Acts of Literature: The Role of Prose, Poetry and Plays in a Changing World
Full course description
As stated in Eleonora Belfiore’s and Oliver Bennett’s The social impact of the arts: An intellectual history (2008) the question of what the function of literature could be – or should be – produced from Aristotle on many answers that could roughly be grouped under the following overarching concepts: catharsis (emotional, didactical, or intellectual), personal well-being (literature as therapy, play, or experience), education and self-development (basically the humanist’s view of literature as, in Stephen Spender’s words, ‘central medium for the realization of man’s search for significance in life’), moral improvement and civilization (French Enlightenment, Kant, Martha Nussbaum), political instrument (Brecht, social realism, nazi and fascist literature, feminist, postcolonial, and minority literature, often also in the sense of the unmasking of literature as vehicles for accepting hierarchies in society: Orwell, Foucault, Said, Judith Butler, the Frankfurt School), social stratification (Weber, Simmel, Bourdieu), and the rejection of any of these functions (Kant again, l’art pour l’art). However, the starting point of the course is the notion that literature exists only in the readings given to it: literature has no existence outside these readings. The work of literature is an event or, from the reader’s position, an experience, both set in a particular culture that is made up by habits, norms, values, representations, beliefs, expectations, and prejudices. With the recent merging of literature’s functions of education and moral improvement in mind (e.g. for the benefit of democracy, see Martha Nussbaum’s work), the main challenge of the course is trying to find out in what way the ethical and political demand made by a literary work is to be found in what makes it literature, as an event and as an experience, rather than in properties it shares with other discourses, such as historical writing, biographies, and journalistic work. In other words: what is it that makes acts of literature in society literary acts?
The main aims of this course are:
- To acquaint the students with the history of ideas on possible functions of literature.
- To familiarize the students with the notion of the work of literature as an event and as an experience
- To introduce students to periods of societal change in western and non-western societies and the role of literature played in it.
- To provide the students with analytical tools for contextualizing (historicizing, situating, comparing) the case studies in the course.
- To teach the students to present their own case studies as possible contributions to the course of the next year’s edition.
At least one relevant 2000-level course in the Humanities or at least one relevant 2000-level course in the Social Sciences.