Why Read Literature: Part 1

In part 1 of this two part series, Mark McConaghy attempts to answer the question: why is literature important in our contemporary age?

One of the most important things in life is to have friends from many different walks of society. For nothing shows you how modestly narrow your own investments are then encountering people who are radically different from yourself. Academics run into this all the time: you can spend years of your life devoted to studying writers, philosophers, and social movements that mean literally nothing to the vast majority of people who inhabit the world around you.

It is always such an odd and humbling moment. You tell someone “I work on cultural history, and I’m deeply invested in developing Frederic Jameson’s materialist hermeneutic for the analysis of historical forms” and they look at you and say: “oh, interesting…” You know they have no idea who Frederic Jameson is, or why he is of any relevance to the daily grind of contemporary life, or why he is worth spending so many thousands of hours of your life pouring over. And much the same could be said for thinkers as diverse as Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Williams, Spivak, and Zizek. To the graduate students of the world who study them their works can mean everything, full of richness and complexity, worthy of deep engagement. And yet they are literal nobodies to the vast majority of people in the world- and much for the better, for I know many happy, well adjusted people who lead perfectly noble lives without having to resort to the high minded abstractions of philosophy for moral guidance or intellectual sustenance.

And even philosophers who people “think” they have some kind of understanding of- people like Karl Marx or Adam Smith, whose names have filtered through popular culture as shorthands for either totalitarian communism or totally unregulated capitalism- are generally completely misunderstood. A relatively well-educated lawyer or doctor might be able to link Derrida’s name to deconstruction, or they may have even taken a gender studies course in which a couple of key concepts from Butler or Kristeva may have stuck, but even here there is only the vaguest sense of who these thinkers actually are.

And I want to be perfectly clear- I’m not blaming any people in the general population for not knowing the works of these writers. I’m not here to launch some kind of elitist critique against cultural philistinism. Of course I would highly encourage all people to read deeply into philosophy and history so as to develop a rigorous and critical human spirit within themselves. But people manage to be relatively happy without doing so, and maybe it’s for the best: there are more sensuous, intuitive ways for deriving ethical axioms than high minded theory.

Hegel, Marx, and Derrida will have to be content with being less than footnotes in the quotidian experience of most peoples lives. And if thinkers of such prodigious strength as they are barred from immortality in the hearts of people throughout the world, all the more bleak is it for us, the toiling bloggers of the world, whose words cannot even be found in Penguin editions on library shelves for curious students to rummage through.

That curious moment when you realize that something you’ve invested so much of your life in is totally meaningless to most people reaches, in my estimation, delicious heights when it comes to the concept of literature. How many times have we heard from friends, family, and colleagues that “Oh, no, I don’t read literature…novels are way too long.” While literary types may surround themselves with like-minded people and, in doing so, walk around a small-world carved out for themselves in which literature has a revered place, only a small step outside those boundaries is enough to puncture that self-satisfied elitism. For so many people in our society, prose fiction is really just not a particularly vital part of their cultural existence. An aesthetic object revered by some is totally irrelevant to others.

And I think that irrelevancy is only increasing for literature in the current age we are in. In a world of web-driven digital reality, in which information, imagery, and text flow effortlessly across our computer screens, in which the computer itself can be fit into the palm of a hand, in which digital flows have come to colonize the space of the office, the living room, the bedroom, and especially the individual body, in which so much labor, leisure, and community are bound up with the experience of the internet itself…what hope does something as staid, as immobile, as long-winded, as attention-demanding as the old stuffy printed and bound novel really have?

Whither the Old, Stuffy, immobile Book in the Digital Age?
Whither the Literary Novel in the Digital Age?

It is not, of course, that we are losing language itself in the digital era. Indeed, the internet is filled up with nothing but language, articles and postings of all kinds in which words shoot out at your from every corner of the screen. It’s simply that I’m not sure that the type of language that novels employ, and more importantly the type of concentration required to appreciate it, is really available for us today. In a digital landscape in which I can open one page and find out exactly what the major events going on in the world are, in which the attention-span whittles and morphs to follow the speed of the information itself, do we even have the capacity to enjoy novels any longer?

Our generation still does. And future generations will too. But literature will become something that is ever more specialized, quaint, a time-consuming bourgeois activity that does not conform to the ontological and discursive rhythms of the 21st century.  Literature, in a word, will become what opera, ballet, and painting are today: specialized art forms that are marks of the high culture of any city that has institutions designed to value them, but not things that people really enjoy looking at all that much. Not because they are not beautiful. Not because we don’t appreciate the tremendous skill required to create them. But just because they are totally out of touch with the now. They are not forms that really speak to us. They do not fit comfortably into the cultural landscape of the moment.

