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English and the public world

31 July 2002

David Punter, newly appointed Professor of English, argues why it is important to study English. This is an extract from his highly amusing but deadly serious lecture.

During the time that I have been in academic life, the discipline of English has gone through many changes; indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the subject as customarily taught in universities would be largely unrecognisable to practitioners of 40 years ago. English used to be a relaxing subject - the image of the pipe-smoker with the furrowed brow at the head of Private Eye's Books and Bookmen column perhaps comes to mind. Nowadays, however, students are on the whole a little startled to find that they are expected at university not only to read books and converse about them in a pleasing fashion, but also to become masters or mistresses of at least part of a vast array of technical language.

Since coming to Bristol one of the things I have found is that I am reading an enormous amount; and what I seem mainly to be reading are UCAS forms (university application forms). This has come as something of a surprise to me, because in my previous department at the University of Stirling we had one splendid colleague who read them all. He didn't, of course, do anything else much, except for having sick leave from time to time. At any rate, what I have principally discovered from this brave new world of UCAS forms is that all of our applicants in English are 'passionate' about literature. They never seem to be 'fascinated', 'excited', or even 'mildly interested'; they are, without exception, 'passionate'.

What is the language using us for?

I know that, of course, most of these so-called 'personal statements' are written by a small consortium of headteachers meeting in a smoke-filled room, and that if there were really as many captains of hockey in the country as there are applying for places to read English at Bristol University we would by now be sporting Olympic Gold. However, I do take seriously the obviously widespread idea that there are links between the subject of English; reading; and passion. And I don't think the passion is destroyed by the difficulty of critical endeavour, because writing itself has always been difficult (except in the case of Jeffrey Archer). Consider, for example, the struggles with language which occupy almost the whole of the poetry of that remarkable Scottish and Cornish poet, W. S. Graham:

            What is the language using us for?
            I don't know. Have the words ever
            Made anything of you, near a kind
            Of truth you thought you were? Me
            Neither. The words like albatrosses
            Are only a doubtful touch towards
            My going and you lifting your hand.

The albatross, of course, is also Coleridge's albatross, the dead weight around the neck, the reason why the Ancient Mariner has to continue to go around the world finding unsuspecting wedding guests to whom to tell his incomprehensible and tedious tale. The important thing here, though, is the question Graham asks: 'What is the language using us for?' Not, 'How are we using the language?', but 'What is the language using us for?', and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of where the subject of English is now, and also to the nub of why, in my opinion, its place lies at the heart of a 21st-century university.

Another way of putting the issue might be to ask what kinds of knowledge are made available through the study of English, and here I want to quote from the anthropologist, historian and polymath Hayden White who is talking, in this instance, about history:

Properly understood, histories ought never to be read as unambiguous signs of the events they report, but rather as symbolic structures, extended metaphors, that 'liken' the events reported in them to some form with which we have already become familiar in our literary culture… By the very constitution of a set of events in such a way as to make a comprehensible story out of them, the historian charges those events with the symbolic significance of a comprehensible plot structure.

We read, write and understand history, then, in terms of pre-existing narrative structures; and in turn we form and forge narrative myths around the 'successful' examples of those narrative structures. Out of these myths whole nations are constructed. Unfortunately, different nations, especially those in past or present conflict, will form quite different myths from the events, and this may play its own part in the prolongation of dispute or armed struggle. But that is one of the things the language uses us for, it continues to construct and exploit its own expansive resources despite our efforts to control and tame it. Words have a creeping, secret life of their own: they won't stay in place and they have the power to construct worlds. For example, they can assimilate Osama bin Laden to a cave-dweller and from then on the series of further implicit references to primitivism, the Neanderthal and even, at the end of the day, to bloodsucking and cannibalism, is virtually unstoppable.

I said earlier on that I see English at the heart of a 21st-century university. Without clarity about words, about their histories, their etymologies, their range of meanings, we may succumb to those who wish to invent their own meanings; indeed, we are always in the process of succumbing to those meanings, and the process of resistance is difficult and, in all probability, doomed. We – by which I mean ‘we’ in the universities – do not have available to us the resources of those who wish to supplant discursive language by the raw power of the brand name, the celebrity icon, the rapacious headline.

We – by which I now mean ‘we’ in the arts and humanities – find it difficult to measure ourselves, or be measured, by the scales of those who count achievement in the crude terms of income. We – by which I finally mean those of us here in the discipline of English – will find it difficult to assert the continuing cultural centrality of our subject unless we take an increasingly inclusive line on what English might be, and unless we resist the always threatening possibility that we might be seen as benign (or otherwise) eccentrics holding to a moribund tradition.

The study of English is crucial, and it is vital, in both senses of that term. It is vital in the sense that it is very much alive and kicking; and it is vital in the sense that unless we can come to know our own language and literature then we shall be unable to resist the thinning down of meanings that the state, the political state, will always prefer because it makes the task of governance simpler.

Words have a creeping, secret life of their own: they won’t stay in place

We do our history, our geography, our economics, our science, in English (I confess I'm not sure what we do our mathematics in). Rhetoric is never neutral; jargon is never neutral. The language may use us; but this should make us redouble our efforts to understand what is happening in this process. Literature – in English or in any other linguistic or cultural context – is not an adjunct to other kinds of knowledge; it structures knowledge, it controls the emergence of discovery and development into the public domain – now not only locally in these small islands, but, for better or worse, on the global stage. The role of English is therefore inseparable from the parameters within which things can be communicated and, we hope, understood.

Professor David Punter / Department of English

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