This project will develop new approaches and methods for exploring the social uses of literature. Drawing on both the humanities and social sciences, it seeks to offer richer accounts of what literature does and why it matters. “Use” should not be confused with utilitarian, instrumental, or functionalist approaches to works of art. Literature is “usable” rather than useful in any narrow sense. Its effects are varied, diffuse, unpredictable, indirect, and often long-term; they involve emotion and pleasure as much as ethics or knowledge. Our premise is that literature is distinctive (it has certain qualities or affordances) and also relational (it is connected to many other actors) and that its presence is not attenuated by its relations, but made possible by its relations.
How do we capture the distinctiveness and dynamism of literary works as they move through the world? How can we do justice to the diverse and often surprising ways in which people engage with texts and the many facets of aesthetic experiences? In what ways do literary works speak to matters of concern, inspire attachments, weave affiliations, or forge collectives? We seek to move beyond dichotomies that stress either literature’s complicity with inequality and oppression or its role as negation and resistance in order to develop more nuanced, detailed, and empirically adequate accounts of how literature moves through the world. This approach will allow us to develop vocabularies of value that can make a stronger case for the study of literature and the humanities more generally.
Our project calls for theoretical and methodological bridges to neighboring disciplines such as history and the social sciences. Studying the uses of literary means, by definition, looking beyond individual works of art to explore cultural, social, and political concerns. Here literary studies can learn from other disciplines as well as contribute to methodological innovation in those disciplines. The “Uses of Literature” project is thus fundamentally interdisciplinary in scope; drawing on narrative medicine, theories of social class, intellectual and political history, and other fields. Relevant methods and frames of reference will include actor-network theory, pragmatism, affect theory, and recent attempts to develop “new sociologies of literature.”