Essays

“How literature became literacy – the sociological turn and its consequences’.

Stefan Hertmans, Mangalia, Romania, June 10th 2008
When Peter Sloterdijk published his ‘Regeln für den Menschenpark’ (Regulations for the human Park) in 1999, it caused a huge scandal among progressive intellectuals. It was read as the betrayal of a left philosopher who cynically put forward that the humanistic culture had come to an end, and that literature did not play any role any more in the organisation of society. Sloterdijks provocation lay in the fact that, just like Michel Houellebecq, he saw genetic engineering and genetics in general as the creation of a post humanistic type of human being who would not longer be educated by letters but by scientific and genetic improvement.
Literature and philosophy had dominated for millennia (before that cultural domination, war and self-protection dominated societies), and books had been an instrument for the improvement of the so-called human ‘park’. Sparta was the model of the former type of military society, Athens for the rise of written cultures. In fact Sloterdijk was formulating a reply to Heideggers ‘Brief über den Humanismus’ from 1946, in which the philosopher of Being and Time explained to his friend Jean Beaufret what humanism could mean in the light of Sartes existentialist politics, in the era of late modernism. Literature was a form af engagement, even a form of counter-ideology and it could play a role in emancipatory movements, as it still does for example broadly in the Latin-American societies. While Heidegger still believed that the meaning of poets in a society which is constantly being dominated by forgetfulness of true being was crucial, Sloterdijk saw in the advent of genetic technologies a new type of post-cultural society, that did not improve itself by books, but by chemics. It is strange that this argument shocked the progressives altogether, because Michel Foucault had said about the same thing in the famous last phrase of his most well-known book, Les mots et les choses, where he puts that the humanistic type had been a rhetorical figure since a few centuries and that this figure would disappear like a face drawn in the sand by the sea.
That the progressive elite was so shocked, proved that they still had in mind a society in which literature was the instrument of emancipation. Of course this belief was crucial for the generation of May 68, who linked literature and ideology directly, mostly in the line of the Frankfurt School philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. To put it in the historical words of the latter, man would become one-dimensional in late capitalistic societies. This belief, that mass culture could only be saved from triviality by literature, explains the contradictory fact that literature has become more trivial than ever, because, to be omni-present, it had to adapt itself to the mechanism of consumerism. It has indeed been, as part of the heritage of may 68 progressive elites, omnipresent in newspapers, radio, cultural activities in cities with problem areas, it has been on television, and literary prices have got quite some Barnum & Bailey glitter the last decades. But, and this is remarkable, everybody complains that literature disappears gradually. It does, of course, disappear from television screens, but it reappeared on the internet. So what is the problem? Was Sloterdijk being too pessimistic? Is this lament itself a sort of masochism of the elite?

I started studying at the university in the early seventies, when sociology was new and fashionable. Sociology was at first a sort of brand of anthropology and ethics, and it had an outspoken leftist progressive and emancipatory character. It was hip to do cultural studies of all sorts, and the rise of feminism, for instance, was largely due to the “scientification” of the first sociological models. Sociology gradually got impact on the totality of the philosophy and literature departments. Young researchers quarrelled with their older professors because they found that the meticulous analyses of structuralism and traditional hermeneutics focused too one-dimensionally on the object of the work of art, and not enough on its context and reception. We can say that literature departments were dominated by production-analysis, and that the sociological turn introduced on a huge scale the reception-analysis. This sway from object analysis to subject analysis caused a real flood of subjectivations in the study of literature, and it made clear how literature studies had won social interest and care. It won a place on the public agora, and was more intensely linked to psychology, ethics and cultural studies as well. We can say that this sociological rise in the western studies in literature and philologies was outspokenly post-Marxist.
Now the paradox of the story is, that exactly this post-Marxist mechanism of reception aesthetics suited perfectly to the post-industrial, high capitalistic economies, so that literatures, being leftist and emancipatory, could easily slide with the commercialisation because of their concern for the question how books were received, who read them, who did not and why they weren’t interested, and how people could be brought to read more books. Literature had to become client-friendly and anti-elitist.
In other words: the progressive post Marxist ideas in the leftist elite concerning democratic culture were one of the causes of the capitalistic commercialisation of literatures.
Moreover, the sociological turn caused us to write and think about food, design, hairdressers, fashion and sports as integral active elements of culture, so that newspapers who traditionally had reviewed literary books, started reviewing books on all possible domains of post-modern culture. In the last decades, we saw a gradual disappearing of the classical literary review by the sociologically inspired books. In certain media, it is told to journalists that writing about style, content, structure is not done in the media, that it is something for the universities and that it is elitist. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that in the Dutch speaking area literary reviews in newspapers are constantly under the domination of the sociological values, and less and less under the intrinsic artistic values, which are considered as old fashioned and certainly not hip, in fact not done. Literature had become a literacy, but you could as well quote from Madonna, Maradonna instead of Derrida. More, I once read in a progressive Flemish newspaper that anyone who was not interested in football, could no longer consider himself as an intellectual.
What we in university colleges and universities expect from students, is no longer that they analyse, but that they put in a sociological context. Context analysis has mainly taken over from text analysis.
Considering this sociological-contextual turn in literature studies, we see that it seems to connect quite evidently with the thesis of Peter Sloterdijk concerning post humanistic societies. The cry for more political engagement has led to the cry for more commitment concerning everyday themes, so that realism became the dominant discourse and the dominant criterion for evaluation of novels, for instance. We could also call this turn a journalistic turn. More and more novels are based on research, tackle ‘realistic’ plots or try to change the public attitude concerning certain problems. It is far from us to lament this aspect of social commitment, but it has marginalized the aesthetic discourses and its tradition of reading. Post-modern form has very often (not always) become an instrument of content, whereas all great modernist writing was based on the experiments with form. Aesthetic experiment is now seen as an old fashioned, elitist mannerist criterion, so that form has to become invisible. The irritation with form in today’s literary critique is a sign of the longing for smoothness of consumerism. Today’s literature seems still to bear the function of the regulation of the human park, maybe more than ever, but it is not certain if it still carries the responsibility of aesthetical emancipation. To my opinion, this explains largely the marginalisation of poetry in western late capitalistic societies as well, because it is the literary form which functions most outspokenly as aesthetical, non-functional text production.
© Stefan Hertmans

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