Reading : Material Culture :: Chicken : Egg

A few weeks ago Matthew Wilkens posed a question reaching to the heart of my interdisciplinary project:

A question I’m sure you’ve already gotten many times and likely will many more in the future: To what extent is this kind of work meaningfully understood under the rubric “literary criticism” at all, as opposed to literary-themed sociology and/or the business of literature? … [I]t seems to me that the line between the English department and the sociology department or the business school probably falls somewhere around whether you want to explain the features of particular texts by reference to social/cultural/economic factors, or explain socioeconomic effects by way of book-related networks. So … which is it?

As I replied then, the answer is a bit of both, but I think I ought to expand on that a little more. I am particularly interested in literature as a social phenomenon, and not just an individual experience. Reading can have extremely powerful transformative effects on the individual, of course, and those changes can impact whole categories of interaction and cultural thought. I believe that the authors who have been most successful both commercially and critically are particularly gifted at recasting the operations of our reading minds. Not only does reading Pynchon or Morrison enlighten, entertain and at times frustrate, it also changes how we think about fundamental planks in the social structures holding us together, like ideas of race or communication.

That said, I hasten to add that I don’t think of this project as an economic story or a business school case study. I don’t think these authors set out to get rich and decided that writing novels was the way to do it. Nor do I believe that they are motivated by a quest for recognition or a conscious desire to change how people think, though I do think those motivations are intrinsic to almost all of us to some degree.

Instead, I think of this as a literary approach to the question of reading. If the humanities must show their worth, there is no better way to do it than to reveal the structures of connection and thought that define us as cultural beings, to show how those structures are changing, and to consider the many and expanding ways in which we read and write the cultural landscape. Contemporary literature is an exciting, complicated field to work on, and it takes an interdisciplinary approach to map out the connections between different kinds of cultural authority, changing modes of readership/criticism/authorship and the abiding power of literature to convey human experience at a deeper level than any other medium.

In short, I don’t think there’s a one-directional causal force at work here. These ideational networks of texts, ideas and people are messy, provisional things that generally influence us in subtle, if pervasive, ways. I’ll be doing some close reading, and also trying to think about how others do their close reading, and how we read and evaluate culture collectively.