Uses of Literature
📖 eBook - ePub

Uses of Literature

Rita Felski

Share book
ePUB (mobile friendly)
Available on iOS & Android
📖 eBook - ePub

Uses of Literature

Rita Felski

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

Uses of Literature bridges the gap between literary theory and common-sense beliefs about why we read literature.

  • Explores the diverse motives and mysteries of why we read
  • Offers four different ways of thinking about why we read literature - for recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock
  • Argues for a new "phenomenology" in literary studies that incorporates the historical and social dimensions of reading
  • Includes examples of literature from a wide range of national literary traditions

Access to over 1 million titles for a fair monthly price.

Study more efficiently using our study tools.


What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book? The experience seems at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious. While turning a page I am arrested by a compelling description, a constellation of events, a conversation between characters, an interior monologue. Suddenly and without warning, a flash of connection leaps across the gap between text and reader; an affinity or an attunement is brought to light. I may be looking for such a moment, or I may stumble on it haphazardly, startled by the prescience of a certain combination of words. In either case, I feel myself addressed, summoned, called to account: I cannot help seeing traces of myself in the pages I am reading. Indisputably, something has changed; my perspective has shifted; I see something that I did not see before.
Novels yield up manifold descriptions of such moments of readjustment, as fictional readers are wrenched out of their circumstances by the force of written words. Think of Thomas Buddenbrook opening up the work of Schopenhauer and being intoxicated by a system of ideas that casts his life in a bewildering new light. Or Stephen Gordon, in The Well of Loneliness, stunned to discover that her desire to be a man and love a woman is not without precedent after stumbling across the works of Krafft-Ebing in her father’s library. Such episodes show readers becoming absorbed in scripts that confound their sense of who and what they are. They come to see themselves differently by gazing outward rather than inward, by deciphering ink marks on a page.
Often it is a work of fiction that triggers fervent self-scrutiny. The Picture of Dorian Gray describes Dorian’s infatuation with a book that is usually assumed to be J. K. Huysmans’ decadent manifesto, Against Nature. “The hero, the wonderful young Parisian, in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended, became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.”1 Here recognition is not retrospective but anticipatory: the fictional work foreshadows what Dorian will become, the potential that lies dormant but has not yet come to light. And a hundred years later, the young narrator of Pankaj Mishra’s novel The Romantics, a student living in Benares, develops an obsession with Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, noting that “the protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, seemed to mirror my own self-image with his large, passionate, but imprecise longings, his indecisiveness, his aimlessness, his self-contempt.”2 Interleaving Flaubert’s words with his own, Mishra writes back to those who would indict canonical texts for turning Indians into would-be Europeans, suggesting that a more intricate and multi-layered encounter is taking place.
These vignettes of recognition, to be sure, are plucked from disparate, even disjunctive, literary worlds. The Well of Loneliness leaves its readers in no doubt that a momentous discovery has taken place; whatever our view of sexology, we are asked to believe that Stephen Gordon has arrived at a crucial insight about her place in the world. An impasse has been breached, something has been laid bare, a truth has been uncovered. Elsewhere, the moment of recognition is so thickly leavened with irony as to leave us uncertain whether self-knowledge has been gained or lost. Does Dorian come to fathom something of his deepest inclinations and desires, or is he simply seduced by the glamor of a fashionable book, lured into imitating an imitation in an endless hall of mirrors? Surely this particular moment of self-apprehension is thorough qualified by Wilde’s own leanings towards theatricality and artifice, his rendering of Dorian as a pastiche of the desires and words of others. And yet, if we, as readers, are made aware of a more general impressionability and susceptibility to imitation through Dorian’s response, has an act of recognition not nevertheless taken place?
Taken together, these examples point to the perplexing and paradoxical nature of recognition. Simultaneously reassuring and unnerving, it brings together likeness and difference in one fell swoop. When we recognize something, we literally “know it again”; we make sense of what is unfamiliar by fitting it into an existing scheme, linking it to what we already know. Yet, as Gadamer points out, “the joy of recognition is rather the joy of knowing more than is already familiar.”3 Recognition is not repetition; it denotes not just the previously known, but the becoming known. Something that may have been sensed in a vague, diffuse, or semi-conscious way now takes on a distinct shape, is amplified, heightened, or made newly visible. In a mobile interplay of exteriority and interiority, something that exists outside of me inspires a revised or altered sense of who I am.
