Political Interpretations: The Evolution of English Studies

What is considered “English Studies” today is the product of progressive research, and has earned a reputation of conceptual difficulty.  One might commonly ask, “What is English Studies?” and expect a straightforward answer.  However, the threads that hold English together form an increasingly interdisciplinary study; therefore, making English studies difficult to explain so concisely.  Thomas McLaughlin explains literary theory as such: “…a shared commitment to understanding how language and other systems of signs provide frameworks which determine how we read, and more generally, how we make sense of experience, construct our own identity, [and] produce meaning in the world” (McLaughlin, 1).  McLaughlin not states the importance of language itself, but also accentuates the discourse of how language is used to “negotiate the complexities of life” (McLaughlin, 8).  Through this brief study, one should find coherent connections between the role of the intellectual in English Studies with regard to literary terms and politics.  He or she might also find that changes in reading practices have not come about haphazardly, but through the work of such intellectuals. There should be a discovery of increased focus in English Studies on the politics surrounding cultural awareness and global relations as they relate to the work of intellectuals over time. Finally, one should be left with an understanding of who holds the power to interpret the “main complexities of life.”

Politics in Intellectual Power and Interpretation

In attempts to trace the advancement of English Studies, one must first inquire who first gained authority in the field.  As his livelihood was rooted in thought and reason, the intellectual rose to leadership, but with how strict of qualifications?  In attempts to discover who exactly these intellectuals could be, Edward Said composed Representations of the Intellectual (1996), choosing to focus on the words of Julien Benda and Antonio Gramsci.  Said explores Benda’s definition of intellectuals: “a tiny band of super-gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the science of mankind” who uphold “eternal standards of truth and justice that are precisely not of this world” (Said, 4-5).  Benda upheld the “super-gifted” philosophers as carefully selected from an exclusive group of intellectuals.  With this understanding, intellectuals were of their own social class, rather than representatives of the common man.  In opposition to this theory, Antonio Gramsci equates humanity with intellectualism in Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1929-1935):

There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo fabar cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a “philosopher,” an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.

With Gramsci’s view, one may arrive at a conclusion such as this: all humans are capable of new modes of thought, which is indeed intellectual.  Therefore, all humans are capable of interpreting meaning, even if on different levels of intellectual processing.  Through Representations of the Intellectual Said supports Gramsci: “Today, everyone who works in any field connected either with the production or distribution of knowledge is an intellectual… [and] speaks and deals in a language that has become specialized and usable by other members of the same field…” (Said, 9).  Consequently, Said and Gramsci support the opinion that who are willing to increase their knowledge worthy of intellectualism.

The 20th century philosophers, Benda and Gramsci may have been in total opposition with each other on the “who” of intellectualism, but “what” was more clearly agreed upon. The individuals in this subjective category were held in high esteem for their ability to interpret meaning.  This critical term, “interpretation” is increasingly what drives intellectual discourse in English Studies. Steven Mailloux asserts in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1995),  “…interpretation is always a politically-interested act of persuasion” (Mailloux, 127).  With a clouded concept of who exactly should be considered an intellectual, the question remains: Who holds the power of this politic and persuasive interpretation.  According to Benda, intellectuals are our only interpreters, and they were sought out specifically for political endeavors:

…he sensed how important it was for governments to have [intellectuals] as their servants…to consolidate the government’s policy, to spew out propaganda agenda against official enemies, euphemisms and, on a larger scale, whole systems of Orwellian Newspeak, which could disguise the truth of what was occurring in the name of institutional “expediency” or “national honor” (Said, 6).

With this view of the intellectual, only these political “servants” had need for interpretation. If intellectuals such as this were our only interpreters, as Benda suggests, then the common citizen has no cause for or means of persuasion.  Alternatively, the Gramscian view of intellectualism supports the “organic intellectual.” Said clarifies “organic intellectuals are actively involved in society, that is, they constantly struggle to change minds and expand markets.”  This suggests that any citizen may wish to present information persuasively for their own or others’ benefit. Furthermore, the organic intellectuals are used to “organize interest, gain more power, [and] get  more control” all of which are highly political goals (Said, 4).  A more recent intellectual, Rosa Eberly, pulls the focus back to literature. In Citizen’s Critics (2000), she suggests“actual readers” can be critics of rhetorical language; therefore, the common citizen can be an intellectual.