Sure, there are the enthusiasts and the specialists who take interest in classical music and historic canvases; there are the social elite who must show their sophistication and patronize these art forms; and there are the curious who will stop in from time to time to a museum. But nobody could argue that whatever is playing right now in downtown Toronto at the Four Seasons Center for opera is really a vital cultural work that speaks to, interacts with, and moulds the consciousness of the vast majority of Canadians. Indeed, the vast majority of Canadians will never hear about what’s playing at the Four Seasons Center, none the less actually watch it. And if they do watch it, they will do so for refined aesthetic leisure only- not as an experience that is expected to radically change the way they live their lives or to spark some kind of mass movement for definitive social change.

Are the performances that go on within here really going to radically change our lives?
Are the performances that go on here really going to radically change our lives?

This is precisely the same problem one encounters when one goes to a museum. We go to the AGO or the MOMA to enjoy the cool spaces they offer, to engage socially with friends while looking at some pretty paintings, to laugh at the tricked out installation art in front of us. But few of us have the background in art history to really critically understand the works that are in front of us. Nor do we particularly understand the technical aspects of the paintings themselves. Thus when you are in a museum you are constantly aware that you are surrounded by works from a specialized sub-field that you don’t really know much about. Paintings hang on the walls of those hallowed museums like elite trophies, things we are supposed to enjoy because they are showing at the AGO or the MOMA.

They have an aura to them, as Walter Benjamin once put it, a sensibility that distances us from these works. We are told to like them because of the institutional power behind them, and we do like them, but only at a distance, not as objects that are at home with us in our daily lives. Thus we read the paintings as best we can, we interpret them from our own limited perspective, and then we go home, barely remembering what we saw or who made them.

The museum is thus nothing but a bourgeois date for us. A way to kill a free afternoon. It’s not about flinging ourselves into aesthetic works that are going to make us tremble in our boots and change the way we live our lives. Paintings don’t make us tremble any longer because they are too slow for these times. A painting, after all, doesn’t move. It just stays there. Immobile. Locked into its canvas. Slow.

The Museum as the Modern Space for the Bourgeois Date
The Museum as the Modern Space for the Bourgeois Date

The aesthetic forms that are one with us today are the ones that move. They are the ones that propel forward through digital space. They are the mass forms of the movie, the television show, the video game, the youtube clip, the web short, the hip hop video. Music, film, and digital visuality are the only true mass forms we have. The ones that can reach vast swaths of people in an instant. The ones that people watch with the diligent interest that university professors wish students would read literature or critical theory with.

These mass forms are popular because, first, they are easy to consume. The moving image has an explosive dynamism to it, a slick visceral motion, that not even the most lucid of prose can ever catch up to. Whether we are talking about the quietest of short films viewed on youtube or a high-wattage blockbuster projected on stadium screens, the motion image has a hold on our eyes, our bodies, our cerebral cortexes that is difficult for any other art form to match. We must also recognize how easy it is to access digital imagery now- decades and decades of films can be streamed effortlessly on to a plethora of devices of all kinds, from smartphones we hold in the palms of our hands to the slick flatscreen TVs that inhabit our living rooms.

Many critical theorists, from Guy Debord to Frederic Jameson to Shu-Mei Shih, have made the point that the predominant logic of our time is not textual but visual. I won’t bore readers with the interwoven densities of their arguments, although we can certainly discuss them at length later if their is desire to. I would only ask readers to think of their own intuitive experiences to confirm the power that film and digital visuality has over us: from the images screened onto our computers to the adds that dominate urban space to the haunting presence of great movie scenes that linger long into our minds, the visual is constant and contemporary in a way that no other aesthetic form can match. It is not that text does not have a space within this society- it’s simply that it feels somehow secondary, slowed down, cautiously modest in a world of unending digital saturation.

When people say “Oh, I don’t read…I don’t have the patience for it” I don’t think we should take that as a mark of one person’s own cultural inferiority and simply laugh the comment off, secure in the knowledge that literature really does matter to us and to other people. Rather, I think we should take a comment like that as a symptomatic diagnosis for a general condition that now afflicts us: in the face of the dominance of the digital and the visual in a market-driven world of increasing complexity, we have neither the time, the patience, nor the inclination to read literature in a vital way, as if we are reading something that is essential to our own self-definition as human beings.

In the face of this contemporary impasse, how can we argue for literature’s ongoing vitality and relevance?

The traditional defense of literature against the onslaught of mass visuality has usually fallen along a couple lines. First, people point out that no matter how exciting movies and video games are, the Global Literary Canon still offers a tremendous amount of moral and spiritual sustenance that is readily available for anyone who wants to take the time to seriously engage with it. While I wouldn’t argue against that point, I would simply add: the global canons of great films, great music, great television, indeed even great video games offers similarly transcendent moral experiences for people, in which you feel somehow innately replenished and intuitively wiser for having undergone the aesthetic experience itself. Why literature should have a privileged claim on moral value over these other aesthetic forms is, to me, a dubious notion, particularly given how much easier it is to access a work like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas than it is to work your way through the densely woven language of something like a Shakespearean sonnet. Given the amount of effort versus the relative reward garnered out of it, I’m taking Scorsese over Shakespeare every day of my already overworked week.

