2 Working assumption of ‚Literature‘
3 Literature as an act of social engagement
‘Literature’ – not yet attempting to elaborate further on its definition or characterisation – has been a companion of human civilisation and something like a mirror of all societies and cultures. In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning 21st century there have been more and more voices who see a decline or even a downfall of literature because of digital mass media and processes of globalisation, internationalisation and a more fast-paced world (Albalawi).1 Though, this approach may seem logical at first, it is this paper’s aim and purpose to argue against a decline of literature from a metaphysical perspective emphasising the social dimension on the basis of Rita Felski’s modes of textual engagement.
To attempt such reasoning, it will at first be introduced an own definition of literature. Because when trying to develop arguments around the hypothesis of literature being unique or ‘other’ and being something that is “a source of radical and transformative potential” (Felski) the rather abstract concept ‘literature’ has to be put in concrete terms beforehand. While the common definition of literature in civil society is probably something in the boundaries of ‘textual or written art’, the literary scientific community has yielded numerous attempts on how to specify the term. Since there are so many overlapping but also contradictory definitions, it is a fundamental requirement in regard to the rest of this paper to discuss some of the currently prevailing takes on what literature can be described and interpreted as. The main focus will be put on rather psychological and metaphysical approaches to literature from Rita Felski, Daniel Albright and Derek Attridge. Their approaches to literature will be discussed to be able to deduce an own definition of literature that is appropriate to answer this paper’s main question of what the potential of literature and also its value can be in the 21st century. To do this the Felski’s four modes of textual engagement recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock will be taken a closer look at.
2 Working assumption of ‚Literature‘
As already touched upon in the introduction, the term ‘literature’ will in this paper be approached from a metaphysical perspective by extending the horizon of viewing literature only as ‘textual or written art’.
One interesting approach to literature stems from Daniel Albright who coins the term “panaesthetics” in his same-titled book from 2014 in which he centralises on the question whether and to what extent the different arts’ relationships are intertwined. Albright defines literature as not just texts with some kind of cultural or artistic value, but claims that “even a shopping list or a set of instructions for feeding the cat is in the largest sense literature” (Albright 13). This is already a widened perspective on the term. Albright does not view it as a somewhat higher art form or elitist phenomenon, but as an everyday result of writing things down. Furthermore, he states that the “importance [of literature] is not a factor of insight-content alone” (14). It could be argued that therefore the literariness of a text does not derive from a static significance or inherent aesthetic, but from its reception and use.
Literature in this sense is not an object or the result of cultural or artistic production, but a “machine for bringing cultural value into being” (15) and a “tool for cultural assimilation” (19) by allowing authors to give insights into their minds and readers or rather recipients to gain insights into other people’s thoughts. This would also make literature a tool for social communication, societal development and the progression of civilisation as a whole.
The process of cultural assimilation, Albright concretises with the example of one who may “try to remain detached, […] but someone else’s sensibility, moral code, scheme for organizing reality has been grafted onto” (19) him nonetheless. Though the recipient is impacted in some kind of way, he “can’t transfigure” into a character or the author, but it enables him to “experiment with the person who [he] would be if [he] thought the thoughts” (20) being described in the literary ‘object’. A fitting illustration of Albright’s elaborations is his assumption that “[a]ny sentence I read is a sentence I can imagine myself having invented, and so I become, for a moment at least, its author” (21). Although his point of the reader temporarily becoming a text’s author by reading it is an eminently interesting one, one could oppose that it should not say ‘any sentence I read’, but rather ‘any sentence I understand’, which opens a whole new perspective.
