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The Thrill of Applying Literary Theory to Everyday Texts

The subject was dirt, or perhaps I should say “Dirt.” It was spring 1996, and I was a newly minted comp-lit Ph.D. candidate thrilled to be taking part in my first academic conference. Okay, it was a conference of grad students organized by my friends in the Harvard English department, but somehow that just made it feel more authentic, like college football compared to professional. I still have the flyer, which reproduces an artsy photo of a dump truck about to discharge its load into a giant quarry. Beneath is the conference slogan, a quote from anthropologist Mary Douglas: “Dirt is matter out of place.” 

The list of papers now reads like a parody of the 1990s academy, where the word “transgressive” could still be used unironically as a term of approval. “Tidy Whities: Edmund Wilson’s Inescapable Suburbs.” “Birth of the Sewer(age): Excrement and Urban Identity in the 19th Century.” “Pest Control Strategies and Their Implications for Women.” And, God help me, my own: “Sexuality and Hygiene in Fashion Magazines.” I no longer remember exactly what theories this paper attempted to express—something about the link between the beauty industry’s dual obsessions with personal grooming and sexual mores—and I am grateful, as I look through my files, that it seems to have been lost in the digital shuffle.

I might have forgotten the whole event had the conference not somehow come to the attention of my then-future (and now former) colleague James Wood, who deemed it worthy of an acerbic little “Cambridge Postcard” for TNR. Rereading James’s piece now, I’m surprised to discover that it’s neither as cruel nor as condescending as I remember. Perhaps the fact that he picked out one of my own most unfortunate lines colored my initial impression, although he did me the favor of quoting me anonymously. (Yes, that was me talking about the “iconography of the Tampax.”) The conference, James noted, was a “hit,” with an air of “prosperous jubilance.” The grad students were “smartly dressed and optimistic,” even if two of my friends, Aviva Briefel and Sianne Ngai, were unkindly dismissed as “giggly and squirmy.” Though James would finally admonish the participants for our failure to evaluate the quality of the texts under investigation (or “interrogation,” as I might have said then), he conceded that “over the course of the conference, it was possible to learn new insights about both Philip Larkin and cockroaches.”

But at the time, James’s piece caused no small anguish among the Dirt participants and occasioned an angry letter from Marjorie Garber, the faculty adviser, whom James had described—not inaptly—as “stalking around” the conference room like a “proud pirate.” (The letter, alas, seems not to have been published.) The trouble, I think, was not James’s assertion of the value of classic literature: Nobody was arguing that Judy Blume (the subject of Aviva and Sianne’s paper) ought to replace Austen in the canon. It was his dissent from the general expansionist mood. In his new novel, The Marriage Plot (which I reviewed in the current issue of TNR), Jeffrey Eugenides captures its flavor in his description of Brown English majors in the 1980s, in the thrall of semiotics. We were investigating something few others had found worthy of investigation—and finding pearls among the refuse! We were rectifying sins of omission! 

What we were discovering, more seriously, was that the study of literature wasn’t limited to Shakespeare and Dickens; it could illuminate the tokens of our daily lives, from cookbooks to Vogue. This doesn’t seem revelatory anymore—the idea of cultural studies as urban anthropology is now thoroughly enshrined—but it did fifteen years ago. Or at least it did to me, coming out of a traditional undergraduate English program, where I read Shakespeare and Joyce and Woolf with elderly professors who steered me clear of the upstarts practicing “theory.” I arrived at grad school with a bad case of anxiety of influence, convinced that everything had already been said. Dirt, at the very least, was an opportunity to look at something new. To regard this as somehow threatening to the established standards felt unhealthily conservative, not unlike those defenders of marriage who would deny equal rights to gays. Leopold Bloom ultimately has more to offer than Judy Blume, but to analyze Forever does no damage to Ulysses

James quoted one participant as saying, “I do believe that pornography is literature, that it’s worthy of literary study.” He argued back, rightly, that not everything that seems worthy of literary study is literature. But what he did not acknowledge was that the tools of literary study—namely close reading and imaginative empathy—can be usefully employed even on a text that is not necessarily capital-L Literature. He would do it ingeniously himself a few years later, in a lengthy piece—one of my all-time TNR favorites—that analyzed the Starr Report as if it were a nineteenth-century novel, seeking out its rhetorical techniques and its symbolism. “Just as in Thérèse Raquin, we learn, in one of many superfluous details in the report, that Monica makes too much noise sexually … . Like a nineteenth-century adulterer, Monica falls for her lover, who is calculating and appetitive … . In the traditional literary mode, it is she who loses everything, she who is fallen, and she who must struggle to regain a place in society.” Like many of the Dirt papers, the piece manages to be at once silly and brilliant. It was also exquisitely topical, demonstrating that literary criticism, judiciously applied, could perform a valuable function even in the unlikeliest precincts. (Appropriately, James is now a professor—at Harvard—of “the practice of literary criticism.”)

By the time the Starr report came out, I had left graduate school. The elation I had experienced at the conference was short-lived. I was too traditional to throw in my lot with the theory-heads, but I couldn’t sign on for a lifetime studying Milton and Yeats, either. While my friends from Dirt went on to earn their degrees—none of them, as far as I know, wrote a dissertation on anything particularly transgressive—I took a leave of absence and never returned. Forget dirt—at Harvard, I felt like “matter out of place.”

I was moved to recall the Dirt dust-up by the appearance of a new book edited by Aviva Briefel, now a professor at Bowdoin, where she teaches courses on Victorian literature and horror movies. Horror After 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror, her new anthology co-edited with Sam J. Miller, is much in line with the Dirt approach, examining a genre that has traditionally not been valued for its insights into contemporary culture. At a discussion in New York last weekend featuring a few of the book’s contributors, the atmosphere had some of Dirt’s triumphalism—the freshness that follows the airing out an old taboo. Miller spoke about the “queer monster” in horror films as a sublimated expression of societal homophobia. “Torture porn” was invoked frequently as a dominant feature of movie-making in the Bush era. The audience was engrossed, respectful, and impressively well-informed about the subject. When a black audience member pointed out that horror movies almost always kill off their non-white characters, a hush fell over the room.

Dirt, I realized watching the scene, has grown up. Nobody would dare to call Aviva giggly or squirmy now; she spoke with confidence and poise, and mentioned her experience as a mother during the discussion. The majority of the Dirt participants are now ensconced in the academy, including Sianne, Aviva’s former co-author on the Judy Blume paper, now a professor at Stanford. Horror After 9/11 was published by University of Texas Press, a mainstream academic publisher. Sure, there were still a few awkward giggles at the mention of some of the coarser subjects under investigation. (A scene-by-scene analysis of Psycho is one thing; a scene-by-scene analysis of Saw is quite another.) But the aura of disrepute that once attached itself to the study of popular culture has been dispelled.

A part of me—the part that used to thrill to be called “transgressive”—misses the frisson of disrespectability that once electrified the air. But that disrespectability was based on a false assertion of the boundary between legitimacy and illegitimacy. It’s worth remembering how many of the now-established classics once found themselves on the wrong side of that boundary. And the line that separates the respected from the scorned, the literary from the obscene, still wavers like a seismometer in the aftermath of each new cultural earthquake.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. You can follow her on twitter @ruth_franklin.