The state of Catalan Studies in the United States.
Mechanically, "studies" appears to endow with structure and epistemological coherence things that often lack both. An anecdote will show what the stakes are. A few years ago, when the proposal to change the name of Stanford's department of Spanish and Portuguese was being considered, I met with the director of the Latin American Studies program to ask for his thoughts on the new name: Iberian and Latin American Studies. Contrary to my expectation, this affable colleague offered insurmountable opposition to the word "studies," and so we settled on the alternative term "cultures." He did not object, as one might expect from a serious academic, to the ambiguity of the term "studies" but rather to "our" use of it, a rather peculiar objection in view of its proliferation throughout the university. I was told that "you," that is, a literature department, "do not do studies, we do." Etymology was certainly not my interlocutor's strong suit. If we did not "do" studies, what might our pedagogical mission be? Never mind that I had previously taught in departments of Hispanic Studies and of Romance Studies, had co-founded a "Literary Studies" program, and had published in journals that flaunt the word "Studies" in their titles; none of this seemed relevant or sufficiently empirical when it came to define academic turf.
One could reasonably object that Iberian Studies, a concept I have promoted for years, suffers from the same vagueness that prompts the unrestrained and sometimes imaginative use of "studies." Although I am inclined to grant the point, I would nevertheless offer a line of defense, which goes roughly like this: by itself the adventitious and potentially redundant concept of "studies" cannot substantivize adjectival objects of interest (i.e. "visual studies") and is thus superfluous in relation to well-established fields of inquiry. We do not have poetry studies but rather poetics, rhetorical studies but rhetoric, historical studies but history, law studies but law, philosophical studies but philosophy, and so on. But we have a whole array of "studies," often accompanied by the prefix "trans," balancing on the precarious fringe of academe. In this sense, "studies" is the necessary buzzword to get any-subject-whatsoever past the gate of academic acceptability. It thus points, as a rule, to some corpus of inquiry that is either new and precariously situated in relation to the core disciplines or else multifaceted and perhaps poorly articulated, as in the case of most area studies. Iberian Studies partakes of the two problems: in its radical conception--that is, not as synonym for traditional departments of Spanish and Portuguese--it is still in its infancy and struggling to take institutional root against the defensiveness of the traditional disciplines that feel threatened by the complexification of the field. And it shares with area studies and cultural studies a certain imprecision that saps its claim to become a conventional branch of learning.
After this brief taxonomic reflection, I hope I will not be gravely misunderstood if I say that Catalan Studies has as yet no place in the academic sun. There is, to be sure, a long tradition of teaching Catalan in the United States, with the number of institutions featuring this language growing up in recent years, as the Institut Ramon Llull has stepped up its contributions and departments have taken the opportunity to add such low-cost enhancement to their programs. In a few universities, faculty teach aspects of Catalan literature or linguistics interspersed with more traditional items within a Hispanic focal point. But even if Catalan literature is becoming a marginal component of every self-esteeming program, it is still far from constituting an area in its own right, as lukewarm demand and a low profile at professional conferences demonstrate. Above all, there is as yet no designated faculty position in Catalan Studies in any North American university, and we lag behind our European counterparts in this respect. The apathy is not (or at least not primarily) financially motivated; most often it is the faculty rather than deans who drag their feet. I could relate an embarrassment of anecdotes about colleagues who have resisted or frankly rejected initiatives to incorporate Catalan culture in departments of Romance or Hispanic studies even when it would have cost them nothing; of applicants to Ph.D. programs flushed out in view of their background; of job candidates handicapped by their training; of colleagues who deliberately confuse Catalan culture with nationalism, thus politicizing the expression of one of the key Iberian cultures in zealous vigilance over the legitimate idols.
But if Catalan is not yet a recognized area of specialization with faculty positions and curricular status, in just what sense can we speak of the state of Catalan studies? Since the university is not a blank slate but an organization of evolving traditions, any hypothetical inclusion of Catalan studies would most likely have to occur through the organic development of so-called Peninsular Studies, or, where the Romance tradition persists, of a more inclusive and systemic concept of Romania.