This thought can also be found in Derek Attridge’s take on the singularity of literature where he contends that language in general – and literature in particular as being embedded in language – happens in events that always include some sort of identification (Attridge 56-57). He develops further that “this identification includes the acknowledgement of purposiveness: what we are seeing is not a random scratch or a piece of driftwood” (57). Attridge in this sense contradicts Albright to the extent that one has to be able to ‘understand’ – or in his words be able to “identify” – the literature’s coding and being able to make any kind of sense from it.2 Attridge sees identification as the fundament of a literary experience and infers that “only when the event of this reformulation is experienced by the reader […] as an event […] that we can speak of the literary” (59), by which he implies that it is not a “static object, transcending time, permanently available for our inspection” (59) that makes ‘literature’, but the literary experience or its eventness: “This process of initiation, this movement into the unknown, is experienced as something that happens to the reader in the course of a committed and attentive reading. This is what a literary work ‘is’: an act, an event, of reading, never entirely separable from the act-event […] of writing” (59). It becomes clear that Attridge does not put value on the ‘piece’ of art or literature, but on its function or rather on the fact that it is perceived as a literary event and the uniqueness of this interaction between the literary artefact and the recipient. Attridge describes this unique event with the term “singularity” that is “constitutively impure, always open to contamination” (63). Using the example of William Blake’s The Sick Rose, he states that “the differences observable in the variety of manifestations of this poem—whether it be printed, written, spoken, sung, illuminated, or recorded, and in whatever font, style of handwriting, delivery, musical setting, mode of decoration, or type of transcription—are treated as ignorable for the purpose of identifying the poem as Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’” and suggests to think of singularity “as the demand that this specific collocation of words, allusions, and cultural references makes on me in the event of my reading” (65-66).
Attridge’s process of ‘identification’ and his thoughts on singularity may also be linked to the word ‘recognition’. His thoughts on identification and singularity show parallels to Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, in which she identifies literature as “an ongoing confrontation with the unknown” that “enables an encounter with the extraordinary, an imagining of the impossible, an openness to pure otherness, that is equipped with momentous political implications” (Felski 5) and identifies four key elements of the reading experience: recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock (14). Felski argues not “to define literature as ideology” because in this case literary works could only be “objects of knowledge, but never sources of knowledge” (7). She also opposes critics who argue literature to be “squarely in the social world” or “that a text is always part of something larger” (6). In this line of argumentation there are parallels to Albright’s and Attridge’s works. Just as Albright, who argues literature to be a result of everyday writing and as a device to produce cultural value, and Attridge, who highlights the events that ‘happen’ as a result of an interaction between reader and text, Felski also emphasises literature’s ability to initiate specific events instead of being the result or the manifestation of creative or academic processes. In this respect, Felski highlights literature’s “obdurate resistance to all calculations of purpose and function” (7), by which she again argues in a fashion comparable to Albright’s and Attridge’s argumentation. It is Felski’s formulated aim to call for serious engagement “with ordinary motives for reading – such as the desire for knowledge or the longing for escape – that are either overlooked or undervalued in literary scholarship” (13). What all three authors – Albright, Attridge and Felski – have in common is that they all try to raise awareness to the relationship between reader and text, may it be by interpreting the reader as a temporary author (Albright), highlighting literature’s singular eventness (Attridge) or by focusing on creating categories to differentiate between reading modes of textual engagement (Felski). The exploration of this relationship between reader and text will be addressed in the following chapters.
3 Literature as an act of social engagement
When looking at Felski’s formulated reading modes of textual engagement recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock a social dimension is conspicuous. In the following it will be analysed – in reference to Felski’s Uses of Literature – to what extent a social value can be identified within these four categories.
Felski describes the experience of recognition as seeming “at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious” and as “a flash of connection leap[ing] across the gap between text and reader” (23). The event of recognizing something, she describes as “literally ‘know[ing] it again’ [and] by fitting it into an existing scheme, linking it to that we already know” (25). As (Vischer Bruns 19) additionally points out, the event of recognition may also “enable a reader to hold onto or recall an emotional state or stance, important for making that state available to consciousness for thought and reflection which can lead to other possible developments of self-experience and insight”. In this sense recognition is the process of ‘understanding’ or even ‘remembering’ as postulated in the comparison of Attridge and Felski3, because only by integrating something into existing schemes and by linking it to things already known it is possible to grasp written words, sentences, paragraphs and eventually texts. Otherwise there would be no “acknowledgement of purposiveness: [that] what we are seeing is not a random scratch or a piece of driftwood” (Attridge 57).