That the novel should brood over its own effects is far from surprising, given its intimate and intricate implication in the history of the self. One of its most persistent plots describes a hero launching himself on a process of self-exploration while puzzling over what shape and form his life should take. For Charles Taylor and Anthony Giddens, this idea of selfhood as an unfolding and open-ended project, what Taylor calls the impulse toward self-fashioning, crystallizes a distinctively modern sense of identity. Cut loose from the bonds of tradition and rigid social hierarchies, individuals are called to the burdensome freedom of choreographing their life and endowing it with a purpose. As selfhood becomes self-reflexive, literature comes to assume a crucial role in exploring what it means to be a person. The novel, especially, embraces a heightened psychological awareness, meditating on the murky depths of motive and desire, seeking to map the elusive currents and by-ways of consciousness, highlighting countless connections and conflicts between self-determination and socialization. Depicting characters engaged in introspection and soul-searching, it encourages its readers to engage in similar acts of self-scrutiny. It speaks to a distinctively modern sense of individuality – what one critic calls improvisational subjectivity – yet this very conviction of personal uniqueness and interior depth is infused by the ideas of others.4 One learns how to be oneself by taking one’s cue from others who are doing the same. From the tormented effusions of young Werther to the elegiac reflections of Mrs. Dalloway, the novel spins out endless modulations on the theme of subjectivity.
Cultural history as well as casual conversation suggest that recognition is a common event while reading and a powerful motive for reading. Proust famously observes that
every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.5
This coupling of reading with self-scrutiny has acquired renewed vigor and intensity in recent decades, as women and minorities found literature an especially pertinent medium for parsing the complexities of personhood. And yet, even as recognition pervades practices of reading and interpretation, theoretical engagement with recognition is hedged round with prohibitions and taboos, often spurned as unseemly, even shameful, seen as the equivalent of a suicidal plunge into unprofessional naïveté. Isn’t it the ultimate form of narcissism to think that a book is really about me? Isn’t there something excruciatingly self-serving about reading a literary work as an allegory of one’s own dilemmas and personal difficulties? And don’t we risk trivializing and limiting the realm of art once we start turning texts into mirrors of ourselves?
This wariness of recognition has been boosted by the recent impact of Levinas on literary studies. As an advocate of otherness, Levinas warns against the hubris of thinking that we can ultimately come to understand that which is different or strange. Ethics means accepting the mysteriousness of the other, its resistance to conceptual schemes; it means learning to relinquish our own desire to know. Seeking to link a literary work to one’s own life is a threat to its irreducible singularity. For theorists weaned on the language of alterity and difference, the mere mention of recognition is likely to inspire raised eyebrows. To recognize is not just to trivialize but also to colonize; it is a sign of narcissistic self-duplication, a scandalous solipsism, an imperious expansion of a subjectivity that seeks to appropriate otherness by turning everything into a version of itself.
If the idea of recognition is acknowledged at all in literary theory, it is to be alchemized – via the reagent of Lacan or Althusser – into a state of misrecognition. We owe to these thinkers two celebrated fables of self-deception. Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage conjures up the scenario of a small child gazing into the mirror, mesmerized by his own image. Thanks to the reflecting power of a glass surface – or the encouraging, imitative gestures of the mother-as-mirror – he comes to acquire a nascent sense of self. What was previously inchoate starts to coalesce into a unity as the child realizes that he is that image reflected back by the sheen of the mirror. Yet this moment of recognition is illusory, the first of many such moments of misapprehension. Not only does the image of the self originate outside the self, but the seemingly substantial figure that looks back from the mirror belies the void that lies at the heart of identity. Lacan’s subject is essentially hollow, a spectral figure that epitomizes the sheer impossibility of ever knowing the self.
For Althusser, the seminal instance of misrecognition takes place on the street, at the moment of what he calls interpellation or hailing. As I am walking along, I hear a police officer calling out “hey, you there!” somewhere behind me. In the very act of turning around, of feeling myself addressed by this generic summons, I am created as a subject. I acknowledge my existence as an individual, as someone bound by the law. To recognize oneself as a subject is to thus to accede to one’s own subjection; the self believes itself to be free yet is everywhere in chains. One’s personhood has a sheer obviousness about it as a self-evident reality that demands to be recognized. Yet this very obviousness renders it the essence of ideology, the quintessential means by which politics does its work. It is via the snare of a fictional subjectivity that individuals are folded into the state apparatus and rendered acquiescent to the status quo.
Over the last thirty years these modest anecdotes have acquired the status of premonitory parables underscoring the illusoriness of self-knowledge. Whether the work of fiction is analogous to the mirror or the police, it seeks to lull readers into a misapprehension of their existence as unified, autonomous individuals. Storytelling and the aesthetics of realism are deeply implicated in this process of misrecognition because identifying with characters is a key mechanism through which we are drawn into believing in the essential reality of persons. The role of criticism is to interrogate such fictions of selfhood; the political quiescence built into the structure of recognition must give way to a slash-and-burn interrogation of the notion of identity. Here we see the hermeneutics of suspicion cranked up to its highest level in the conviction that our everyday intuitions about persons are mystified all the way down.