Instead of studying the “ideal” reader, I study actually existing literary public spheres and employ a rhetorical lexicon that has allowed me to describe the interpretive practices of actual readers writing publicly about these problematic literary texts, a critical practice that shares some assumptions with what Steven Mailloux has called rhetorical hermeneutics (Eberly, 2000).

In this passage, Eberly describes her theory about “actual readers” in regard to Mailloux’s term “rhetorical hermeneutics.” Mailloux researches the possibility of rhetorical criticism as a map of how to read all texts.  Essentially, he questions if the “correct” interpretation of a text is persuasive regardless of author or reader.  Eberly supports this concept of rhetorical hermeneutics.  She clarifies that the common intellectual is capable of interpreting texts in a persuasive manner- and that such interpretations are intentional. In this affirmation, Eberly transcends Benda’s view of intellectuals as an exclusive class of scholars.  She expands on interpretation as such: “I suggest that the rhetorical approaches to the study and practice of interpretation…need to reflect the observation that interpretations involve speaking and writing as well as reading and are shaped not only by broad cultural assumptions but also by the inventional strategies of other public arguments” (Eberly, 3).  The rhetoric I spin from this research is how persuasive interpretations are a cultural lens from which to begin political discourse.

In order to study theories of interpretation further, one may seek the knowledge of Thomas McLaughlin in Critical Terms for Literary Theory, “Interpretation-the process of producing textual meaning- is therefore rhetorical.  It does not live in the realm of certain truths, but in a world where only constructions of the truth are possible where competing interpretations argue for supremacy” (McLaughlin, 7).  One possible explanation of McLaughlin’s statement regarding the fight for supremacy can be found through the development of dominant culture values.  “Culture,” as defined by Stephen Greenblatt, is the “ensemble of beliefs and practices” or controlled set of limits with which individuals of a society must comply (Greenblatt, 225).  Those who lose the “competition” of interpretation for supremacy, or are outliers of a culture’s beliefs and practices, then, fall from the dominant into the subculture.  Michel Foucault explains the existence of a subculture as such, “It is often difficult to say who holds power in a precise sense, but it is easy to see who lacks power” (Foucault, 5).  Furthermore, there are other subcultures that are defined and redefined in the competition for cultural interpretation.  Foucault insists in 1972 “women, prisoners, conscripted soldiers, hospital patients and homosexuals” struggle against the centralized power.  Most recently, SUNY Fredonia’s keynote Convocation speaker, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson introduced “culture” as both simplistic and complex (Dyson, 2013).  The dominant culture is lived daily as what is “socially acceptable,” but all aspects of subcultures, whether practiced or suppressed, are still existent and waiting to flow into dominance.  Greenblatt’s concepts of “constraint” and “mobility” in culture are not conformed to, as he suggests, but challenged.  Rather than lie quietly with the given constraints of a society, intellectuals call attention to society through “literary acts of praising or blaming” the culture (Greenblatt, 226).  Further support of “competitive interpretations” is given by Foucault’s assertion that “desire for power establishes a singular relationship between power and interest” (Foucault, PAGE).  Not every individual desires to have an overwhelming power, but there is a natural human desire to resist oppression by a power construct.

A Fluid Canon and New Reading Process

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson elaborated on culture as the “literature of our society” (Dyson, 2013).  Julien Benda argued thoroughly that society’s interpreters of culture were the high class intellectuals, and Marxist theory suggests there should be a leader of interpretation as well.  The juxtaposition of literary culture and power cannot be studied without a discussion of the canon.  In Critical Terms for Literary Study, John Guillory, “We must understand that the history of literature is not only a question of what we read but of who reads and who writes and in what social circumstances; it is also a question of what kinds (or genres) of texts are written and for what audiences” (Guillory, 238).  Because “writing and reading are social practices” the canonical debate is political.  Guillory continues, “Human being are not born with the ability to read or write; these skills must be acquired.” The capacity to read and write has been revealed unequally distributed in history through social and physical battles over civil rights.  Again, this is an example of politics and competing interests; a constant question of who has the power, who should, and when that shift in power will be shown through literature.

