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Literary Studies in the age of "Productivity"

Verita Sriratana on why we should study literature in the age of capitalist "productivity," and how literature can, at a time of human rights crises, empower us to be the change we want to see.

What is literary studies?

Literary studies is a field where we analyse and interpret stories, mostly in the form of written texts, through a set of methods and theoretical frameworks. Doing so enables us readers to examine and understand diverse aspects of human experience. Critical analysis of literary works enable us to investigate and interpret history, race, class, gender, politics, economics, social issues, religion, and the natural world.

I strongly believe it is imperative that universities preserve this field of study precisely because we live in a world shaped and driven by many narratives which attempt to construct and contribute to an absolute and universal account to values, social customs, experiences and historical events with the sole aim of legitimising power. Such is what Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge calls metanarrative (or grand narrative).

According to his observation, the postmodern condition entails being sceptical towards metanarratives. Literary studies, by strengthening our abilities to read, dissect, interpret and rewrite texts, propels us to think, question and challenge such discourses and narratives concocted and appropriated to sustain power and authority.

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are examples of literary texts which expose the inevitable failure of all metanarratives in the context of India and also beyond – particularly those inflicting epistemic violence on certain groups of people in the name of caste, class, nation and religion. Life and its complexities as well as fluidity of love and desires will always transcend the rigidly constructed partitions meant to wall certain group of people in and certain group of people out as well as expose the artificiality of what Roy calls “Love Laws” which label and force individuals into pigeonholes of caste, sex, religion and nationality in order to regulate “who should be loved, and how. And how much."

Literature and human rights

Instead of trying to match human experience with the language of law, covenants and declarations, Homi K. Bhabha calls upon a new language and reading of human rights which put on centre stage human emotions and sufferings or, in other words, “negative politics”. In his keynote speech entitled “On Writing and Rights: Some Thoughts on the Culture of Human Rights” (2010), Bhabha argues that arts and humanities can enhance our perspective on human rights. Instead of focusing on seeking solutions to human rights violation only on the level of institutions typical of legal and political approaches, we should try to use our imagination to reach out and give voices to the lives of others. This can be done through interpretation of life experience in and through literary texts. Instead of applying the universality and perfectibility of human rights as well as “letter of Law” as the ultimate framework into which we try to fit human sufferings, we should turn to what Bhabha terms the “affective realm of human degradation from which is born the political will to resist and challenge” and place love – through our analysis and appreciation of complex human experiences in literature – within the loveless realm of law.

The affective turn in human rights can be found in the humanities, where literary scholars articulate their small and particular hopes for freedom and fairness in society. Doing so can lead to the slow and gradual bolstering of human rights in becoming and thereby contribute to a sense of community and citizenship which transcend time, place, legal status and social standing.

Olga Tokarczuk’s intentionally fragmented “constellation novel”, Bieguni, or Flights, contains stories which feature women, LGBTQINA+ and other historically excluded individuals who lived, loved and suffered silently. From the story of Angelo Soliman, a real historical figure subjected to colonial museumisation whose skinned and stuffed body was put on display in a cabinet of curiosities, as told through the eyes of his obscure daughter, to the fictional daughter of the famous Dutch professor of anatomy Frederik Ruysch, who yearns to cross-dress and embark on a new adventure disguised as a sailor, Tokarczuk’s stories, for me, form creative platform for imagining the lives and sufferings of the subaltern groups.

Is literary studies "productive"?

I think we need to ask two related questions: what do you mean by “productive” and which standard or criteria do you use to measure such “productivity”? If by “productive” you mean the production of services and commodities measured by the number of workers and the resources necessary to produce them, then literary studies may not be quite a “productive field” as you said. However, if by “productive” you mean the proliferation of thoughts and emotions as well as private reflections which can propel political actions measured by how a single book can be diversely read, adapted, translated and interpreted, then literary studies is one of the most productive of fields.

Teju Cole asserts in his article entitled “Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation” that, though literature cannot really stop the war and create empathy, it can nevertheless (may I add – productively) save lives – perhaps one at a time when an individual seeks consolation from written words – and it is all that matters. Saving one life can lead to saving more lives.

