What do they study, again?

Here is a partial, but entirely factual, listing of session and/or paper topics at the recent conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major annual meeting for North American literary academics:

Matter
Negotiating
Space
Africa
Bertolt Brecht
Japanese modernity
Economics
Composting
The idea of “West Asia”
Time
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
TS Eliot
Feminist activism
Israeli-South African relations
Dada
Milton
Second-language instruction
Immigration
The Cold War
Sports
Bars
The First World War
Borders
Singapore
Animals
Being black in Germany
Barcelona
Neoplatonism
Saint Theresa
Suspicion
The English Civil War
Calgary
Neoliberalism [natch]
Tommaso Campanella
Mental Health
How to get a good government job
Dance
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Data visualization
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Subjectivity
Sound
Ice
Rock
Oil
Bodies
Imperialism
Neurolinguistics
Masculinity
Elmore Leonard
Tea
Geography
Childhood
Doing business in Italy
Whales
Forgiveness
Amiri Baraka
Psychoanalysis
Privacy
History
Faulkner
Food
Union democracy
Being Jewish
Ireland
Aging
Disability
Gay animals
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Laughter
NAFTA
Scientific experiments
Being a Muslim woman
Francoism
Boycotts
Postwar Japan
Pipelines
Things
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The 1970s
Light
Israel
Cervantes
Pragmatism
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.

critical-phenomenological thought for the day

Understanding, Hans-Georg Gadamer teaches, is an event. It is an experience (Erfahrung) that we undergo: like the way a player experiences a moment in the game; or an audience member experiences the climax of a tragedy. Indeed, understanding is an experience of a very special kind, which precludes or overwhelms our front-of-mind consciousness. Gadamer points out that the player of a game, in the midst of playing it, knows in one sense “this is only a game.” Yet in another, larger, and more important sense – and this is the key point – s/he does not and cannot know that. For knowing “this is only a game” would preclude or impede effective involvement in the game. Analogously, Gadamer claims, when we are in the midst of understanding something, we know in one sense “I am currently understanding.” Yet in another, larger, and more important sense, we do not and cannot know that. For knowing, in a front-of-mind way, “I am currently understanding” would preclude or impede our being fully involved – lost, for the moment – in the understanding. And getting lost in this way is precisely part and parcel of the kind of experience that understanding is.

Now literary criticism, let’s say, is the study of texts as texts. Understanding is the fulfillment of any text. Therefore, literary criticism includes the study of understanding. (This means, for those who follow this sort of thing, that criticism subsumes hermeneutics.) To study anything is to try to understand it. Therefore, criticism has as one of its goals to understand understanding.

But if understanding is an experience, along the lines already described, then understanding understanding can only mean (1) trying to understand this very special experience and (2) doing so precisley by trying to have this experience. For there would appear to be no other way to do it. The literary-critical classroom, unlike the classrooms of other disciplines, where this or that object is examined, will be a classroom in which the experience of understanding itself is provoked, and for its own sake. The literary text, moreover, unlike texts of other kinds, will not try to present this or that object, but will try to make available the experience of understanding, just as such. Studying such a text, in such a critical mode, will be, if not the only, then probably the best, way to understand understanding.

So, like, that’s why we do it.