I think this is a major theme for us. I made a category. Setting the question of the literary object aside for just a moment, it needs to be said that English scholars (like Menand, e.g.) habitually promote this conflation and have done so for decades. It may at this point be unconscious. There are many consequences. One is simply that there is better, more easily available data about English (and about the humanities from an English point of view), than any other humanities discipline. There is an entire cottage industry of English professors who mostly write about the profession. This is not really the case in Film and Media Studies–which certainly worries about the future of the field, the future of film, and the future of the world, but is not particularly obsessed with the future of the University or the humanities. For good or ill, we aim to change that.
If our project is against anything it is against the habit of English speaking for the humanities. One way we have of opposing it is by pointing out that English only got to think of itself this way by closing down early-twenieth-century engagements among academics and non-academics in various fields who were concerned, broadly speaking, with the problem of managing populations through media. “Hollywood” was an emblem of this problem, but it was not really media specific. Somewhere on this blog we need a thread for developing that strand of the argument.
In any case, we argue that English empowered itself at mid-century not so much by abandoning the project of managing populations by managing media but by claiming knowledge of “literature” as the sure route to good management. We consider the two major flavors of this claim–Leavis and New Criticism.
Our story has tended to leap over the 70s and 80s in a rush to get to the present, but I think we have a rough idea of what happened in the moment Menand identifies as the pivot point. English extended its reach to “culture” (with a small “c”) and integrated new tools (“theory”) without abandoning the claim that what made English English was the specialized reading practice cultivated by the study of literary objects. There were any number of currents and countercurrents. It was a moment that enabled some clear thinking about the social function of the University of English within it, including approaches (e.g., Bledstein and Ohmann) inspiring our own. In this moment, it became possible for English to congratulate itself for being ecumenical, inclusive, and interdisciplinary when it talked about “texts” other than novels and poems.
An interesting example that just happens to linger on the internet is Bob Scholes’ 1989 “On Reading a Video Text.” Scholes demonstrates his visual literacy by mentioning in the first paragraph certain formal properties of visual materials (close-ups, slow motion, optical filters) and then proceeds to “read” a Budweisser commercial as a narrative and myth of Americanness (the influence of Barthes is clear). The piece belongs to the culture wars. Its explicit antagonists are William Bennett and E. D. Hirsh. Scholes is on the side of all right thinking people, who will recognize the power and importance of teaching students to be able to interpret commercials in this way. As model of “visual literacy,” however, the piece stinks. While Scholes calls attention to certain visual devices in its opening paragraph, he does not bother to explain how they might be relevant in conveying the narrative information he summarizes. He could have used the tool of Film Studies to do so. Scholes was at the time working alongside some of that discipline’s leading practitioners in Brown’s pioneering Modern Culture and Media Studies program (now department), which we can both claim as part of our scholarly DNA. In eschewing these tools, Scholes encouraged English professors and graduate students to imagine that they where not needed to engage Bennett-and-Hirch-defying materials. That was the genius of the approach. Non-literary material could be wedged into even the most conservative English curriculum. No revision of the requirements would be necessary. This explains why I have been tenured in two English Departments without a PhD in English and why my colleagues in both of those departments have felt (sincerely, I think) that it is critically important for students to understand film–but not so important as to require coursework in Film and Media Studies as part of an English major. Non-literary examples proliferate in English courses, while arguments and interpretive methods developed by those who study film and media do not.
This is why our augment that English remains obsessed with defining its objects “is greeted with blank stares or opaque nods of the head,” as you put it. The obsession was reincarnated in the 70s as a promiscuous reading practice that could attach itself to anything text-like. This allowed English to claim extended reach without revising its basic architecture. Graduate students, for example, would still be trained to inhabit the same old nation and period specific categories of literary history while also doing something “extra” to question them. The inclusion of all this “extra” non-literary and/or theoretical stuff may turn out to be a virus that will have entirely rewritten the code of English from within. That could be cool. The problem is the blind spot it tends to create: English can think that it has engaged other disciplines whenever it succeeds in making the evidence of those disciplines look text-like. This predisposes it to an incorporation model (English as the humanities) rather than a collaboration model (English as part of the humanities.)
What do you think of this story so far?
You asked about realist film. Where to start? As I think you know, the question of whether film is essentially realist is foundational to the discipline, although this “realism” is not the “realism” of the “realist novel.” The line of argument is continued in several recent publications including Opening Bazin, a collection of essays. The groovy Film Studies for Free blog would be happy to help you navigate Bazin scholarship. Although “neo-realsim” identifies a period, style, and ideological problem set; so far as I know “realist film” does not.