By World War II, progress was being made in terms of language acquisition and widespread education.  Benda’s strict definition of the intellectual’s role was fading, but there was still a dependency on high level thinkers to interpret meaning.  The“New Criticism” movement, as named by universities, “involved an introduction to a literary language more complex and sophisticated than Standard English, a language whose complexity was teased out in the practice of ‘close reading’” (McLaughlin, 246).  While students struggled with the interpretations of figurative poetry and other literature, professors struggled with the notion that they were no longer the voice of that interpretation. The words of Foucault can apply here, “In engaging in a struggle that concerns their [the proletariat] own interests, whose objectives they clearly understand and whose methods only they can determine, they enter into a revolutionary process” (Foucault, 7).  In giving up intellectual authority, were these professors suddenly working against their institutions? A shift from Benda’s government “servants,” intellectuals were beginning to give up some power in exchange for the development of a wider community of thinkers.

Guillory claims, “It should no longer be desirable or necessary to characterize the literacy curriculum in any one way, as though all canonical works shared some intrinsic property” regardless of the literature teacher’s ability to find the same message of constraint and mobility within every canonical text (Guillory, 243).  Thus, where New Criticism encouraged a wider band of intellectual thinking, the interpretations of canonical works were not representative as such. Guillory suggests, “the alternative to homogenizing works is to historicize them” (Guillory, 244).  Greenblatt supports this opinion in his discussion of culture: “The current structure of liberal arts education often places obstacles…by separating the study of history from the study of literature.”   He asserts that literary critics are now paying more attention to social and historical dimensions of literature in order to reach a better way of reading while also gaining new interpretations of texts. “Hence it is more possible…to reach the complex whole of political culture.”  A historical analysis of Shakespearean literature would reveal, for example, “political debates about when, if ever, disobeying a legitimate ruler was justified,” proving the political nature of interpretation (Greenblatt, 230).

Not only are literary critics concerning themselves with the various politics of textual interpretation, the common readers, as Rosa Eberly would refer to today’s intellectuals, have added to the discourse. These intellectuals have become more engaged with topoi, or the traditional themes in literature. She writes, “I reveal for study the rhetorical and discursive processes through which actual people, reading and writing publicly about provocative novels, endowed fictional texts with the capacity to effect social changes” (Eberly 6).  Eberly discovered that her “citizen critics” were engaged in the work of other writers, proving “rhetorical theories can benefit from contemporary theories sensitive to historicity and power and that contemporary theories benefit from rhetoric’s consistent concern with… democratic praxis and public life” (Eberly, 7).

Editor of From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Term of the Twenty-first Century, Anouk Lang expands: “The interpretations that readers take from texts are contingent on the contexts in which their reading occurs, and what readers articulate about their reading therefore needs to be understood as embedded within a network of social and interpersonal relationships” (Lang, 1).  Synonymously, the cultural discourse of canon relies on the patterns of people who have the power to access and expand the list.  The constraint placed on women and minority accessibility to reading materials is historical and contemporary as proven by Megan Sweeney’s essay, “Keepin’ it Real: Incarcerated Women’s Readings of African American Urban Fiction:”

Women prisoners’ limited access to reading materials has been exacerbated throughout U.S. penal history, by cultural anxieties about the corruption of women through reading, racialized assumptions about prisoners’ incapacity for reflection, and fears that criminals will increase their criminality by reading inappropriate books. This lists of books recently banned in Ohio and Pennsylvania prisons illustrate how race continues to inform penal officers’ fears that particular books will jeopardize prison security (Sweeney, 127).