When synthesising the construct of recognition with the understanding of communication as a coding and decoding of messages – as depicted in the Shannon-Weaver model – recognition ‘happens’ at the same point as decoding when the text’s message is tried to be made sense of and is being included into the already existing schemes and models in the reader’s mind. Felski describes it as “a mobile interplay of exteriority and interiority, something that exists outside of me inspires a revised or altered sense of who I am” (25). This inspiration mentioned by Felski can be interpreted as an act of social engagement: because not only does one engage with a revised or altered self, but one also engages with another ‘social being’, namely the authors’ ideas and their revised or altered selves while writing. As (Hintz and Couch) put it, “even though the other is not physically present in the immediate situation [of writing or reading], he is nonetheless an integral part of the process of mediated communication” (482). With regards to Felski the process of writing can therefore be viewed as an extension of reading and as a product or rather a manifestation of recognition: in order to write something, one has to engage with one’s own thoughts and schemes while also having ‘the other’ in mind. Just as Felski, Hintz and Couch also see writing as an occurrence within “an interactive context […] in which the focus of attention tends to be on the self” (484). They see the difference between reading and writing in the assumption that “attention to one’s own activity is minimal in the case of reading and maximal in the case of writing”. The reader “may engage in further thought if he so desires” (487). In Felski’s line of argumentation one would have to contradict such a differentiation, at least to some degree. While Felski may also see the writing of literature as a process with higher attention to one’s own activity compared to the reading process, she would strongly disagree with depicting the attention to one’s own activity while reading as “minimal”.
Though, Felski and Hintz & Couch do not fully conform with one another, the idea of Felski’s definition of recognition can still be found in their argumentation. They write that “the reader must learn to deal with a [literary] object as an event, i.e., the reader must learn to reproduce the event which leads to the object he has in front of him” (488). Comparable to Albright’s analogy of the reader becoming the author – at least temporarily – Hintz & Couch argue that the reading process can be interpreted as a reconstruction attempt of the writer’s act of producing the literary work. Connecting this thought to Felski’s concept of recognition, one could arrive at the conclusion that this reconstruction of the event originally leading to the writer ‘producing’ the literary work is the fundament of enabling the reader to engage not just with the author or his product, but also with himself. This would also relativise the earlier quote of Hintz & Couch that the reader “may engage in further thought if he so desires” because Felski’s elements of the reading experience would then come after what they themselves identify as ‘reading’.
In her conclusion, Felski states that with her approach she ultimately wants her work Uses of Literature to allow “for individualized, fine-tuned descriptions of aspects of reading” (132). Just as Hintz & Couch she therefore focusses on aspects that happen after, for example, opening the book and while actively engaging with the text. While this seems appropriate at first, there is another aspect that could be argued to be part of the reading process, even though it appears before opening a paperback or starting to listen to an audiobook. Cliff Hodges argues that when “neglect[ing] the reasons for reading […] an opportunity is missed to build on what is arguably one of the most powerful and important elements in the process” (Cliff Hodges 68). While Felski – already in her introduction – calls for a serious engagement “with ordinary motives for reading” (Felski 14) she makes a different argument than Cliff Hodges. The reasons for reading – as mentioned in Cliff Hodges’ argumentation – can differ from the motives. The motives for reading (as Felski uses the term) are simply the objective causes for the engagement with the literature whereas the motives are the subjective side of the reasons for reading: one’s motive to read a book may be to pass a course or to gain knowledge or information from it, but one will still have specific intentions, such as positive or negative expectations, hopes or even an already biased perspective on it.
1 Albalawi’s paper can be viewed as an example of the claim that there are people who see a decline of literature.
2 See the Shannon-Weaver model of communication.
3 See page 3.