Defining literature as a discipline

Most academic disciplines have a firm sense of themselves as distinct fields, observable in the certainty with which their practitioners define themselves in relation to their subject. Chemists, theoretical physicists, linguists, historians, and philosophers abound in university departments and professional workplaces across the world. But what do we call a student of literature?

As is often the way of things, literature’s great strength is also its great weakness: the sheer breadth of its applicability. It shelters beneath its wings myriad different methodologies, written corpora, and schools of thought, making the process of tying oneself down to a specific area of study all the more difficult. To further complicate the matter, literature more than any other discipline can find its way into the houses of other disciplines. One cannot, for example, expect to study Whitman without considering the burgeoning professionalisation of the sciences, or read D. H. Lawrence without recalling the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Many scholars of literature have recognised the problem of defining the subject but much work remains to be done, not only on its relationship with other disciplines but how it identifies itself in an academic climate that increasingly demands specificity and cooperation. For all the excitement about interdisciplinarity, it is nevertheless a potential minefield of lost meanings and garbled criticism. The question remains: how do we successfully integrate literature with other academic subjects to ensure its continued survival?


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