The aim of the program
The aim is to develop new interdisciplinary methods for analyzing the social uses of literature that avoid the reductive tendencies of traditional sociologies of literature. Actor-network theory, especially, offers a fruitful resource for investigating aesthetic attachments and offering richer and more nuanced accounts of how literature circulates in the world. Researchers engaged in distinct yet related projects will take their orientation from Rita Felski’s work, especially Uses of Literature, The Limits of Critique, and her current book on attachment, and her NLH volume on “New Sociologies of Literature,” to develop innovative forms of interaction between literature and the social sciences.
State of the Art at SDU
Since 2008 researchers at SDU have analyzed the social dimensions of literature in collaboration with national and international research networks. “Social dimensions of literature” refers to the many ways in which texts forge new connections, networks, and communities as they are appropriated by readers. Through these processes, texts influence and co-create readers’ social imaginaries, allowing them to recognize different forms of experience and attuning readers to new forms of sociality. As scholars engaged in interdisciplinary research we are conscious of methodological difficulties in tracing the social uses of literature. We by no means subscribe to the notion of the self-contained or autonomous literary text, yet are equally reluctant to see texts as mere illustrations or symptoms of political or historical forces. Research at SDU has made significant progress, but Felski’s presence and leadership will be invaluable in allowing us to develop more sophisticated and substantial accounts of the social lives of literature. The Niels Bohr professorship will thus generate highly innovative arguments and methodologies that will be of interest to scholars in the humanities and social sciences and resonate nationally and internationally.
The Niels Bohr Professorship
Felski’s program opens up new opportunities for researching the social dimensions of texts and draw its orientation from two of her recent books: Uses of Literature develops a “neo-phenomenology” of aesthetic experience by considering recognition, enchantment, shock, and knowledge. The Limits of Critique examines dominant forms of criticism that read literary works as either unwitting vehicles for transmitting coercive ideologies or heroic symbols of dissidence. Such frameworks, Felski contends, fail to provide adequate accounts of the qualities of art works, their varied uses and meanings, or the social relations in which they are embedded. She also draws on actor-network-theory (ANT) to develop an alternative model for thinking about the social lives of literature: the model of “society” is replaced by attention to specific networks, and art works are conceptualized as non-human actors that solicit the engagement of readers and viewers.
Felski’s recent work is thus driven by the desire to move literary studies away from negative aesthetics (with its accompanying language of critique, subversion, defamiliarization, etc.) toward relational ontologies. At SDU Felski will pursue this line of thought by developing a new paradigm of “attachment theory”. Drawing on a hermeneutic tradition that includes Ricæur, as well as affect theorists such as J. Elkins and J. Bennett, she will explore attachment as an affective, social, and philosophical category. ANT offers valuable tools for investigating the mechanisms by which we are drawn to specific art works without reducing the associations between texts and persons to nothing more than hierarchies of distinction or networks of power. Here there are also parallels to pragmatism and the work of James, Dewey, and Shusterman, which Felski’s studies will also engage. This research will be centered on three aspects of attachment: its affective force (how we become “attuned” to works of art); its philosophical implications (how ANT can help us grapple with the complexities of agency); and its social dimensions (how works of art create alliances among disparate actors).
The Niels Bohr Professorship Work Packages (WP)
WP 1 - New Work in Literary Theory
This work package will focus on reading and discussing major new works of literary theory. As well as pursuing specific topics and methods directly related to the “Uses of Literature” research project, the group needs to engage in dialog with other influential frameworks. The field of literary criticism and theory is currently in a state of flux, so it is especially important that we remain abreast of important debates. This work package will allow us to situate our scholarship in a larger field and defend our frameworks and arguments against rival positions.
1 Ph.d. project: On the Complexities of Recognition as a Literary Concept (Occupied)
This dissertation will develop a dialogue between concepts of recognition in political theory and literary studies and consider the ways in which contemporary fiction represents and reflects on the complexities of recognition.
1 Assist. prof.: Dementia as a challenge to literature (Occupied)
This postdoc will make links between Felski’s work on recognition and attachment and the field of narrative medicine. How does literature represent a disease that takes away the patient’s memory, language, self, and to what extent is the much discussed concept of empathy a useful one? What technologies of attachment bind readers to these representations, and how do they relate to the health care system’s narratives about dementia?
WP 2 - New Approaches to Contemporary Literature
WP 2 focuses on new approaches to contemporary literature. After having discussed Bruno Latour’s actor network theory and having used his method in articles and monographs the WP will discuss other new approaches to the study of contemporary literature, for instance new literary sociology, and read literary texts and theoretical articles together. Several of the members of the WP are in the process of finishing research articles, so the WP will also discuss these contributions by the members. The WP will mainly study Scandinavian literature.
1 Ph.D. project: Literary works as actors – a new approach to literary studies (Occupied)
This comparative project will examine how contemporary literary works are engaged in a variety of literary, scientific, political and cultural negotiations and in what sense they can be conceived as actors.
1 Assist. prof.: Literature and narrative medicine (Occupied)
Often narrative medicine is based on a traditional hermeneutical view of literature. The project will examine how Felski’s ideas about the uses of literature and the relevance of ANT to literary studies can renew narrative medicine.
WP 3 - Class, Precarity and the Social Dimensions of Literature
Class is back. In the early 2010s, Mike Savage and his research team tried to redescribe the British class system collaborating with the BBC to make the great British Class Calculator where users by answering a number of questions could figure out where they belong in the class system. Interest in this was overwhelming. Within a week after the launch of the calculator in April 2013, more than 7 million people had clicked on the web page; one in five of the adult British population. As Savage et al concluded: “social class is now a very powerful force in the popular imagination once again”, but in slightly different ways from the traditional well-established British class system: the great interest in and the answers to the survey paid evidence to a new deep insecurity about class status and belonging. Therefore, when we talk about class today, and in this work package, we are not just interested in the working class. We also want to talk about people that find themselves in-between classes, the middle classes and the new class of the precariat.
