How Is Lit Useful? Let Me Count the Ways

Joshua Reynold, "Samuel Johnson"

Joshua Reynold, “Samuel Johnson”

The latest journal of New Literary History (44:4, 2013) is devoted to the theme that I explored in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts, namely the question of whether literature is useful. Every article grapples directly with the word “use.”

When I think of something being of use, what comes to mind is the orphanage director in John Irving’s Cider House Rules. Wilbur Larch instructs the children to “be of use.” There seems something Victorian in the injunction, and indeed a version of this rule of life has trickled down from my Victorian grandparents so that it seems sound to me.

The quintessential novel about usefulness—about utilitarianism—may be Dickens’ Hard Times, which I’ve posted on before (for instance here). In Gradgrind’s philosophy, education is useless unless it promotes making money or otherwise having a measurable impact on the world. As I noted on Tuesday, often those who argue for aestheticism, art for art’s sake, are looking to art to provide a special realm that will not be contaminated by our money grubbing world.

I’m going to cheat a bit in today’s post and sum up editor Rita Felski’s summation of the articles in the issue. I’ve ordered a copy, however, and in future posts will delve further into the individual essays. This summary, however, will give you a sense of some of the academic conversation about the topic.

Felski invokes Dickens when she describes traditional thinking on the concept of art’s usefulness:

The relentless encroachment of [pragmatic] language into every cranny of contemporary life seems unstoppable, lending itself to a familiar cultural-pessimist critique—the lament that imagination and invention have been banished from the world by a soulless regime of efficiency, logic, and profit. Usefulness, in this line of thought, is the quintessential bourgeois virtue, epitomized in a Gradgrindian eagerness to weigh and measure every last part of human existence. Brushing away everything that cannot be calculated and quantified, the modern worship of utility results in a disenchanted world in which human beings are stripped down to their base functions as workers and consumers and nature itself becomes a mere tool of human desires.

Given the soaring cost of a college education and rapidly rising student debt, it’s not surprising that parents and educators are demanding to know how studying literature and the arts will pay off. Financial pressures have a way of focusing the mind on usefulness. Felski hopes that this issue of New Literary History will open up “what we mean by use” and believes it’s possible to move beyond see art only in polarized terms, either as ethereally transcendent or drably functional. “To acknowledge and affirm the worldly value of the humanities,” she says, “is not necessarily to be co-opted by the language of instrumentality.” Here’s how she concludes her introduction:

 Use is not always a matter of being dingy or drab, austerely functional or crudely instrumental. It also speaks to the scope of our differing involvements and entanglements with the world. Use, for example, is not just something we brutally impose on hapless works of art; it is also something they invite by drawing us into certain attitudes, postures, and modes of engagement. Meanwhile, the uses of studying literature or art, and the functions of the humanities more broadly, can be meaningfully debated without falling back into a thin-lipped language of efficiency and economic calculation.

The italicized quotations below are Felski’s descriptions of the articles:

–Helen Small, “Fully Accountable”

Small wants to refine the ways that we talk about the utility or social benefit of art. The arts and humanities

offer an expansive archive of reflections on the moral, affective, cognitive, creative, and sensual aspects of use itself. Is philosophy not useful if it inspires a student to reorder her priorities and rethink her view of what constitutes a good life? And what about an encounter with a novel that does not just fulfill a prior need, but opens your eyes to needs you never knew you had?

–Michael Roth, “Pragmatic Liberal Education”

Roth takes his title from John Dewey, who believed that education should be connected with human experience and everyday life. But as Roth notes,

this practicality should not be confused with narrow vocationalism or an endorsement of the status quo. Education, rather, calls for a form of inquiry that is both curious and activist, that is open to the unexpected while also being motivated by what matters to students and teachers.

I should add that this is how I teach literature. Once students see how a story or a poem speaks to their most pressing concerns–which is to say, how it can be useful to them–they are willing to give it their full attention.

— Brian Boyd “Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Uses”

Boyd points out that too often people think of the arts (and of the humanities as well) as extraneous rather than central to their lives. Boyd notes that, without the arts, culture would not work:

Art, he points out, is not an optional add-on, but a persisting feature of all human cultures that involves cognitive play with complex forms of pattern seeing and pattern making. Narrative, especially, engages the social aspects of the human mind and the desire to track the paths and share the perspectives of others. As a form of pretend play, it can enhance our social comprehension, hone our ability to empathize, and inspire invention and creativity. The arts and humanities are also seed banks of the human past, stocked with a vast repertoire of experiences, skills, and forms of knowledge.

Since I spent some of Tuesday’s post bashing Vladimir Nabokov, it’s worth seeing how Boyd defends Lolita:

His essay concludes by showing how a single text—Nabokov’s Lolita—both invites and resists various kinds of use. There is no guarantee that art will make us more virtuous or valuable human beings, but a world without art would be a world stripped of its creative and critical potential.

— Elizabeth Fowler, “Art and Orientation”

Fowler looks at particular social uses we make of the arts—something we know if we have ever read poetry at memorial services or (as our college has done with poems by Lucille Clifton) posted it in public places. (And of course we do the same with art work and architecture.) As Felski puts it, “paintings, buildings, poems, invite us to take up a certain disposition and guide us through a sequence of feelings, thoughts, and attitudes.”

–Nancy Easterlin, “The Functions of Literature and the Evolution of Extended Mind”

Easterlin takes a long anthropological view and points out that it is only in recent times that we have been “hiving off…art in specialized spaces of contemplation—the museum, the symphony hall.” If we were to go back further, we wouldn’t even be questioning the usefulness of art:

 Over tens of thousands of years, art behaviors were not cordoned off from practical needs, but intertwined with the everyday demands of human survival, offering various strategies for controlling and making sense of an often hostile environment. The appearance of writing, and later of literature, is described by Easterlin in terms of the evolution of “external mind”: that is to say, a capacity to store knowledge outside of the brain in an exterior symbolic storage system. Literary narrative, in this light, draws on forms of everyday storytelling while also refining them and “making them special”: it makes possible an imaginative experience of virtual realities that can hone our cognitive and interpretative skills. While the arts may not serve a direct or immediate instrumental function, they are nevertheless deeply entwined with questions of use and human survival.

I’ve left out a couple of articles in the issue but you get the point. Art is useful in more ways than we can count.

It’s not enough to privately acknowledge this. We must get the word out so our society hears us. To stop funding music and art classes in the schools, to drop humanities departments in the universities, to slash governmental spending on the arts, is not only Gradgrindian. It is also criminally shortsighted.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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