Posted by Kate Ozment
This semester, I am teaching at a new institution, and it comes with a new set of challenges and opportunities. One of them is that I am teaching a class on “Introduction to Literary Theory,” a prerequisite for all English literature majors. This class inspired more self reflection than I think I anticipated when I first got the course assignment. Of course, I know theory the way that one does when you have gone to graduate school in the 21st century for literary studies. It’s impossible to avoid. But I don’t know theory in the way that someone who uses it regularly in their research does. I sit primarily in the material and historical realm, and often the books I read don’t ask me to know about postcolonialism or critical race theory. And that, I’ve come to realize, may be by design.
When you read book history introductions and companions, you’re often told about the genesis of book history, which grew out of bibliography and historical work, slowly gaining significant ground in literary studies. One recently published introduction framed this genesis in a way I think is descriptive of how many scholars think about it: book historians were fleeing the “tyranny” of theory. Theory, in this sense, is defined as schools of thought from linguistic post-structuralism to feminism to queer theory; they deal in the abstract and the textual, not the material. Book history isn’t a theory. So, it’s an either/or process. You either think historically and materially, or you think theoretically.
I won’t go into a lot of depth about why I think that divide is a false dichotomy (see my upcoming book for a very deep dive on that), but it did leave me wondering what my responsibilities or expectations were in this class. Do I teach them the way all my theory classes were run, which focused on things like hermeneutics and structuralism? While generally helpful, they were 90% about dead white men; we had to petition to get a woman on my master’s program syllabus, and it was de Beauvoir. Not even du Bois made the cut. This approach is antithetical to my teaching philosophy and would be roundly rejected by the student population I work with now (and rightfully so). Could I teach a material studies theory class, considering that’s what I know best? What about digital research methods or general theories of digital humanities? Do those “count” as theory? If they do, would I be doing them a disservice to keep them from encountering Foucault or Derrida? After all, I’m preparing them for classes that will use traditionally defined theory, as I’m the only book historian in the department.
Essentially, how do I negotiate the book history/digital humanities scholar that I am with the expectations of a literary theory and cultural studies class?
I write all this hoping that other early career scholars will know that at least one other person thinks that it might be difficult to figure out how you fit into the gears of a new department and a new curriculum, especially for those of us whose work does not quite fit the mould of what literary scholars are “supposed” to do. Thankfully, I have a very collaborative department who told me they’d support whatever decision I made (I honestly wish they’d have just told me “you have to teach Foucault” so I could have thought about this less, but they insisted on being wonderful and supportive colleagues).
In this post, I’m going to show how I attempted to integrate a traditional theory syllabus (in that it looks like what my theory classes looked like) with approaches to literary study from book history and digital humanities. Through this process, I thought quite a bit about how I fit into literature departments and how my work in Early Modern English book production dovetails with my colleagues, whose emphases spread across the globe and through time.
I decided to teach the class as primarily a “traditional” literary theory and cultural studies course, in that we are reading texts that would be normally defined as theory for a literary studies program: Derrida, hooks, Anzaldua, Morrison, Butler, Davis, Fanon, Rubin, Lacan, and (yes) Foucault. This was a challenge because as I mentioned before, I did not have women or people of color in my theory classes until my gender theory class the last year of my doctoral program. I’m self-taught, and I had to learn a lot more as a summer project. I approached the class this way after reading bell hooks’ Feminist Theory from Margins to Center, which convinced me, in only the way that reading bell hooks convinces someone, that I needed to emphasize discourses that centered marginalized experiences and identities at the core of the class. I am teaching them the core theories they need to understand these discourses of marginality, but the emphasis is less on a rehashing of Lacan and more on how getting a baseline of psychoanalysis helps us understand double consciousness.
I chose this approach because my students need this foundation to succeed in the classes my program offers at the upper level. But, these are the modes of thinking that are currently pushing my book history scholarship in useful and important directions. I am thinking about a book history from margins to the center, to borrow hooks’ phrasing. What would a book history from the margins look like?
Is it marginalized subjects, in the way bell hooks is describing it?
Or is it marginalized genres?
Is it ways of reading material objects, actual methodology, that needs adjusting?
Or is it just revising where we place significance in narratives we already have?
