Of Methods and Methodologies in Literary Studies and Humanities

One of the most important decisions in a research life is the choice of methodology. While this may be a straightforward choice in most other disciplines, to declare a fixed ‘methodology’ in the field of humanities is an exercise in indecision, given the fact that the present day humanities is in a state of flux.  In the border-defiant field of Humanities the pertinence of a fixed methodology seems to be an anomaly to the discipline in general.

While in the preceding years, a ‘research question’ determined the school, now the method itself becomes a determinant of the school. Since contemporary Humanities encourage cross-disciplinary methods of research, the determinant ironically becomes rather indeterminate. The first issue in examining a research methodology is the discourse involved in the making of the method. Foucault’s ideas in “The Discourse on Language” give a basic idea of the modern – or more precisely the post-modern –researcher’s predicament. Ideology, that forms the kernel of an institution, acts as cornerstone to research method since it directs the modus operandi of research. The angle of the Interpretive Curve is decided by the school and the school gains its delineations from the ideological framework that the institution supports. This ideological context places two key notions of research in juxtaposition: one of accepted rationality and the other of predominant doctrine.

Foucault writes, “Disciplines constitute a system of control in the production of discourse, fixing its limits through the action of an identity, taking the form of a permanent reactivation of the rules” (237).  The rise of feminist methodologies is an example. Not only have feminist readings lent themselves to a dismantling of ‘general truths’, but they have also become the foundation to a critical framework and a methodology. In fact it ended up becoming what it challenged – a general truth. The prevailing notion of the ‘rational’ within a certain field of study defines the accepted perspective of the school and consequently establishes the doctrine it puts forward. The delineations of accepted perspectives locate the school within a certain academic structure which in turn allows for the creation of a definite methodology.

However, the rapidly diffusing academic boundaries make the delineation of a methodology based on presumed line-markers impractical. Especially since every added perspective brings in a new element to the accepted ‘rational’. The case of eco-criticism is an elaboration of this point. A scientific field and a humanities-based field overlap to create a knowledge system where both approaches have to work in tandem with each other. Here we come to one of the key concerns of modern research: the relevance and the plausibility of clearly marked schools of reading in the increasingly interdisciplinary field of humanities and the field of literature in particular. If the means are to determine the end, then the clarity of the discipline or school within which the end is located must be established without doubt. This is a particularly delicate task while dealing with issues that deliberately refuse to acknowledge the mediation of language in the construction of reality. When the object of study cannot avail of the agency of language as in case of the “speechless” subaltern, the methodology that governs the study becomes mired in issues of articulation. Can the means of the study bring out an effective and holistic consensus free of an oppressive discourse, thus giving the voiceless the necessary space for articulation?

The evidence of such cross-disciplinary transactions is evident in several sub-sects mushrooming under the canopy of Literature and Literary studies. Areas like ‘Survival Literature’ or ‘Disability Studies’ are multi-disciplinary bodies of thought that call upon a mosaic of approaches ranging from psychological to sociological that find their common factor only in a subject of their focus. Given Derrida’s axiom that there is no ‘outside of the text’, the possible materials that comprise the corpus of a literary study has suddenly widened to include a cornucopia of diverse media. The broadening of literary horizons is characterised by an almost-melding into that field of terrifying and infinite variety: Cultural Studies. The immediate consequence of this is the bifurcation of Literary Academics into two camps: the traditionalists with an adherence straight and narrow, and radicals with an emphasis on border-crossing. The second more insidious effect is the defensive attitude that has begun to permeate literary studies. As a result the treatment of the subject of study becomes loaded with academic agendas as well.

The process of analysis and interpretation, which is already heavily loaded, becomes fraught with political pitfalls with enforcement of a particular methodology and learning-tack. There is a call for an amalgamation and reformulation methods so as to create an integrated mosaic of intellectual mediation as suggested by James Schwoch and Mimi White their book Questions of Method in Cultural Studies. This same impulse drives the newly revamped order for the study of literatures. Materials that were once considered unliterary have now become inculcated into the schema of literary studies. This is vastly due to the disintegration of the mass and high-culture divide. Jameson discusses this in his piece “Post-Modernism and Consumer Society”. The dismantling of previously accepted notions of high culture and the assumptions that go in hand with such beliefs left the world of academics bereft of  the convenient crutch of “theoretical discourse” and  opened the floodgates to a deluge of innovations in methods of research in the literary field. Jameson writes,

… the effacement… of some key boundaries or separations, most notably the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture… is perhaps the most distressing development of all from an academic standpoint, which has traditionally had a vested interest in preserving a realm of high or elite culture against the surrounding environment of philistinism… and in transmitting difficult and complex skills of reading listening and seeing to its initiates… (1847)

The disintegration of power structures will lead to a parallel fall of authoritarian discourses, thereby creating space for a de-marginalised perspective. At first glance such a scenario may seem to entail academic anarchy and loss of an intellectual venue. However one must also consider the fact that several new schools of thought have sprung out of such a supposedly ‘anarchic’ situation. The key is to integrate disparate ideas and identities that teem under the umbrella term of “Literature” and create a method that is not applicable to all, but one that allows itself to be suitably tailored for each research question.

