Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Is English a Discipline?

Since coming to Drake, I've twice heard someone say that English doesn't really have a subject (once by someone within the English department, once by someone outside it). I found this curious but welcome, since I too have long wondered at the undefined borders of my "field." But I've tended to look at it the other way around -- that English is too large and sprawling a discipline, that its subject is everything. Perhaps these are just two ways of saying the same thing.

English departments are, as the name implies, interested in a particular language. And so our realm seems to begin with a specific combinatorial set of symbols deemed to have meaning when arranged according to a certain set of rules. But this study isn't possible without the study of other languages, since the roots of English lie in other languages living and dead, and since comparisons between languages are a basic and vital core of understanding language itself, and since translation as an art and as a universe of theory depends on a knowledge of these transitional spaces.

So before we've left the small-scale study of the symbols themselves, "English" as discipline has already crossed into Linguistics, Grammar, Communications, Psychology, Foreign Languages, and Translation.

But Translation is a form of writing, an art, which opens the "English" discipline even further: it is Writing, Rhetoric, Composition, and an endless universe of Aesthetics subject to Cultural values and customs.

And Translation is just one form of writing -- original writing in English is of course a major natural concern of English study. But the study of texts in English is a incomprehensibly vast field. It is necessary to break it down by era or genre or theme, or in some cases by author.

But each of these specializations invites the scholar to become an expert in an area that itself overlaps tremendously with other areas: one cannot be a Shakespeare scholar without becoming quite the expert in British Royal History, not to mention the History of Theater and Drama, the sartorial customs, the intra- and inter-state European conflicts, the slang, the medical and biological dangers of the day, and so on.

And any study of story structure will invite the scholar into the universe of myths (and theories about monomyths, and theories of religion...) not to mention the study of the human mind (and by extension, brain) and how it reacts to various stimuli.

I could go on with this, but you get the point: English studies starts with the clever combinations of symbols going back to the Phoenicians (or perhaps earlier) and ends up swallowing the world and, bigger still, the mind.

If you're a writer, you live this ouroboros. Writing is the only art that is customarily discussed using the medium of the art itself. There is no discipline called "Paint" -- there is a discipline called "Art" and "paint" is merely one of many possible media which is discussed by the discipline "Art" using language. But for a writer, the medium is his or her language, English in our case. And while a painter can leave the paints behind and discuss his paintings using language, a writer, a language artist, can't discuss her art using anything but the very material of her art, language.

It's a bit of trap. You can't ask a fish to analyze water until he's broken through the surface and seen it from above. We need distance to see. We need perspective to understand. Yet language is in many ways the matter of the world -- it is, at least, the matter of our comprehension of the world. So how do we see language?

It seems, whether this is the best possible solution to the problem or not, that we try to see language, its purpose, its function, its meaning, by running desperately away from it, hoping that we will be able to jerk our heads back for a quick glance and finally see the thing we've been after all this time. Which is why, I believe, English departments come off as loose associations of people madly running away from their own subject in 100 different directions.

When I was a kid I used to lay in bed at night and try to think without language. I realized that I'd have a thought in words, but that before the words came into my head, I knew what I was about to think. I would lie there and try to skip the part with the words, and just know what my thoughts were, without language.

I'm fairly convinced that if I hadn't spent all those hours doing that, I wouldn't be a writer today.

And I'm fairly convinced that you can't have an English department that doesn't spend most of its time focused on History, Culture, Philosophy, Linguistics, Psychology, Brain Science, Rhetoric...

Quick, LOOK! Did you see it? ;)

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