Twenty-five years after I graduated in Comparative Literature with Catalan as one of the European literatures in my comprehensive examinations (a precedent-setting decision that required departmental approval), many departments still refuse to accept this literature within their purview. Notwithstanding cautious recognition of this literature's scope and significance, it is still risky for young scholars to be perceived as unduly concerned with it. Scarcer job interviews, a higher rate of rejections and a lower probability of tenure must be contended with. For more senior scholars, a perceived focus on Catalan literature means less professional mobility, tacit unpopularity, and foregoing the honors that the profession reserves for members who appropriately pay homage to its conventions. What this means, in practical terms, is that the study of Catalan literature in the United States can only be a part-time occupation. Few are free to commit the time and personal resources required to develop the historical sense on which, according to T.S. Eliot, the poet's (and the critic's) assimilation of tradition hinges. There is hope, however, in the growing number of scholars who grasp the literature's importance not only within Iberian but also for European letters. Interest has expanded over the last decade to the point that there is today a burgeoning group of first rate Iberianists who incorporate Catalan literature into their research and pedagogy. That these relatively young scholars are often based in research universities not only suggests that integrating this literature defines today's "cutting edge" in Peninsular Studies, but also that this literature helps in turn to legitimize scholarship that claims to operate within the newer paradigm of Iberian Studies. This paradigm neither reflects the obsolete administrative combination of Spanish and Portuguese, nor a transitional approach leading to philological fragmentation, but it is the obvious way in which Catalan, Portuguese, Basque, Galician, and Castilian Studies can rise to the challenge of disciplinary renewal in an academic situation in which the study of national literatures appears to have run its course. Iberian Studies may be a way of rebuilding the relation between epistemic accent and social and historical relevance of texts. If there is one stubborn fact about the Iberian Peninsula, it is its cultural range and social diversity. And if there is one big scandal about Peninsular Studies, it is not its animosity against theory, as was widely believed in the 80s and early 90s, but rather its imperviousness to the full range of cultural and linguistic diversity within the Iberian Peninsula. It is in this context of historically indivisible cultural relations that Catalan Studies plays a pivotal role as guarantor of that diversity. But what happens in an advanced state of disciplinary merging such as is taking place today under globalizing conditions, when the humanities are losing much of their traditional justification and literature in particular is no longer the cultural alibi of national politics?
In a way, the potential for the inclusion of Catalan Studies within a globalizing disciplinary framework relates to the emergence and legitimacy of new subjects in international law. After a time in which only states were recognized as legitimate subjects of public international law, debates are now ongoing about the incorporation of stateless entities, just as, on a different level, there is talk about the possibility of world governance. If we turn to a classic attempt to produce a canon of world literature, such as Harold Bloom's ambitious yet deeply flawed The Western Canon, we find, beyond substantial chapters on a few, mostly English-language authors, an appendix of works divided by periods, in which the ancient world is covered with a handful of vastly encompassing categories such as the Ancient Near East, Ancient India, the Ancient Greeks, the Hellenistic Greeks, the Romans, and the Middle Ages including Latin, Arabic and the vernacular before Dante (with the curious mistake of placing Diego de San Pedro before Dante). Thereafter the canon is organized by nation-states, with the single but telling exception of England and Scotland, which are collapsed through linguistic unity. Italy, Portugal, Spain, France and Germany head longer or shorter lists of works in the national languages, which were obviously not national for the times concerned but are so for the modern reader. Thus, in ignoring "non-national" vernaculars, Bloom's "Western" canon overlooks the likes of Ramon Llull, Ramon Muntaner, Joanot Martorell and Ausias March. The modern period adds national categories and languages, even "supranational regions" such as "Scandinavia," represented by two authors only, Ibsen and Strindberg, opening the possibility of similar categories such as "Balkan" or "Iberian," which are however not followed through. For the contemporary period, tellingly named "The Chaotic Age," Bloom enters Catalonia into the list of literarily significant European nations, represented by a short list of poets and two novels under the general heading of "A canonical prophecy." That is, Bloom's exiguous Catalan canon, plainly determined by the availability of English translations at the time of writing, has the status of guesswork insofar as canonical certainty relies on the test of time and the precarious canonicity of 20th-century works.