The Subject with its upper-case emphasis becomes the bone of contention in the discipline wars. The very existence of the subject itself is subject to doubt given that there is no “individual” in the era of Mass Culture and furthermore any projection of a valid Subject is merely that: a projection. Jameson writes,

…not only is this bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth, it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of that type. Rather, this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity… (1850)

This idea of a mythical individual with an original identity becomes interesting in the assessment of the means of research because, every new thesis is trying to assert this kind of individuality. While it is representative, it must also put forth an illusion of originality that will allow it to enter the hallowed realms of the Academic Valhalla.

The credibility of academic discourse becomes subject to scepticism especially since the institution is largely a source of doctrine. The “Will to Knowledge” and the “Will to Truth”, to borrow Foucault’s usage, get caught up in academic machinery and emerge distorted and cloaked in a miasma of suspicion. The knowledge industry churning out thesis after thesis of authorised doctrine leaves little room for engaging with unconventional and often un-institutional information and assessing the data without the bias. The qualifications of an accepted mode of research and a universally recognized body of knowledge are mass produced making it difficult – even in a supposedly liberal and enlightened field like the Humanities– for subaltern voices to be recorded to their optimum potential. This is because the pedagogical machinery overwhelms the process of knowledge creation to such an extent that it becomes almost synonymous with knowledge. Given the protean context within which the discourse of subjective narrative and theory are taking place, the idea of a fixed knowledge system becomes the greatest form of academic oppression. In such a scenario, the ascribing of a particular method may become a hazardous proposition completely in opposition to the aim at hand. After all, what is interpretation but the proposal of an alternate way of seeing a previously viewed and assessed entity? However, the idea of a “true” discourse which is faithful to a higher academic doctrine effectively erases any possibility of enforcing the validity of alternate claims. Juggling the task of maintaining the position of a dispassionate observing subject, as opposed to the passive, observed object and upholding the sensitive handling of the object becomes crucial to an effective piece of research. Of course this is rarely achieved considering the fact that the Subject colours the Object in the hues of her own “individual” learnt discourse.

In such a situation, the methodology involved becomes the fulcrum for creating a sound argument that can be considered as impartial as possible. Increased research on formerly taboo topics or concerns that were deemed unfit for the study in a field as ‘elevated’ as literature has made the Subject-Object correlative more nuanced since often the divide between the two is almost non-existent. In these scenarios, the ‘individual’ is often subsumed in the greater ideal of voicing a mass concern.

An effective method of study in the literary field must enable the student to return to the true cause of their work: knowledge. Not truth, not ideology but simple knowledge. There is a call for the reinstatement of ‘a need to know’ minus ‘a need to believe’. Belief indicates a sense of blind-faith that need not necessarily stem from a firm foundation of thought. Rather it is like an unproven axiom that cannot hold its ground in the face of an argument. Knowledge implies a dispassionate sense of discovery which requires a need to know for the sake of knowing, cropped of any interest save that of collecting information to render a knowledge system meaningful and functional. This is the aim of methodology; the ideals of discourse, political leanings etc. are merely to this greater cause.

But naturally, shearing off these political leanings is more or less impossible since they are integral parts of the idea of method. The simplest recourse would be to avail of the pastiche method, or rather a pastiche of methods, as Schwoch and White recommend. Using a negotiated model of methodology which places a certain approach at its core while simultaneously employing another approach(es) which may or may not be similar or even of the same school is a viable option. It will allow greater freedom of thought and encourage amalgamation and inclusion of diverse voices into the fabric of academics. Most modern Knowledge Banks are attempting to create a methodology of optimum balance with a simultaneous dismantling of traditional strictures and structures of discourse. However the perfect prototype remains elusive. We await the synthesis of the past and the present to create a possibility for the actualisation of a knowledge driven academy, rather than a power driven one.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “The Discourse On Language” The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader. Ed. Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley, Alan Girwin. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. “Post-Modernism and Consumerist Society”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent.B.Leitch,William.E.Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

White, Mimi, James Schwoch. Introduction Questions of Method in Cultural Studies. Ed. Mimi White, James Schwoch. UK: Blackwell Press, 2006. Print.


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