I realized as I worked through these questions in my own writing that my motivation for thinking about the theory course wasn’t that I just want to support my colleague who teaches Latinx literature at the senior level. It was because I wanted my students to bring these questions and understandings into the book history classes I will be teaching. They won’t be taught material culture as an anesthetized space devoid of the cultural circumstances of book production, because they’re stuck with me. I want them to understand that just as it’s impossible to divorce literature from its contexts, we can’t disembody materiality. They should have the intellectual tools to make the connections I am trying to make myself. Maybe, in an ideal world, we’d make them together.
I also felt it was also important to give some boundaries to the theory course with my own work, showing how a scholar with a different set of questions can get radically different readings of the same object. To accomplish this, I incorporated two small units, one on digital humanities and one on book history.
For the book history unit, we are reading about archive theory and the politics of preservation and access. Then, we are reading about queering the archive (Jamie Ann Lee) and how to be critical about documents and authenticity when we work with marginalized populations (Simon Gikandi). Our background in queer theory and critical race studies should allow them to quickly see the translation from politics and economics to archival practices.
For the dh unit, we are learning about the basics of digital research methods, then connecting these tools to the same concerns that we touched on with archive theory: reconstructing lost voices (Laura F. Klein) and debates around what is the purpose and responsibilities of digital humanities (Debates in the Digital Humanities).
My hope is that these units should connect traditional theoretical discourses to the space of dh and book history, letting us think about methodology and philosophy simultaneously. One can certainly make the case book history is its own theory, and I might do so in a later class, below.
Changes Ahead: The Space of the Archive
Now that the semester is fully underway, there are some changes that I would make to future versions of this class based on what my students are responding to and the reading I have been doing for my book project. I am fortunate to be located in the greater Los Angeles area, which gives me access to a lot of institutions and archives. However, regular class visits are not possible due to logistics. But, what is possible is the collaboration of archivists and special collections librarians, who are helping me think about re-centering the theory class on a space—the archive.
As I touched on above, I cover archive theory in the course, and I chose readings that intersect with the same theoretical discourses I chose for the main part of the course. I now think that the archive is a physical space and a conceptual idea that could ground an entire theory course, one that would be as equally useful for book historians and other literary scholars alike.
Archive theory is woefully under-cited in book history scholarship that tends to focus on libraries as invisible mechanisms for producing books. At the worst, we portray librarians as necessary hurdles or casually talk about a book’s provenance. As any special collections librarian can tell you, however, so many political and subjective concerns go into what makes something an archive, what goes in it, how it’s catalogued and preserved, and how it’s accessed. These debates are constantly brought up in fields where the subjects are vulnerable or marginalized populations, which isn’t the core of book history scholarship. But these challenges are real and connected to the relative importance we place on makers, consumers, and physical objects. Dissecting and understand the relative marginality of subjects and genres together can help us not only understand theoretical concerns, but archival practices and norms that form the basis of materially focused scholarship.
A quick example: a colleague of mine, Desirae Embree, recently wrote about being unable to view a rare video cassette in an archive because viewing might damage the undigitized piece. The subject was lesbian pornography. There are two ways of understanding the predicament. First, the material object. Video cassettes are costly to digitize, and there’s a much shorter shelf life for them than books made on linen paper from 1500. But they were used for popular media because they were cheap, so they represent an important medium of the late 20th century. Archives are on a clock to digitize this media, and archivists and librarians have to compete for limited resources to do so, as well as resources needed for the long-term costs of maintaining digital files in accessible formats (digitization is never a cure-all for cost issues).
Which is where the subject matter comes into play. Lesbian pornography tends to not garner as much prestige as, say, Shakespeare’s first folio. As Embree is writing about in her research (forthcoming in a book chapter), the reason this content is on a video cassette is because of its lack of prestige. This was the format that these women could afford; at the time it was a boon, but in terms of preservation it’s become a liability. Its subject is marginalized on multiple levels: women, queer, economics, and even among feminists where pornography was a fraught discussion. All of these factors intersect, and the result is that this tape and more of its kind are on the verge of erasure. This example demonstrates something that I think is really important about the overlaps of “traditional” theory and material studies: the only way to understand this case study is through both an understanding of materiality and archival practices and a theoretical analysis of the content and its subject.
As I rethink the theory class, I can’t help but wonder: what better way to teach theory?
About the Author
Kate Ozment is assistant professor of English at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her current projects include Eliza Haywood's pamphlet shop and a book project theorizing feminist bibliography with her WBHB co-editor, Cait Coker. Contact her at: kateozment (at) gmail (dot) com.