Russell A. Hunt

Knowing One Big Thing

[As published in Inkshed: Newsletter of the Canadian Association for the Study of Writing and Reading 7:3 (May 1988), 1-2.]

In December I attended a conference in Germany that I think might be of some interest to Inkshedders. For two reasons: partly because of the way it was organized and partly because it was concerned with approaches to literature (empirical ones) which are not common in English or traditional literature departments.

The conference was sponsored by the University of Siegen, in central Germany. It began with dinner on Wednesday night, and over the next two days there were four half-day plenary sessions, with all 50 delegates arranged around a square of tables. The organizers had asked all the delegates to send in short "position papers" (they averaged about four pages) well before the conference; these were photocopied, assembled into bound volumes, and mailed to participants a month in advance. At the conference, each of the sessions focused on one specific theoretical or practical issue, and a number of the position papers were designated as especially relevant to that issue. At various points in the discussion, the moderators (who worked in pairs) might put a specific person "on the spot" and ask him for an extemporaneous summary of her or his recent research. This was usually -- at least it was in my case -- informally pre-arranged (the night before, one of the next day's moderators asked me if he could put me on the spot the next afternoon). The moderators had often picked an important phrase or passage out of the "spottee"'s paper, and put it up on the overhead while the speaker tried to wriggle out of the implications of what she'd incontestably said.

I was surprised and impressed at how well it worked. The two days' worth of discussions were animated, focused, interesting and useful. I met more people (exchanges started in public often continued over coffee or dinner) than I have at any conference -- except Inkshed, of course. Those of us whose interest in Inkshed is fuelled partly by the desire to do something about dreary conferences at which one paper session with two perfunctory ceremonial questions is followed by another might do well to think about such a model. The only thing missing was inkshedding, and I may try to introduce that when the group meets next in Amsterdam in two years.

The subject matter and political role of the conference also might have some relevance to Inkshedders. There is a growing number of scholars in Europe who are interested in escaping from what many of them see as the dead hand of "hermeneutic studies" -- traditional literary studies based on interpretation -- and approaching the phenomenon of literature with other questions than "what interpretation will this work support?" in mind. (This phenomenon seems strongest in Germany and Holland, incidentally; and perhaps weakest in England and France, from which countries there were no participants.) This is partly a matter of academic politics, as universities in Europe -- certainly in Germany -- are under a good deal of social and financial pressure these days, and traditional literature departments seem to be pretty solidly closed shops. But it's just as much a matter of an attempt to understand the phenomenon of literature from a number of different disciplinary standpoints. The disciplines of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, communication, and media as well as literature, were all represented at the conference -- held together by one big central idea, that empirical methods have important things to say about phenomena like literature.

For people like me, trained to think of literature as the preserve of academic literary criticism, the idea that such disciplines and such methods have important contributions to make has been hard to accept. But I think it's getting increasingly clear that those of us who are interested in understanding how language -- especially written, "literary" language -- is learned and works need to pay attention to what's happening across those disciplinary boundaries, and this conference made it even clearer.

Anybody who'd like a list (or copies) of some of the most interesting position papers should drop me a note (my BITNET/NETNORTH address is HUNT@UNB). It's planned that expanded versions of the position papers will be published in Poetics and in SPIEL (Siegener Periodicum. zur Internationale Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft). And if you'd like information about the organization founded at the conference -- der Internationale Gesellschaft für Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft, or IGEL -- let me know that, too. (I can tell you here that Igel means "hedgehog" in German, and we all know, because Tom Newkirk has reminded us, that while the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. I know it's true because I met one, who was wintering with the family I stayed with in Ohrsen.)

Department of English
St. Thomas University
Fredericton, N.B. E3B 5G3