Reading expands our social imaginations and literary criticism can tell us why.
Since the beginning of my career I have worked extensively on issues concerning race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, in the context of modern thought and literature. As such, I have been challenged (by students, colleagues, institutional mandates, and other pressures) to demonstrate how literary criticism might contribute to an understanding of these world-making social fictions. This question has been made all the more poignant, on the one hand, by the strides in the natural and social science literature on these issues, and on the other, by the perceived crisis in humanities writ large and the role of literary studies in particular in contemporary education.
What is the power of a work of literature to affect a reader’s perception of his or her world?
When I began graduate school, there was a shared belief among a sizeable portion of the profession regarding the political efficacy of cultural critique. Throughout the late 1980s and into the ’90s, this excitement was manifested in the rock star status within literary criticism of a few academics, of whom Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Edward Said, and Fredric Jameson were the most prominent. But by the late 1990s the shine of these academic luminaries had faded, and the time of theory and its attendant methods seemed to be in retreat. In response we’ve seen a variety of new approaches that constitute nothing less than a field-wide search for method—from broadening the purview of the discipline (to include video games, graphic novels, and electronic media) to pioneering new methodologies (including the emergent field of quantitative literary analysis).
Yet not all literary critics have responded to the sense of crisis by looking beyond the traditional objects or boundaries of our discipline. Some have retrenched, turning their gaze inward, in order to advocate a kind of a “doing what we do, but doing it better.” The questions they raise are theoretical and methodological: What is the power of a work of literature to affect a reader’s perception of his or her world? How might a nuanced and insightful interpretation of a given text affect our perception of that text—and by extension, of the worlds it represents?
These questions are not new, but their answers have changed and taken on increased urgency in the context of a changing American society in which literacy about race and ethnicity will be more needed than ever. When it comes to understanding how significant social categories like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality structure individual experience and identity, as well as why it is necessary to appreciate and engage “worlds of sense” that are anchored in experiences and identities other than one’s own, there may be no more efficient and effective approach than the close reading of individual works of literature.
A close reading of a work of literature can serve as an excavation of, and a meditation on, the pervasive sociocultural ideas of the social worlds, as well as the worlds of sense, within which both authors and readers live.
A work of literature never represents society as it really is, but rather filters through a literary form the hopes, dreams, illusions, and (sometimes faulty or partial) knowledge of the author about that social world. And because authors are cultural beings, their hopes, dreams, illusions, and bodies of knowledge are not unique to themselves. Instead, those hopes and dreams engage—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively—the pervasive sociocultural ideas of the society within which an author lives.
This means that a close reading of a work of literature is not merely an encounter with the self; depending on how careful the reading is, and how willing readers are to have their received ideas challenged, it can also be an encounter with an other—even a radical other. A close reading of a work of literature—as with a film, a painting, or a piece of music—can thus serve as an excavation of, and a meditation on, the pervasive sociocultural ideas of the social worlds, as well as the worlds of sense, within which both authors and readers live.
The way literary criticism has figured the relationship between text and literary meaning has evolved over the latter half of the 20th century. From 1950 to 1980, literary meaning migrated from being located in objective features of the text, to being found in the interaction between the text and its reader, to being a function of the mind of the reader, and finally to being a result of the interpretive strategies that constitute meanings itself—what came to be known as reader-response criticism. In her contributions to a volume by that name, Jane P. Tompkins traced this theoretical shift and confidently declared that it was the “perception of language as a form of power” that promised the most for literary criticism’s future.
Writing now from the perspective of the second decade of the twenty-first century, I propose that we have followed Tompkins’s poststructuralist-influenced path about as far as it will go—for investigations into the relations between discourse and power have not provided the answers, solved the contradictions, or filled the void that set the process in motion in the first place. Literary critics need to step back, rethink the terms we have been using to conduct our investigations, and start over again from a different and slightly more self-conscious vantage point—one that incorporates the best insights from reader-response and the preceding formalist schools of critique with a re-tooled understanding of literary criticism’s relationship to science and the scientific method.
Instead of trying either to outdo scientists on the terrain of objectivity or to undermine the foundations of science by declaring scientific objectivity to be founded on the lie of language, instead of either claiming privileged status for literary language or denying the existence of any pre-discursive reality to which literary works refer, we would do well to develop more nuanced understandings of subjects (readers) and objects (texts), taking the time and the trouble to tease out the complicated and fascinating relationship between them.
Consider in this vein the work of social psychologist David Kidd, who in collaboration with his doctoral advisor, ran a series of experiments designed to show that reading literary fiction challenges readers cognitively in a way that might have potentially beneficial effects. Kidd found that reading literary fiction—as opposed to reading non-fiction, popular genre fiction, or nothing at all—improves a test subject’s ability to perform well on social psychological tests of both cognitive and affective theory of mind—a social psychological theory that posits an ability to attribute mental states to others as well as oneself, such that one understands that others might have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.
In explaining his findings, Kidd pointed to several features of literary fiction that might account for his results. He noted that literary fictions typically highlight human subjectivity and the existence of multiple perspectives while also requiring readers to integrate several streams of information at once. They frequently plunge readers into unfamiliar situations, requiring them to pay attention to types of people they might normally never encounter, or to interactions they might usually sail through without real engagement (as when they interact with a cashier at the grocery store).
Such features, Kidd suggested, might have the effect of interrupting readers’ taken-for-granted social scripts and of disrupting readers’ customary egocentrism. They might, as a result, have oriented his test subjects outward to other people, in effect priming them to do better on the tests they had to complete immediately after finishing their reading assignments. The implication is that reading literary fiction might enhance a person’s ability to accurately discern other people’s feelings and intentions in the real world outside literature—a skill that is central to the successful navigation of complex social relationships in a multifaceted multicultural world like our own.
BEYOND THE TEXT:Paula Moya on Multicultural Literature
By representing the interconnected lives of different characters that are all negotiating multiple and overlapping structures of power and privilege, a good work of literature can suggest to its readers how race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality constrain and enable characters’ bodies, behaviors, and ideologies. In this way, some works of literature allow a reader to perceive (or a literary critic to analyze) the way race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality actually matter—both in the sense of being important and meaningful and in the sense of becoming materialized in individual lives.
Literature does not just take up space on our bedside table; rather, it drags us down or lifts us up, altering our moods, pulling on our attention, and exciting our feelings. It orients readers in new directions and enriches their schemas for interpreting both the fictional social worlds they enter temporarily and the real everyday social worlds in which they live. Occasionally, the work of literature “changes our lives,” motivating readers to the kinds of concrete actions that bring profound changes in their life possibilities. Unless literary critics attend to the way works of literature can both figuratively and literally “move” us, they miss something essential about the thing itself.
As artifacts of the imagination, literary works are by their very nature engaged in imagining ways of being in the world. Sometimes they do it by depicting social worlds that look very similar to our own, with characters that are similar to people we know; sometimes they do it by depicting worlds and characters that are wholly alien to us. Whether a work of literature is realistic or fantastical, despairing or hopeful, it is almost always an ethical engagement with some past, future, familiar, or foreign social world. However convoluted and mediated the referential relationships among authors, texts, worlds, and readers may be, a good close reading of a literary work can help us understand something important about the way we humans make meaning about ourselves and the worlds in which we live. Describing our relationship to these worlds through the process of making meaning, as I have, underscores nothing less than the workings of the social imperative.
This post is adapted from The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literature by Paula M. L. Moya.
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