Speaking for Interpretation

Originally published in the Winter 2015 MLA Newsletter

As our convention in Austin approaches, I’ve been reflecting on our profession as I have observed it from the vantage of president of the world’s largest scholarly organization. My three previous columns noted several of the important initiatives that the MLA has recently begun and will continue: an extensive survey of present and past members, which has yielded valuable insights into their needs; the Action for Allies initiative, which confronts the disproportion of undergraduate teaching (as much as 75%) by non-tenure­-track, often precariously employed, and poorly compensated faculty members; and the Connected Academics program, which encourages expanded career paths for humanities PhDs. The theme I proposed for our upcoming convention in Austin—Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future—is meant to provide a common ground for many of the issues, intellectual as well as professional, that bring us together.

In this final column, I would like to address a topic that has been perceptible if not obvious in my past columns: the state of what I call the interpretive humanities. On a national scale, we hear laments over shrinking humanities enrollments and other symptoms of decline. It seems clear that we are witnessing a change in the place of the humanities in the larger culture. Are there any opportunities in these changes?

For example, there is one measure that seems to contradict any story of decline: the arts are booming in higher education. Colleges of all sorts are dedicating new buildings for the practice of the arts; in En­glish departments that include majors in creative writing, those students are often in the majority; and public humanities programs are eager to put practitioners before their audiences. The arts are indispensable to the humanities, of course, but I wonder whether their appeal to administrators and donors indicates the health of the rest of our disciplines.

What goes untended in this story of institutional attention to the arts is one of the hardest capacities to cultivate, with no natural constituency. For intellectual and pragmatic reasons, we must invest in interpretation.

What do I mean by interpretation? To me it is the intellectual thread that runs through the professional lives of MLA members: it is what we do with literature, film, video, and the writing of our students. The weighing of evidence, the encounter with difficulty, the saying about a work (or a period or a cultural phenomenon) what it cannot say for itself—these things belong at the heart of a humanistic education and are the basis of citizenship and cosmopolitanism. Yet they can seem unrewarding (in every sense) to students who see themselves as makers rather than readers and who, with their parents, may resist the slow accumulation of understanding and argument. As I see it, our challenge is to reconnect interpretation—as it happens in the student’s response in writing or on video, the assistant professor’s conference paper, and the senior scholar’s book—with the public face of our discipline. This is part of what it means to trace the links between “literature and its publics.” We ought to do this not only on our own behalf but in concert with our natural allies across the interpretive humanities and social sciences, the law, and the other disciplines as we make a renewed case for the particular kinds of knowledge we deliver.

The urgency of a reinvigorated sense of interpretation was on my mind as I assembled events for the convention in Austin. I wanted to feature speakers who are both artists and interpreters, who understand literary interpretation from the standpoint of the other disciplines, and who can speak to the role of interpretation in public life.

To mention a few highlights of our upcoming convention: the Irish writer Colm Tóibín will join us for an event called “The Novelist, the Critic, and the Public”; the world music legend Caetano Veloso, a founder of the Tropicalismo movement in Brazil, will be interviewed by Marjorie Perloff on his work as an interpreter of poetry in song; and we will welcome the historian Jo Guldi, the NEH chairman William Adams, and the United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a panel on interpretation as public work. These figures—and many more like them—are our counterparts, interlocutors, and supporters.

I hope you will join us in Austin to consider literature (or rhetoric, film, video, and so on) in dialogue with its publics and the role of interpretation in making that dialogue happen.