Saturday, October 22, 2005

Is literature conservative?

Jonathan on his politically wary colleagues:
They worry that literature itself is a conservative thing. That is, they view the object of study itself as somehow suspect, infused with conservative baggage that it is their task to be suspicious of.
If I'm understanding this statement correctly, it's a little different from the subsequent discussion over at Bemsha Swing, which is about the relationship between the politics of the author and the politics of reading his/her work. Since a) we can find plenty of authors who are politically on the left and b) there's no reason you can't read a "reactionary" author in a "radical" way, I don't think that discussion quite gets at the issue.

The question, rather, seems to be whether there is something inherently conservative about the act of studying literature, or maybe even about the idea of "literature" itself. I can think of a few possible responses to this:

Academic answer #1: Yes, and no. The idea of studying literature is inherently conservative in the simple sense that it seeks to "conserve" something: old texts by dead writers. It's also backward-looking, in the sense that literary study as we now do it involves at least nominally placing a work in some kind of tradition that extends backward in time. This doesn't necessarily have to be associated with the political right (one could, say, be attempting to conserve the radical viewpoints of earlier writers), although today it often is (e.g. in attempts to defend "Western culture" in the curriculum). Essentially, though, literature, in this understanding, is relatively independent of political values.

Academic answer #2: Maybe. This answer is premised on the idea that #1-style conservatism is, in fact, political and not just curatorial. The teaching of literature, and its perpetuation of a limited "canon" of great works, can enshrine reactionary, nationalist, racist, and sexist values by aestheticizing them. It may be possible, though, by opening up the canon (to women, writers of color, gay and lesbian writers, and across national borders) and questioning its status, to mitigate some of these tendencies and to inculcate values seen as more progressive.

Academic answer #3: No. This one's based on the idea that studying literature is a form of "critical thinking," which anyone who's ever read a student evaluation form knows is supposed to be one of the main goals of a college education these days. Critical thinking, one assumes, is supposed to give on the ability to detect propaganda, lies, and malarkey of all kinds, but I would guess that in the current political and cultural climate the ability to read language carefully and to remain skeptical of the texts produced by corporations, governments, and media would be a skill more closely identified with the left than the right. (Literary study, in this model, has little or nothing to do with maintaining a tradition or body of texts; you can "critically read" anything, including New York Times articles and cereal boxes.)

Cultural capital answer: Yes. In its academic version, this is based on the idea that the study of literature is a way for powerful groups to extend their power into the cultural realm; literary "value" becomes an element of class domination. In its popular version, this is the idea that studying literature is an elitist and snobbish pursuit.

Materialist answer #1: Yes. Literature is ideological; it provides a timeless fiction of reconciliation that conceals or even justifies socioeconomic domination. Literature, at least in its conventional venues of the academy and mainstream publishing, is either merely a commodity or a distraction from the real work of organizing and direct political action.

Materialist answer #2 (via the Frankfurt School, I suppose): No. Literature's autonomy from social life, far from being ideological escapism, actually gives it enormous value in its critical distance from the relentless logic of capital and domination. Literary value can, at least momentarily, escape commodification, and great literary works (when read properly) can provide a critique of society as rigorous as that of critical theory.

I note that none of these answers (with the possible exception of academic answer #2) depends all that much on which texts are being taught; they have much more to do with the institutional status of literature and what its general social function is.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I've struggled with this question off and on myself (what politically progressive lit scholar hasn't?), and I think this is mostly right on, but I've got a couple beefs/additions.

The "Materialist answer #1" sounds like a caricature of a Depression-era wobbly. The tradition of theories about realism--Lenin, Lukacs, Bakhtin, Jameson--sees literature as bourgeois, but not necessarily reactionary or conservative. The idea is that realist literature is the only form of writing that can reveal certain kinds of social relations. The demands of realistic narrative form, that is, can actually disrupt ideological beliefs by demonstrating that they are inadequate descriptions of reality. I add this because it is a view of (certain) literature as anti-ideological, but also very different from the Frankfurt school critics.

The other thing is cultural capital. I think one of John Guillory's most important insights is that "the canon" almost nowhere represents the values that its conservative defenders attach to it. That is, the progressive thing to do with the canon is precisely the "critical reading" thing, where it is easily demonstrated that the so-called Western Tradition is anything but a unified set of ideas and principles. E.g., the family values set probably does not endorse the act of dragging the body of one's slain enemy around the walls of Troy (this may be too generous. I don't know). So, unlike other kinds of cultural capital (say, designer clothing), literary "commodities" can be a great deal more than signs of distinction and affiliation.