If contemporary reading is a “democratic” practice, then cultural awareness through textual interpretation should be democratic as well.  However, Sweeney’s study was published as early as 2010 and does not reflect a sense of democracy in the field of literature; reinforcing the struggle between the constraint of the subculture and the mobility of the dominant culture.  The dominant culture is further glorified through this observation of prison libraries, “violent crime thrillers by the white author James Patterson are the most abundantly stocked books” (Sweeney, 125).  It should be noted that the publisher of the discussed urban fiction, “Triple Crown Publications,” was founded by a former prisoner; a glimmer of hope for the mobility of subculture (Sweeney, 125)

Fortunately, technological developments have brought forth a new wave of literary accessibility that have been said to “democratize” reading practices (Lang, 6).  Despite the ban on urban fiction in prisons, “Prisoners who can afford to do so ask family members and friends to order urban books for them through online catalogues” (Sweeney, 125).  The literary community has found refuge in online sources, where websites can “generate recommendations for other books associated with any given book, and can cross-reference a user’s entire library with other users’ libraries to generate recommendations based on patterns of common ownership” (Pinder, 76).  Julian Pinder researched how one cross-referencing site (LibraryThing) includes Internet discussion forums for everyday readers to partake in multiple book discussions simultaneously.  An extension of traditional book clubs, these communities include members formerly separated by “institutional, geographical, and/or social factors” (Pinder, 78).

Supported by Eberly’s notion of rhetorical concern with  “democratic praxis and public life,” one could credit the acknowledgement of urban fiction and online literary communities to reader response theory.  Sweeney does not simply write about the existence of urban fiction, but the various reactions of women to the budding genre.  She reinforces the validity of the subcultural opinion as such: “At a time when prisoners are rarely regarded as readers, let alone human beings capable of deep thought, growth and change, it seems particularly important to honor prisoners’ agency as readers…by analyzing some of the many roles that urban fiction plays in the lives of incarcerated women” (Sweeney, 127).  While interviewing, Sweeney asked for initial reactions to the literature and then let the women direct the course of conversation. Speaking to the needs of a canonical extension, a middle-class black woman raised in suburbia “acknowledges that urban books depict ‘a life that I’ve never personally lived,’ yet she values them because they portray a ‘real’ side of life that gets overlooked in ‘fairy tales like the Huxtable family’ from the The Cosby Show (Sweeney, 130). Consequently, urban fiction elicits social responses as equally stirring as Shakespeare.

The growing intellectual community gives a more extensive argument for the relationship between societal constraint and mobility.  These new intellectuals, these readers, are increasingly heard through technology and a shift in the concept of intellectualism.  So what has happened to the “tiny band of super-gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings” once referred to as intellectuals? Said suggests:

At the bottom, the intellectual… is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas or ready-made cliches, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public (Said, 23).

For example, Michael Eric Dyson challenges the public be remain conscious of “internalized perceptions” of those in the subculture (Dyson 2013).  The research in this study does not suggest a complete abolishment of intellectual hierarchy, but a suggestion that individuals who have been formerly overlooked are capable of interpretation.  There are those who choose the path of focused intellectualism; those willing to speak truth to power, challenge relations among people on a global sphere and encourage the common intellectual to gain new forms of interpretation.


Dyson, M. “The Impact of Culture on Minority Self Image.” State University at Fredonia. King

Concert Hall, Fredonia, NY. 26 Sept 2013. Keynote Address.

Eberly, R. Citizen Critics: Literary Public Sphere. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2000. Print

Foucault, M. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977. Print.

Greenblatt, S. “Culture.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Lentriccia, McLaughlin. University of

Chicago Press: London. 1995. 225-232.

Guillory, J. “Canon.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Lentriccia, McLaughlin. University of

Chicago Press: London. 1995. 233-249.

Hoare, Q; Smith, G. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers,

1971. Print

Mailloux, S. “Interpretation.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Lentriccia, McLaughlin. University

of Chicago Press: London. 1995. 121-134.

Pinder, J. “Online Literary Communities: A Case Study of LibraryThing.” From Codex

to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Lang. University

of Massachusetts Press: Boston. 2012. 68-87.

Said, E. Representations of the Individual. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. Print.

Sweeney, M. “Keepin’ it Real: Incarcerated Women’s Reading of African American Urban

Fiction.” From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.

Lang. University of Massachusetts Press: Boston. 2012. 124-141.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s