I would like to emphasise the importance of literary criticism, which, instead of being seen as strictly consigned to the internal research of literature as many believe, can be seen as helping to enhance and transcend the field of literary studies. Much has been said about deconstruction so I will focus on Marxist thinkers and their take on literature and productivity. Louis Althusser views the cognition gained from literature as a kind of production and, hence, a kind of productivity. His concept of “symptomatic reading” encourages revelation and analysis of the presuppositions, or underlying information which tends to be taken for granted, inherent in any work of literature. According to Althusser, literary studies helps trace the “symptoms” of ideological conviction which shapes and represses a particular work of literature.

An example will be how analysis of literary works like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and examination of the book’s censorship history can shed light to the symptoms of oppression where LGBTQINA+ persons are repressed by patriarchy and heteronormative values. Inspired by Althusser, Fredric Jameson propounds in The Political Unconscious, that all works of literature have the power to infiltrate unconscious ideology. If we define productivity as the generation and regeneration of ideas and actions inspired by the self-generating activities of reading, interpreting and recreating literary works, we can then say that literary studies is impressively productive and should be supported in education institutions of all levels.  

I would also like to refer to critics of literary studies in order to give a fair picture of how this field of studies is perceived (as I am well aware of my privilege as a literary studies scholar and of my own prejudice). American literary theorist Stanley Fish is my personal reminder of the fact that subversive readings done in the confines of narrow disciplinary discourse will not result in any change. As a pragmatist, Fish urges literary scholars to speak in a public language and communicate to the larger community if they wish to effect real political change.

The late bell hooks, whom I greatly admire, argues strongly that literacy should be a feminist agenda because the lack of reading, writing and critical thinking have successfully excluded many from building and sharing feminist consciousness. She criticises the class standpoint within the feminist movement as leading to a disrespect for and undermining of the politics of reading and writing. At first glance, you may say that bell hooks and her prioritising of reading and writing literary works renders her a perfect reference point for any “apology/apologetics for literary studies”.

However, one should take into account that hooks is sceptical towards literary criticism: “Literary criticism doesn’t participate as much as I would like it to in creating a critical reader, in educating people for critical consciousness”. I have to admit that I was disappointed to learn of bell hooks’s views on literary studies. However, I have come to understand that what bell hooks is highly critical of is not the field of literary studies per se but that which is looking down from the suffocating and self-congratulating ivory towers of academia. 

Both Stanley Fish and bell hooks propel me to see how literary studies can potentially be a subversive field only if and when literary scholars reach out to the public and engage in political activism as human rights defenders. In my opinion, living the life of a scholar-activist is the only way for a university lecturer and researcher like myself to become an agent of the change she wants to see.

Finding empowerment in reading

Rereading Albert Camus’s La Peste, or The Plague, during the pandemic crisis, I fish out my favourite quotation which I find hard at certain times to agree with: “et pour dire simplement ce qu'on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu'il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser” [“and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”]. Many a times, I debate not only with Albert Camus, but also with myself and my interpretation of Camus’s work against the backdrop of recent dysfunctional vaccination policies as well as against the self-serving and profit-making doctors whose deeds and behaviour cast them as Dr Bernard Rieux’s total opposite.

Coping with authoritarian regime, are there more things to despise in men than to admire? Definitely. But literary studies can also offer solace as well as critical space where I can constantly rethink and revise my own wretched inversion of Camus’s most hopeful and humane quotation. I see hope in my students and fellow human rights defenders who try their best to make small and gradual steps towards change. Walking alongside them on the streets, there are, indeed, “more things to admire in men than to despise”. Camus can be right once again, for now.

Having drawn strength from literature, I believe that all literary texts, including their reception and criticisms, can help to enhance our understanding of equality and human rights. I would suggest that we read, interpret and discuss as many literary texts as possible in our lifetime. I would also suggest that we turn to literature to care for and strengthen our own selves before reaching out to others in our attempt to rethink – so as to fortify – equality and human rights. Human rights language can be enriched by our attempt to imagine the lives of historically excluded others as well as deconstruct the perfection and universality of human rights as a concept. Literature can humbly save one life at a time in order for that saved life to reach out and save another. Readers and critics contribute to the productivity of literature.

To conclude, I turn to Percy Bysshe Shelley who, in “A Defence of Poetry”, expresses his firm belief that poets – creators of literary works – are philosophers and “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. It is high time we acknowledged writers and critics for their lasting impact on our society.

Give literature and literature courses a chance and they will, in return, give you a chance to become the change you would like see in our country.

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