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KEY NOTE ABSTRACTS
This talk forms part of a larger investigation into the role of critique—or what I prefer to call the hermeneutics of suspicion—in literary and cultural studies. Why is critique so popular and so prestigious? Why is it often perceived as the most rigorous and radical form of thinking? And what kinds of questions does critique foreclose, dismiss, or ignore?
While the spirit of critique is one of endless questioning, this does not automatically imply a denial of the value of literature. Critique values literature, however, only to the extent that it can be shown to mimic the qualities of critique itself—that is, to engage in skeptical or subversive acts of defamiliarizing, denaturalizing, demystifying.
Yet we shortchange the significance of art by focusing on the “de” prefix at the expense of the “re” prefix: a work’s power to remake, reconfigure, or recontextualize perception. Works of art do not only subvert, but convert, they do not only inform, but transform–a transformation that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but also of emotional realignment. And here critique, which prides itself on the vigilance of its detachment, proves a poor guide to the richness and complexity of our aesthetic attachments.
What, then, might a postcritical practice of reading look? How do we develop forms of scholarship more attuned to the affective dimensions of reading and more willing to articulate the positive value of literary works for both academic and lay readers? I draw on the recent work of Bruno Latour, Marielle Macé, and Yves Citton to sketch out some possible answers to this question.
The Moral and the Fable: Variations on the Theme of Literature and Values
In the Call for Papers of this International Conference the Organizers invite thinking about several relevant questions along a double line. The invitation is, in fact, to analyze either or both “the values (represented) in literature as well as our views of the value of literature”.
I have interpreted this dyad in terms of “The Moral” and “The Fable”, terms which, of course, I use here metaphorically and metonymically to mean respectively:
- the explicit ideological (ethical and political) dimension of a literary work (i.e. the values represented and/or advocated in it)
- the work qua literature, and the discursive import of literature as such, i.e. the relationship between its epistemic, artistic and ethical dimension.
This relationship is fundamentally historical, and largely determined by philosophical and aesthetic perspectives (Classic, Romantic, Modernist, Postmodern), but it allows for different important nuances even within any single historical moment.
I have taken the liberty of violating in my title the linguistic expectation of a doxa that talks about “the moral of the fable” in order to be critical of mainstream assumptions about the possibility of neatly severing form from content, particularly in the case of literary narratives. The “and” in my title does not wish to spell either an opposition or a conclusive configuration between “moral” and “fable” (“the moral or the fable” was a tempting pun, but I rejected the disjunctive “or” on the ground of its crude oppositional implications).
I will therefore investigate the relationship between the values represented in a text and the ways literature has of “being ethical” amongst the human sciences. King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres will be taken as case studies.
My notion of “dialogic reading” (2003; ) and my thesis on “The Ethical Use(s) of Literary Complexity”(2009) will be part of my theoretical references, together with specific takes on the work of Bakhtin, Barthes, Deleuze and Pasolini. After Bakhtin we cannot ignore that “external” values enter the work of art through the author’s discourse and not in a supposedly transparent and unmediated representation. My point here is, in a sense, to shift focus from reader to writer, or better to “writing” ( in Barthes, Pasolini and Deleuze) in order to show how writing is what variously connects the moral and the fable, and is responsible for the ethical and meta-ethical effects of literature.
Cognitive Science and the Value of Literature for Life
A host of experiments have shown that the reading of literature (or viewing fictional films) can have impressive results: It can change our attitudes, influence our opinions, and even affect personality traits. Since studies in cognitive science shed new light on the issue of the cognitive and affective functions of art, they should be taken into consideration in literary studies without, however, discarding the emphasis of the latter on the aesthetic specificity of literature in favour of a purely functionalist view.
In this plenary lecture, I will take into account studies from fields such as literary theory, philosophy, psychology and the neurosciences in order to explore the question of the cognitive value of literature. In a first take, the affective and ‘rational’ cognitive functions of the reading of literature will be assessed separately. This will include the importance of the reception of literature for fostering empathy as well as the development and refinement of what has been called ‘theory of mind’ abilities (that is the capacity to understand and anticipate the actions as well as beliefs, feelings, desires and intentions of other people). In a second step, I want to consider the functions of literature with regard to the taking of the perspectives of others, which can be thought of as a higher-level combination of ‘empathy’ and ‘theory of mind’. This part will include a brief discussion of the importance of literary modes of writing for inducing readers to take the perspective of others as well as possible consequences of this practice in ordinary situations. The third part of the paper will consider the dynamics of the reading process as well as the differences between the reception of factual and fictional stories. In contrast to a number of studies which acknowledge the cognitive importance of literature by stressing the similarities of the process of reading factual and fictional texts, I will emphasize the differences between them and argue that even realist fiction does more than just ‘simulate’ cognitive processes, which allow readers to practice empathy as well as theory of mind-abilities. Instead, the importance of aesthetic means and imagination will be discussed in order to arrive at