MLA: Why Literature Matters

This is a live blogging of the session.

All of the panelists are authors on books on this topic. There was a handout of seventeen other books on the topic on a handout.

virtual-student-sittingGregory Jusdanis,
Ohio State U: Columbus
“Literature as Alternative Reality”

In my book is an aesthetic theory, literature is important because it helps us mediate between literature and reality.

win_0709_hermione_statue_243x317There is a tradition that Helen remained in the Nile area and someone else-a ghost, a faux, an alternative- went to Troy. Plato’s excerpt, two lines, is all we have of this alternative tradition. The poem undoes the Homeric story. Further twist, Herodutus claims that Homer knew that Helen did not travel to Troy but Homer wrote the literature as he did because it was good literature.
Dig against politicians lying about “real cause of the hostilities.” Why was this necessary?
Is the meaning of the simulacrum its absence?

sunshine-w-womanWe love the contrast between the real and fake. This comparison is fascinating to us. It is mistaking the deception clear.
Okay, he says that we need to see this deception to recognize the option for deception in real life. So there is a purpose to the political insults. At least that is reasonable, unlike the other three speakers (the ones I heard) who did the same this weekend.

We need the tension between Helen’s real body and the ghost in order to make sense of the Trojan war. “Terrible beauty” Homer said. The war was fought because it made a good story. Life is literary, Helen says; “Other men amuse themselves in hearing our tale.” Men and women die so they will become immortal in a story.

If we know it is deception, we can throw it out.

Literature promises to give access to the signifier and the signified. Human practice that promises to open the door to reality while highlighting that it is just a door. We look not at the truth but at looking in a way to get at the truth.

The main problem that people have with imitation is the fear that resemblance takes place, a reader becoming confused in the literature. We fear that art erases the distinction between literature and reality. But in fact art emphasizes the distinction between the real and the simulacrum. (Pygmalion was neither real nor false, “so cleverly did his art become his art.” Ovid. The statue is not a reality but a construction of representation of reality.)

Today we are confronted with surface effects rather than the depths. Representation tries to show the false. Simulation of reality replaces reality. Art dramatizes the difference between fiction and truth.

Basis of making fiction is simulation, the capacity in which humans can represent an event with another event. Through simulation we are able to project ourselves into other experiences and think through them, to put ourselves in another situation and “experience” it.

This is a crucial aspect of the literary experience.

Pretense, simulation, and deceit is what defines us as humans.

The whole moral epic of the Trojan War is not true, as we experience it in the literary form. We return to the art, the imagination, to understand the world we are in now. We like to compare the real and the representative because we like fiction, but also because it helps us make sense (a way of knowing) of the real.

little-boy-blue-readingCristina V. Bruns, Chapman U (California), “Literature as Formative Experience”

Encounters in literature that interest me most are those that leave us changed. Have you had experiences of these? I have had several.

Short story in The New Yorker that I read with all the rest of my mail sitting in my lap.
Six word poem by Marie Ponsot which I heard on the radio that felt like it tripped me.

“Bliss and Grief”
No one
is here
right now.

Brothers Karamazov took me out of the dorm.

Branch of psychoanalytic theory, optic relations. (Wittencott?)
baby-in-pooh-costumeProcess by which humans move from symbiosis of infancy to individuation.
Object helps infants establish their separateness from the world and recognize themselves.
For a period of time the infant needs illusion of object as both me and not me.
This work of individuation establishes the pattern for interpersonal relationships.
Culture’s pattern of maternal care shapes the culture’s patterns of social relationships.

Any object which allows us to be me and not me (religious experience, sports activity) is good. Why?
1. tangible shape of activity or object can become part of us
2. shape of activity stimulates a re-working of the boundary between the self and the world.

Transitional space between the collective self and inner world.
Literature facilitates transitional reality.
The world of literature takes place in our inner world but is prompted by an outside object. Not merely knowledge or content, but how we see it, through what eyes.

We can use these readings to shape our internal selves. We can take them on to shape ourselves.

Why does literature matters?
Reading it gives us opportunities to form and re-form ourselves.
Reading is as significant as it feels to those who really get into reading.

But we suffer from the strain of self and others. We relieve that stress through transitional spaces/objects/experiences. Literature is one of those.