Bloom's prophecy plainly relates to the national status of Catalonia as the prime example besides Scotland of a stateless nation included in his version of the Western canon. It thus bears out the correlation between emerging new subjects of international law and the visibility of cultural production. Whether Bloom's prophecy will eventually turn out to validate his distinct perception of Catalonia as a fully independent national and literary category remains to be seen. If it does, the cultural consequences of that validation remain to be worked out. Whether they would entail the consolidation of a Catalan Studies option within the American humanities is doubtful although not to be ruled out. But in the meantime, while the humanities and contemporary politics continue within "the Chaotic Age," Catalan literature can best project its canonical force through a larger category such as Iberian Studies, and from there it may relate to the other European and American literatures within the interdisciplinary research patterns that are the hallmark of the American humanities today.
Metadisciplinary reflection is as good as the practical possibilities for its deployment. There is no denying that Iberian Studies still encounters resistance, not least because of the Catalan culture at its core. To every action there is a reaction, not only in the physical world but also in the intellectual. Scholars everywhere resent changes they do not lead and often take refuge in the certainties of the past, modulated by current cliches and the conventional wisdom of automatic assent. Risk taking, fundamental to any sound scholarly endeavor, is shunned in favor of political truisms and bookish redundancy. Academics like to think of themselves as the avant-garde of thought when in fact they are members of a conservative institution. Thus, the diffident tolerance for Catalan literature in some departments of Spanish could easily be blocked or trimmed as a new conservatism reasserts itself in the humanities. Backlashes are predictable in a context of uncertainty. If the predicament of literary studies goes on and competition for dwindling enrollments becomes more acute, the temptation for retrenchment into the conventions of yore and for cutting back on "superfluities" will be great. Such reactions will contribute to the problem, which is one of uncertain relevance and spent significance.
The bright side for Catalan Studies is the growing awareness of the culture's significance, which can no longer be ignored. And rising awareness ensures that, wherever its academic incidence is temporarily blocked or revoked, a price is paid in disciplinary backwardness and lack of cultural proficiency. And this translates, ever more, into a loss of competitiveness.
At present, the biggest challenge for Catalan Studies, besides the lack of teaching positions, is the dearth of specialized publications, from book series to journals. The former may be partly remedied by the recent creation of an Iberian Studies series at the University of Toronto Press under the stewardship of Robert Davidson. It would be a great leap forward if other publishers followed suit and a stream of high-quality publications on Catalan and Iberian subjects issued from prestigious presses. It would also be symptomatic of change if national associations like the MLA were to break a long-standing taboo and occasionally award one of their emblematic prizes to a work on Catalan Studies, a decision that would contribute to naturalize the field by sending a signal of legitimacy to members and publishers alike. Journals of Hispanic literature and cultural studies accept contributions on Catalan subjects at an exceedingly low rate and not in Catalan language, while general publications like PMLA and similar venues never do. Specialized journals are inexistent, with the exception of Catalan Review, whose precarious standards and frequency (annual publication) have made it until now more a place to hide one's work than to showcase it. Under the new editorship and more rigorous standards, this journal may nevertheless gain respectability. Compensating for this state of affairs are a few international ventures launched from Catalonia, such as the excellent English-language Catalan Journal of Communication & Cultural Studies, published at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, and a few other international publications like Rivista Italiana di Studi Catalani, published at Ca' Foscari University in Venice and Journal of Catalan Studies published at Cambridge University.
All of this is clearly insufficient to do epistemic justice to a culture with the creative strength and scope of the Catalan, but it is far from insubstantial, and is in fact a lifeline for scholars and students invested in a growth area (a social choice option, if I am allowed a pun on a certain type of stocks). The silver lining in the clouds lies of course in the fact that Catalan culture has made headway against a conservative institution that mimicked the nationalist and imperialist concept of Hispanicity and its monolingualism, even when deprecating the political fallout of such principles in Spain. And this suggests that it will continue to make progress, even after temporary setbacks, against a discipline that resists Iberian Studies for its linguistic and cultural diversity and its implications for the redistribution of canonical hierarchies and the interplay of relevances in the field.
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|Author:||Resina, Joan Ramon|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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