I’m guessing that each of us can count on a few fingers the essays or books that have profoundly affected his or her understanding of the byzantine profession of literary studies. In graduate school, I read Richard Ohmann’s English in America cover to cover in one sitting, and wondered how it was possible for someone in literary studies to write a book like that—no readings of texts (other than ingenious readings of first-year writing textbooks), no meticulously documented historicized views of my then period, the British 18th century—just a searing observation of the state of literary studies in 1976. More recently, I’ve thought a lot about David Shumway’s 1997 PMLA essay, “The Star System in Literary Studies.”
Too bad there’s no convenient anniversary (“Shumway after 14 years … um, no). There was an important adumbration of the essay in a special issue of the minnesota review in 2001, the topic of which was “Academostars,” an apt phrase coined by Shumway’s colleague at Carnegie Mellon and then editor of the review, Jeffrey Williams, but the original essay definitely deserves to be revisited. Shumway contributed to that 2001 issue of the review, firmly correcting the various academics who had misread it.
The thesis of Shumway’s essay is of the rare, “Damn, this is so obvious, why didn’t I think of that” variety. Here it is: The star system originated in the American film industry, migrated from there to various high-profile authors such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and, only late in the game, to literary studies, largely triggered by Colin Campbell’s 1986 New York Times Magazine article, “The Tyranny of the Yale Critics.” Shumway rightly focuses not on the text of that article but on the photographs which accompany it. He contrasts photos of the early 20th-century medievalist, Lyman Kittdrege, who looks vaguely like Moses in early 20th-century clothing, to F.O. Matthieson, who looks like the vice president of an insurance company or a minor character in Mad Men, to the photos incorporated into Campbell’s article, of Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller and, most startlingly, Jacques Derrida. The starkest contrast is that between Bloom, who looks like the ever-thoughtful, prolific, overworked professor he is—surrounded by stacks of books and papers—and Derrida, whose image appears deeply pensive, in chiaroscuro, not a book in sight. Jacques’ a star, no doubt about it, so much so that books aren’t necessary.
Sadly, many people misread Shumway’s essay, zipping past his subtle definition of stardom toward the admittedly unfair income gap between literary studies’ stars and its worker bees. The essay, as I read it, has nothing to do with income, but rather with what the component parts of stardom are and how stardom happens. Stardom, in literary studies or anywhere else, inheres in intangibles: charisma, a distinctive performative style, sex appeal sometimes, in short, an incentive for fans to emulate the star.
Shumway’s pessimistic conclusion is, I think, justifiable: the more we buy into the star system, the less we will responsibly pay attention to our collective activity as literary scholars. That is, the presence or omnipresence of a star (think of Derrida in the 70s or Foucault in the 80s) draws our attention away from the content of what they write, and on to their personalities, and thus scrambles our efforts to do rigorous literary studies. As Shumway puts it in his follow up, “The Star System Revisited”: “instead of putting Lacan or Foucault’s theories to the test, contemporary practice is simply more likely to invoke them as if they were laws.” And that’s a recipe for sloppy scholarship.
He was dead on in 2001 when he wrote that, but my question, which I’ll leave hanging is, is all of that true now, 14 years later? Lacan, Derrida, Foucault are all dead, and their various theories have been absorbed into every historical discipline. There are Derridean Romanticists, Foucauldian 18th-century scholars, maybe even Lacanian medievalists (thanks for not asking me to name one).
So my question, which I’ll take up next time, is, “Are there any stars in humanities now?” or does Shumway’s article now deserve the status of a significantly insightful period piece?