Trying to put them into words can seem to reduce the experience to much less significant than it is.
Experience of the object immersion, following immersive state allows reflection on the state. That is the transitional potential.

Allowing one’s self to get lost in a book is the state through which the power of literature and its value resides.

These broadly generalized modes– suspicious reading, …
Broad modes of generalized modes of reading are especially important. Paul Ricouer, From Text to Action
Naive in its openness… Explanation…
“explanation has no autonomy. It’s advantage and its effect is to allow us to follow the story better… ”

computer-reading-book1Mark W. Roche,
U of Notre Dame
“Literature as Other to Our Age”

Literature serves many purposes. Here I highlight three.
1. rare elevation of intrinsic value
2. evokes imaginary worlds in an era obsessed with the here and now
3. draws on complex hermeneutic x in an age that emphasizes practical

Counter cultural value.
Literature is an activity like play in which we enjoy the intrinsic joy.
Enjoyed for its own sake.
Valued versus “useful”
“Useful” is only useful for something else.
Often what is valued in itself is actually more useful/worthy.

Kant recognized an aesthetic experience takes us outside our self interest.

I do not want to say that emotion fades from aesthetic experience.
Vital impulses that are their own end remain.
When we love beauty “we do not desire to possess or own it.”

The experience of great literature is different from reading for use.
Not reducible to what we carry away from the work in literature.
Experience of what reader lives through during the experience of reading is what is important. The immersion, which helps us forget the external world, is essential.

Communication that is not driven by economic need becomes essential to our psyche.
Shared values in reader and book, an end in itself.

Focus on the concerns of the individual in contrast to the world in general.
Arts and humanities… peerless works help us engage today… Do not “supercede” each other but build upon them. Understanding of the past is essential for us.

Great literature addresses universal themes.
By showing us what is great about the past, we see what can be/is/has been lost in “progress.”
Shows us what we might be giving up.
Shows us where we are now.

Study of the past as a genuine partner in conversation helps us gain a better understanding of the present.

6_samburu_01Immersion in another culture. To look at alternative models.
Certain virtues are more prominent in other eras.
Grace as antiquated. Similarly rare today is one’s disinterest in status. Loyalty, generosity, and hospitality.

Past gives us different perspectives and alternative to the contemporary.
Familiarity with another culture allows us to have distance from our own.

Kant’s argument that aesthetic arguments are essential/universal.

Beauty’s universality takes us beyond ourselves into the collective understanding.

Proliferation of more and more complex situations = modernity
Each sphere has its own autonomous logic.
One pursues with an eye to autonomous logic.

wikipedia-puzzle-globe-greeped-dot-orgLiterature, in contrast, helps promote a sense of wholeness.
Study of literature develops broadly applicable hermeneutic skills.
In a work of literature all the parts have a sense of autonomous but is fully compatible with each part belongs to the whole. Every part belongs to the whole. Full meaning only survives in their relation to the whole. Gives pleasure to the experience of the mind. Whole cannot be grasped without understanding the parts in their autonomy. Part to whole and back to whole “philosophical circle”
Hermeneutic virtue of deciphering complex patterns and meanings and hidden connections.
Challenges the spontaneity and interpretative ability of the reader.
Study of literature teaches us to look at the whole and not just the parts. Whole may only make sense in relation to its parts.
This contributes to flexibility of the mind.

Students who argue literary criticism: helps them develop understanding, see relationship to whole and part, anticipate objections to their positions, simplistic or one-sided readings are insufficient. Complex interpretations that recognize alternative readings and help student guard against dogmatic discourse.

Photograph of Hermione/Hermione’s statue in Winter’s Tale comes from The photo of Wikipedia Puzzle comes from The other illustrations are purchased from

3 thoughts on “MLA: Why Literature Matters”

  1. Can I encourage all literature enthusiasts and professionals to take a look at, a community website that aims to be the perfect companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music. So far we have assembled comprehensive illustrated profiles of over 100 books, including several school set texts that are already proving very useful to teachers and students alike. Book Drum’s unique approach has been praised by authors as distinguished as Sarah Waters, John Banville, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Rice, Paulo Coelho and Peter Godwin.

    We’re currently running a £2,250 ($3,500) writing competition, which we’d encourage anyone with a favourite book to consider entering.

    Hector Macdonald

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