That acts of misrecognition occur is not, of course, open to dispute. Who would want to deny that people deceive themselves as to their own desires or interests, that we frequently misjudge exactly who or what we are? Literary texts often serve as comprehensive compendia of such moments of fallibility, underscoring the sheer impossibility of self-transparency. Tragedy is a genre famously pre-occupied with documenting the catastrophic consequences of failing to know oneself or others. And what are the novels of Austen, Eliot, or James if not testimonies to the excruciating ubiquity of misperception and false apprehension? Yet the idea of misrecognition presumes and enfolds its antithesis. In the sheer force of its judgment, it implies that a less flawed perception can be attained, that our assessments can be scrutinized and found wanting. If self-deception is hailed as the inescapable ground of subjectivity, however, it is evacuated of all critical purchase and diagnostic force, leaving us with no means of making distinctions or of gauging incremental changes in understanding. Moreover, the critic soon becomes embroiled in a version of the Cretan liar paradox. If we are barred from achieving insight or self-understanding, how could we know that an act of misrecognition had taken place? The critique of recognition, in this respect, reveals an endemic failure to face up to the normative commitments underpinning its own premises.
While recognition has received a drubbing in English departments, its fortunes have risen spectacularly in other venues. Political theorists are currently hailing recognition as a keyword of our time, a galvanizing idea that is generating new frameworks for debating the import and impact of struggles for social justice. Nancy Fraser’s well-known thesis, for example, contrasts a cultural politics of recognition organized around differences of gender, race, and sexuality, to a goal of economic redistribution that defined the goals of traditional socialism. Feminism, gay and lesbian activism, and the aspirations of racial and ethnic minorities towards self-determination serve as especially visible examples of such demands for public acknowledgment. For Axel Honneth, by contrast, the search for recognition is not a new constellation driven by the demands of social movements but an anthropological constant, a defining feature of what it means to become a person that assumes multifarious cultural and political guises. Recognition, he proposes, offers a key to understanding all kinds of social inequities and struggles for self-realization, including those steered by class. What literary studies can take from these debates is their framing of recognition in terms other than gullibility. Political theory does justice to our everyday intuition that recognition is not just an error or an ensnarement, that it is, in Charles Taylor’s words, a “vital human need.”6
I need, at this point, to address a potential objection to the drift of my argument. Recognition, in the sense I’ve been using it so far, refers to a cognitive insight, a moment of knowing or knowing again. Specifically, I have been puzzling over what it means to say, as people not infrequently do, that I know myself better after reading a book. The ideas at play here have to do with comprehension, insight, and self-understanding. (That recognition is cognitive does not mean that it is purely cognitive, of course; moments of self-apprehension can trigger a spectrum of emotional reactions shading from delight to discomfort, from joy to chagrin.) When political theorists talk about recognition, however, they mean something else: not knowledge, but acknowledgment. Here the claim for recognition is a claim for acceptance, dignity and inclusion in public life. Its force is ethical rather than epistemic, a call for justice rather than a claim to truth. Moreover, recognition in reading revolves around a moment of personal illumination and heightened self-understanding; recognition in politics involves a demand for public acceptance and validation. The former is directed toward the self, the latter toward others, such that the two meanings of the term would seem to be entirely at odds.
Yet this distinction is far from being a dichotomy; the question of knowledge is deeply entangled in practices of acknowledgment. Stanley Cavell is fond of driving home this point in an alternate idiom: what it really means to know other people has less to do with questions of epistemological certainty than with the strength of our personal commitments. So, too, our sense of who we are is embedded in our diverse ways of being in the world and our sense of attunement or conflict with others. That this self is “socially constructed” – indisputably, we can only live our lives through the cultural resources that are available to us – does not render it any less salient: there is no meaningful sense in which we can, on a routine basis, suspend belief in our own selfhood. From such a perspective, the language game of skepticism runs up against its intrinsic limits: in Wittgenstein’s well-known phrase, “doubting has an end.”7 We make little headway in grasping the ramifications of our embeddedness in the world if we remain fixated on the question of epistemic certainty or its absence.
