[(essay date 1988) In the following interview, Lentricchia details his experiences at Duke, his editorship of the South Atlantic Quarterly, and his thoughts on the literary canon and critical practice. He suggests that the purpose of “oppositional criticism” is to challenge movements and discourses that participate in “the suppression of real difference.”]
[Latané]: What’s going on at Duke as a place or center for literary studies with regard to the rest of the profession?
[Lentricchia]: This issue of the change at Duke I think has been overplayed in the profession in some ways. It’s been overplayed even on the Duke campus. The Duke department in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a department on the point of change because so many of its key people were retiring or at the point of retiring. So the change that was initiated around 1984 was in some sense a natural change.
Given Duke’s ambition to stay in the top rank, was it inevitable that people who would draw attention to the school would be hired?
Oh, I don’t know that it was inevitable that they would hire people who would draw attention to the school. There were some very imaginative administrators who wanted to see that happen, and I think they made it happen. What I would emphasize is that these changes do not indicate an ideological coherence or centering at Duke of a particular position. The fact is that in the United States critical positions are advanced from academic sites. The advantage of collecting people at any one particular place is that you make it possible for there to be a kind of continual conversation, exchange of ideas, debate, and so forth, an interchange both on an intellectual and on a social basis. You make it possible for a community to come together. Ours is a community that I think qualifies strictly speaking as a community because it is not a collection of the same. I mean, in contrast to other highly visible places that have been known as centers of advanced critical theory, the Duke scene is characterized by its intellectual diversity. I think that if you run down the roster of the people that you happen to be interested in and who are getting attention these days you’ll find out that if we exist as that community, which I think we do, we exist as a community of diverse writers and teachers; and it’s that diversity that is our strength, because it keeps life here vital. It makes it possible for me to learn because what I’m hearing from my friends and colleagues in the halls and what I’m reading when I read them is not what’s already in my head. That’s the center of my appreciation for being here. Now one of the implications of that, I think, is that we do not have a brand X criticism to export around the country. We don’t think we have it, we don’t want to have it, and...