophy students appreciate ancient philosophy, to which I expose them through texts that include dialogues (Plato), poems (Lucretius), and lecture notes (Aristotle). ( )
1 vote skippersan | Dec 19, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 160938055X, Paperback)

Robert Scholes’s now classic Rise and Fall of English was a stinging indictment of the discipline of English literature in the United States. In English after the Fall, Scholes moves from identifying where the discipline has failed to providing concrete solutions that will help restore vitality and relevance to the discipline.
With the self-assurance of a master essayist, Scholes explores the reasons for the fallen status of English and suggests a way forward. Arguing that the fall of English as a field of study is due, at least in part, to the narrow view of “literature” that prevails in English departments, Scholes charts how the historical rise of English as a field of study during the early twentieth century led to the domination of modernist notions of verbal art, ultimately restricting English studies to a narrow cannon of approved texts.
After tracing the various meanings attached to the word “literature” since the Renaissance, Scholes argues that the concept of it that currently shapes the work of English departments excludes both powerful sacred documents (from the Declaration of Independence to the Bible) and pleasurable, profane works that involve the performance of roles like those of clown and teacher in many media (including popular musicals, opera, and film)—and that both sorts of works should be studied in English courses. English after the Fall is a bold manifesto for the replacement of literature with what Scholes calls textuality—an expansive and ecumenical notion of what we read and write—as the primary object of English instruction. This concise and persuasive work is destined to become required reading for anyone who cares about the future of the humanities.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:41 -0400)

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