On the problematics of studying a national literature

This is a tentative and rather hurried presentation of this issue: I'll try to get back to it. As I was preparing a new course, the first one dealing specifically with a national literature which I have taught for some time, I realized I wasn't sure, myself, of what I was doing in teaching a 'national literature'. — Professor John Lye January 7, 2002.

In what way can we say that the literature represents, or articulates the values and concerns, of the culture? This is a very complex area, and I just want to present some categories of consideration.

  1. the relation of 'literature' to the culture. What we think of as literature is a mode of writing which derives from and refers to texts and textual traditions which are not immediately in contact with the life of the vast majority of people in the culture. When education was largely an education in letters, there was more potential connection than there is now, but even that was relatively slight. Some considerations are the following:

    1. the location of literature in a particular class. Insofar as literature is socially located, it is located in the social segment, and in the practices in that segment, which controls the definitions of literature in two ways - through what gets circulated and treated as literature and through what gets archived and taught as literature. By "in the practices of that segment" I mean to indicate this: that even were we to say, "literature is socially located in that segment of the culture known as the intelligentsia" this would not be accurate enough, as it is really located in that segment insofar as, and as, they are 'doing' literary conversation and culture.

    2. the location of literature in a particular region. There are various traditions of literature in various regions, and the relation of literature to society in every other way mentioned here may vary.

    3. the location of literature and literary meaning in a specific institutionalized activity of the lettered class. Like any other institution, literature is embodied in specific practices of people fulfilling specific roles, using specific resources, and following specific norms, and it is embodied literally, that is, it exists insofar as, and when, people engage in those practices and roles, using those resources with those norms. While the resonance of that activity may arise in and inflect the thoughts of those particular people when they are engaged in other practices in other areas of life, they are, one might say, in a different space. Even university professors only subject space operas or police procedurals to critical analysis when they are reading them with a view to critically analyze them; otherwise they (and more of them than you might think) read them for fun.

    4. the conception of the artist and the artist's relation to the culture. Who the artist thinks she is, and what she thinks art is, will impact on the way that the art relates to elements of the culture, how it does so, and how it is received as doing so. Again, an artist is part of a social formation, and is as well writing for a particular audience which will have (or which she will project as having) certain expectations.

    5. the larger social understanding of what literature is for, and the related way in which it is received, read, circulated in society. There are a number of ways in which this affects the relation of art to society: on the production side, first, as the artist has and is aware of certain expectations and second, as those who distribute the art, usually for money, will reward certain behaviors; on the reception side, as the effect that art has on society and consequently the way it is written for society will vary with the practices of consumption and the expectations of the audience.

    6. the genre of the work and its place in the cultural milieu. Different genres have different relations to the social formation, as for instance fiction and poetry do.

    7. the categorizations of literature. We have, for instance, "high" and "middlebrow" and "popular" and "pulp" and "genre" fiction: each of these general categories will tend to relate differently to the culture - in fact different genres of genre fiction for instance might well relate differently, perform different social functions.

  2. The general question as to how a specific cultural form can represent or reflect or embody the values and ideals and practices of a culture. One may, for instance, be able to 'read out' certain ideals from a literatures; or one may be able to see that certain typical themes treated in certain typical ways disclose a preoccupation or anxiety or crisis of understanding of the culture; or one may be able to see in the mode of the literature, in the way it represents experience, a certain set of ideas and a certain imagination of the world; or one may be able to see in the gaps of the literature, in what is covered over or obscured, traces of the ideology of the culture. Whole genres might be dependent on the way in which the culture imagines the world, as what we think of as realism, if it existed at all, existed before the enlightenment only in comic forms.

  3. These variations of possibility are made more complex by the general hermeneutic problem. The hermeneutic problem can be summed up in two ways, in brief. First, we don't really know where meaning resides. See my web page on The Problem of Meaning. Second, there is the encoding/decoding problem: any text is generated within a certain meaning-frame, and is generally decoded within another meaning frame. So we have to recuperate the meaning-frame of the production of the text in order to have a sense that we are reading what the people of the time may have understood that they were reading (and writing).

  4. The encoding/decoding problem takes us back to the relation of literature to society in 1. above in this way, that the uses that particular readers, individually or within particular social sub-groups, make of a text may be quite different from the meanings that other sub-groups make, or that the artist may have imagined that they would make.