This WP meets to investigate class in its many facets with a focus on new theories exploring the relationship between class, cultural production, social formation and personal identities. While open to all concerns related to class, we focus on some of the following issues (the list will grow as it reflects wp members’ interests): the precariat as a new class and precarity, class affect, gender and class (feminism and masculinity studies), places and spaces of class, age and class, class and the welfare state, class and the genres of literature (including sci-fi, cli-fi and life-writing). Having been deemed dead and dealt with by politicians in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps culminating with Tony Blair proclaiming the class war over in 1999, our sense is that class is back in new forms and with new cultural expressions that may also call for new methods and approaches in the present climate of a certain skepticism about strong critique.
1 Ph.d. project: Literature, unemployment and precarious labour (Occupied)
The project studies contemporary novels about the unemployed or short term contract employed. What narrative strategies are used to convey such precarious lives, and how may these strategies inspire particular forms of empathy, recognition or attachment?
1 Assist. prof.: Recognizing the Precariat?: Narratives on Alcohol as Social Disease (Occupied)
The project analyzes and compares narratives about the precariat’s alcohol consumption offered by literary fictions, the media (reality television) and in public campaign material. How do these narratives recognize or misrecognize the precariat’s alcohol culture?
Postdoc-project 1: Aligning literary analysis with new political history (Occupied)
The project will compare the approach of “literary analysis” with the German School of Neue Politikgeschichte and what V. Schmidt within the social sciences has labelled discursive institutionalism. These approaches share a focus on texts but conceptualize them in different ways (as actor, as communication, as path dependency). The project will have a theoretical-methodological focus aiming at developing cross-disciplinary frameworks for the analysis of “political” texts.
Postdoc-project 2: A literary analysis approach to welfare semantics (Occupied)
Combining literary analysis with social science methods, this project will analyze why some ideas/narratives/concepts become hegemonic and sticky and others do not. This has been a theoretical challenge to scholars studying the role of ideas and political semantics. Why do Scandinavians love the welfare state whereas “welfare” in the US context triggers negative images of dependency, un-deservingness, and even totalitarianism?
WP 4 - Narrative Medicine
Literature is used in the training of medical students and health care professionals to increase particular skills, such as paying attention and listening closely to illness accounts. Likewise, writing and reading is used in interventions with chronically ill and vulnerable people in order to sustain or increase quality and/or meaning of life. These approaches have raised a number of critical questions: Is literature instrumentalized and oversimplified in such contexts? How can we describe the value and assess the effect of creative writing and shared reading? Which modes of engagement – knowledge, enchantment, recognition, shock – intersect with the principles and practices of narrative medicine? What are the potentials and limits of narrative medicine?
WP 4 will focus on 1) methods and practices of teaching students and professionals in health care, 2) writing workshops and 3) reading workshops with ill and vulnerable people, 4) narrative and figurative health communication.
WP 4 will read and discuss theoretical and empirical texts about narrative medicine. Excellent researchers associated with narrative medicine and medical humanities from Denmark, Scandinavia, Germany and elsewhere will be invited to present their ongoing projects.
WP 4 - Narrative Medicine's 10 thesis:
1) Narrative Medicine (NM) takes its point of departure in the experiences of the individual person, even before categorizing and treating this person as a “patient.” Therefore NM understands illness as an individual and subjective experience that resists generalizing and objectifying definitions of disease.
2) NM seeks to foster a better understanding of the self and the other through engagement with literature and art, and it incorporates this engagement in the teaching and development of health care professionals on the conviction that it can enhance quality of care and treatment.
3) NM seeks to enhance quality of life, well-being, and empowerment for people with an illness through the practice of attentive reading and creative writing.
4) NM scrutinizes the potential of meaning-making when engaging with literature, art, film, tv-series, theatre, music and other art forms, with an awareness that loss of meaning provoked by severe illness is a serious challenge for individuals.
5) NM has a strong foundation in a knowledge of narratives, life narratives and small stories and their role in human identity, recognizing that narratives can be broken and potentially repaired again.
6) NM acknowledges the power of metaphor to conceptualize illness in ways that can empower and disempower individuals.
7) NM seeks to challenge social and cultural hierarchies and inequalities within health care by minimizing distances between the health care system and the individual citizen.
8) NM aims at finding new ways to define the concept of evidence — ways that respect the medical need for biomedical universality as well as the human need for individual care.
9) NM is genuinely interdisciplinary, combining literary and narrative methods, philosophical approaches to ethics and psychological theories of themind with health care education, medical care and treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care.
10) NM is one out of many interdisciplinary branches within the still widening field of medical or health humanities.
WP 5 - Interdisciplinarity
A key feature of the USES OF LITERATURE project is interdisciplinary research: literature scholars engaging with the social sciences and health studies, for example, as well as social scientists and health scholars engaging with literature. This research unfolds as a collective enterprise that involves scholars collaborating across disciplinary lines as well as engaging with perspectives, theories, and methods from other disciplines to study the uses of literature. Ultimately, this approach allows us to be innovative, curious, and to develop new understandings of our respective areas of study. However, moving across disciplinary borders is not easy. It is challenging, sometimes even dangerous, and demands a continuing discussion about how and why we produce interdisciplinary work. Such questions are central to the discussions we want to facilitate in this WP, which works alongside and across the more thematic WPs. We will arrange a number of focused events every semester to facilitate an ongoing discussion on the methods andpractice of interdisciplinary research.
WP 6 - Phd Club
WP 6 leader: Prof. Anne-Marie Mai