The second defense of literature that one often hears is not so much a defense at all, but actually a tacit acknowledgement that the battle has by and large already been lost for the written word. The argument generally goes that while literature may have fallen from its privileged place today, it was once an absolutely vital art form that stood at the very epicenter of the cultural life of entire eras of world civilization.

And to that point I would give a hardy and vigorous assent. Certainly, there was once a time when to be a writer meant to be a ferocious, powerful, and influential critic of your society’s most pressing social and moral problems. There was a time when literature was seen as the cultural sphere par-excellence in which social diagnosis, moral philosophy, and political visions of the future were to be articulated and debated at length.

The Writer as Influential Social and Spiritual Critic
The Writer as Social and Spiritual Critic

A lot of people often ask me: why did I decide to study something as specialized as Modern Chinese Literature? I often begin by telling them that modern Chinese history offers us one of the most complex, fascinating, and wide-ranging examples of radical revolutionary transformation ever recorded in human experience. Anyone interested in the historical problems of social justice, human enlightenment, and mass social transformation needs to understand the modern Chinese experience, which revolves around nothing short of the foundational dilemma of all politics itself: the collective yearning for a world in which human suffering would cease. The Chinese did not just yearn for such a world- they launched movements to actively bring it into being, a fraught process whose complex transformations are still being worked out today.

And literature- understood as a social praxis involving language, representation, and advocacy- was an integral part of the Chinese revolutionary experience. Literature was seen by modernizing intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, and Lu Xun as an aesthetic vehicle by which modern knowledge and values could be transmitted to a people who they judged to be in need of radical ontological change. Literature was to be the critical means by which the consciousness of an entire nation could be altered, and in which out of the dying embers of an overthrown Imperial order new, literate, critical citizens could emerge.

We thus find in the field of modern Chinese literature incisive treatments of issues such as the nation, citizenship, ethical responsibility, culture, gender, violence, community, happiness, sexuality, and individual liberation- that is, issues that stand at the heart of the experience of modernity itself. Literature- as space for cultural exploration, as weapon for devastating critique, as tool for pedagogical transmission- was critical to enacting, shaping, and critiquing the modern Chinese experience as such.

A critical understanding of the literature of modern China will thus inevitably entail a strong command of its modern history as well. Indeed, literature shaped that modern history as well as reflected and represented it. And much the same could probably be said for the role literature has played in modernizing processes in a plethora of countries, from England and Ireland to Turkey and Japan.

Literature as Cultural Force in the Modern Chinese Experience
Literature as Cultural Force in Modern China

Thus, it is entirely accurate for us to say that literature should be studied as a historical phenomenon because, in many ways, it lies at the heart of modern transformations in culture itself. A critical understanding of 19th and 20th century modernity will inevitably entail a rigorous study of literary form during those two centuries.

And yet to make this academic argument in favor of the study of literature is not the same thing as making a strong case for its vitality in our contemporary moment. Indeed, claiming literature has deep historical value is, in a way, to make the case against literature all that much stronger. For nobody would deny that literature is something that belongs to our history- it is of history, within history, apart of history.

But can it do anything of value in the present?

As the academic study of literature as a unique field of its own has blossomed over the last 60 years, proliferating across academic departments around North America and beyond, its contemporary relevance has faced the exact inverse fate, declining steadily across these same decades. This, I think, is an important principle to remember, to be held in the same esteem as the physical laws of the universe: as the academic celebration of something increases, its real-world influence actually declines. Thus as scholars tell us ever more about the vitality and importance of literature to world history, its actual historical influence in the here and now shrinks ever more.

It should come as no surprise then that the cultural forms that are most influential today- video games, youtube, music videos- barely have a presence in the rarefied zone of academic research. And I would argue that the fact that academics simply have no critical language to diagnose, shape, canonize, and discipline the proliferating fields of youtube, video games, and digital media of all kinds speaks to the tremendous power these cultural forms now have. That which has become an object of the historians gaze is something that is already past, something without unfolding momentum in the here and now. When we start making canons of youtube videos, they too may lose their momentum and be overtaken by new, undisciplined forms of mass culture that elude the intellectuals’ grasp all together.

So literature should be an object of vigorous historical study. But so far we have not come up with a single good reason for its ongoing relevance to our current cultural condition.

I urge readers of this article to write in submissions as to why they think literature has any real future in the 21st century. As I mentioned above, of course literature will continue onward, just as opera and classical music have, as somewhat anachronistic, relatively elitist art forms that have garnered state-subsidized support and academic enshrinement.

But can literature be vital once again? Can it be something that is of us. Of this time. Felt to be intuitively important, the way our Macbooks and our blogs and our twitter accounts feel alive and sparkling with the voices of the Occupy generation.

This is the question in front of us.

In part 2 of this series, I shall attempt to answer it.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he his integrating his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.

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