The reasons for disciplinary disagreement on the merits of recognition are not especially hard to fathom. While political theories of recognition trace their roots back to Hegel, literary studies has been shaped by a strong strand of anti-Hegelianism in twentieth-century French thought. In this latter tradition, recognition is commonly chastised for its complicity with a logic of appropriation and a totalitarian desire for sameness. Yet such judgments conspicuously fail to do justice to its conceptual many-sidedness and suppleness, while neglecting the dialogic and non-identitarian dimensions of recognition, as anchored in intersubjective relations that precede subjectivity. The capacity for self-consciousness, for taking oneself as the object of one’s own thought, is only made possible by an encounter with otherness. Recognition thus presumes difference rather than excluding it, constituting a fundamental condition for the formation of identity.8 Insofar as selfhood arises via relation to others, self-knowledge and acknowledgment are closely intertwined. Thus theorists of intersubjectivity do not react with disappointment or distress to the news that the self is socially constituted rather than autotelic, nor do they decry such a socially created self as illusory or fictive. Rather than seeing the idea of selfhood as an epistemological error spawned by structures of ideology or discourse, they insist on the primacy of interpersonal relations in the creation of persons. We are fundamentally social creatures whose survival and well-being depend on our interactions with particular, embodied, others. The other is not a limit but a condition for selfhood.
It goes without saying that such relations between persons are filtered through the mesh of linguistic structures and cultural traditions. The I and the Thou never face each other naked and unadorned. When we speak to each other, our words are hand-me-downs, well-worn tokens used by countless others before us, the detritus of endless myths and movies, poetry anthologies and political speeches. Our language is stuffed thick with figures, larded with metaphors, encrusted with layers of meaning that escape us. While selfhood is dialogic, dialogue should not be confused with harmony, symmetry, or perfect understanding. Here we can take on board Chantal Mouffe’s insistence that social relations cannot be cleansed of conflict or antagonism, and Judith Butler’s claim that the Hegelian model of recognition is ultimately driven by division and self-loss.9 Recognition is far from synonymous with reconciliation.
Yet structures that constrain also sustain; the beliefs and traditions that envelop us are a source of meaning as well as mystification. The words of the past acquire a new luster as we polish and refurbish them in our many interactions. Language is not always and only a symbol of alienation and division, but serves as a source “of mutual experiences of meaning that had been unknown before and could never have existed until fashioned by words.”10 While we never own language, we are able to borrow it and bend it to our purposes, even as aspects of what we say will continue to elude us. We are embodied and embedded beings who use and are used by words. Even as we know ourselves to be shaped by language, we can reflect on our own shaping, and modify aspects of our acting and being in the world. Rather than blocking self-knowledge, language is our primary means of attaining it, however partial and flawed our attempts at understanding ourselves and others must be. We live in what Charles Taylor calls webs of interlocution; struggling to define ourselves with and against others, we acquire the capacity for reflection and self-reflection.
How do such broad-brush reflections on recognition and inter-subjectivity pertain to the specific concerns of literary studies? Literary texts invite disparate forms of recognition, serving as an ideal laboratory for probing its experiential and aesthetic complexities. Conceiving of books as persons and the act of reading as a face-to-face encounter, however, are analogies that can only lead us astray. Texts cannot think, feel, or act; if they have any impact on the world, they do so via the intercession of those who read them. And yet, while books are not subjects, they are not just objects, not simply random things stranded among countless other things. Bristling with meaning, layered with resonance, they come before us as multi-layered symbols of beliefs and values; they stand for something larger than themselves. While we do not usually mistake books for persons, we often think of them as conveying the attitudes of persons, as upholding or questioning larger ideas and collective ways of thinking.
Reading, in this sense, is akin to an encounter with a generalized other, in the phrase made famous by G. H. Mead. Like other theorists of intersubjectivity, Mead argues that the formation of the self involves all kinds of messy entanglements, such that no “hard-and-fast line can be drawn between our own selves and the selves of others.”11 It is only by internalizing the expectations of these others that we come to acquire a sense of individuality and interior depth, or, indeed, to look askance at the very norms and values that formed us. We cannot learn the language of self-definition on our own. The idea of the generalized other is a way of describing this broader collectivity or collectivities with which we affiliate ourselves. It is not so much a real entity as an imaginary projection – a conception of how others view us – that affects our actions as well as the stories we tell about ourselves. It denotes our first-person relationship to the social imaginary, the heterogeneous repertoire of stories, histories, beliefs, and ideals that frame and inform our individual histories.
Under what conditions does literature come to play a mediating role in this drama of self-formation? Often, it seems, when other forms of acknowledgment are felt to be lacking, when one feels estranged...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Uses of LiteratureHow to cite Uses of Literature for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Felski, R. (2011). Uses of Literature (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Felski, Rita. (2011) 2011. Uses of Literature. 1st ed. Wiley.
Harvard Citation
Felski, R. (2011) Uses of Literature. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. 1st ed. Wiley, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.