Remembering why literature and scholarship matter: The little matter of duration

After spending the summer months free of school, many students (and, let’s be honest, some teachers) face the new academic year with dread. People who are involved—by requirement or employment—in pursuits that are not immediately recognized in today’s economy, with its unique investment in science and technology, may blanch at the thought of spending their precious time studying literature. Putting aside the issue of how one studies, and the babbling alarm/enthusiasm for Kindles and other new “content providers,” I have three reasons to proffer for why literature, and the scholarship that we are producing, matter.
1. Culture leaves a trace. Assuming that we are all intelligent people, and that we care about the state of our world and the direction that society is taking in our times, culture should matter to us. Culture—the shared field of expression of a people—leaves a trace. If the past three millennia can teach us anything, it should warn us of that. Although we cannot predict which ones will endure, some of our books, art, buildings, and music will live on and profoundly touch future publics.
2. Some cultural traces are more important than others. Let us recall the short duration of most of the chatter produced today. The culture that we will leave to posterity is not the ephemera that enjoys such influence today—podcasts, blogs, cell-phoned conversations, and twitters. Other ephemera were produced before us, and they too have lost luster over time. (Anyone up for a magic lantern show?) Ephemera are forgotten, when the long duration assured by books, art, buildings, and music endures.
3. Scholarship allows people to connect the dots between ephemera and long duration. By studying literature (architecture, art or music) of the past, we are able to “get it”: we get the anxieties felt by peoples in a different time and place, their lack of confidence about government, their curiosity about scientific advances, and their worries about the future. Moreover, we may share in some of the humor, the gossip, and the political jockeying that surrounded famous events and personages of their day, and maybe even gain some wisdom.
4. An illustrative example from the French Revolution.
In an article currently under review, I analyze three novels of the Revolution that undermined the political potency of the famous “Festival of the Federation” (July 14, 1790; see two title pages above).* By comparing the literary works, which are preserved to us in libraries worldwide, with the ephemeral cultural traces found in popular culture of the time–newspaper articles, caricatures, and songs–I discovered how writers used strategies still operative among political satirists today: undermining through ridicule, co-optation, and resistance. Writers tried and, judging from contemporary book reviews, apparently succeeded in producing a competing field of performance where the political repressed found full expression. The Festival of the Federation projected an image of unity, but the cultural traces left by literature debunked its legitimacy. By studying these fascinating texts, we are able to relive French social life during summer 1790, and see that their pundits, soothsayers, and officials were not so different from our own.
Future publics will understand us, God willing, not by watching morons like Howard Stern (seen above in one of his more glorious moments) mouth off on TV talk shows, or reading the Huffington blog. Instead, they will most likely stumble upon our trace by reading our poets and novelists, admiring our paintings and sculptures, living in our buildings, listening to our songs and symphonies. The ephemera of popular culture are fun, irritating, and timely, and do much to enrich the cultural echo, but their trace will fade quicker, and dissolve sooner, than the time-honored forms of cultural memory we’ve inherited from the past.
On this eve of the new academic year, I find that fact reassuring.

*Update, 1/29/10: The article, “On Candide, Catholics, and Freemasonry: How Fiction Disavowed the Loyalty Oaths of 1789-90,” is now forthcoming in Eighteenth-Century Fiction and scheduled for publication in Fall or Winter 2010-11.

5 thoughts on “Remembering why literature and scholarship matter: The little matter of duration

  1. Or, as Sturgeon’s Law puts it, ‘90% of everything is crap’. We hope that what survives longest is the other 10%… Of course, it also follows from that Law that 90% of what we write about that 10% is… well, you know… 😉

    1. Or, as Haruki Murakami put it, ‘a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.’ Like Murakami, I find that encouraging.

  2. In addition, I always point out to my students that in the 18th and 19th centuries, literature (especially novels) was viewed as being profoundly important and influential. People feared the influence of books on women and the young (the way that people fear the influence of video games, film, and television today). So when some of my students suggest that I attach too much importance to literature, I remind them that I only do so because the very people whom we are studying did so.

  3. I am a PhD student studying cross-Channel representations of radicalism in the 1790s, and am just finishing a chapter on perceptions of the Federation. I found this blog by chance, what an interesting place! I very much look forward to reading your article.

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