Book review / Cultural Theory and Concepts

No literary studies without cultural studies

By Jan Baetens

Puvoirs_N° 119Recently there has been an impressive amount of publications in French on the cultural as well as the societal value of the humanities (Yves Citton) or, more specifically of literature (Tzvetan Todorov, Antoine Compagnon, Jean-Marie Schaeffer, among others). The new book by William Marx, a world-leading voice in the field of literary studies (see for instance his L’Adieu à la littérature, 2005), does just this and simultaneously brings forth something completely different, and that is one of the many reasons to read it urgently.

In La Haine de la littérature (The Hatred of Literature), Marx is not simply making a plea for the literary text by explaining the numerous benefits it can provide to personal and social development –these arguments pro domo have never convinced those who believe that human societies can do without literary creations and institutions–, he more radically tackles the various critiques that have been addressed since Plato (yes, nothing new under the sun) to all those involved in literature –writers, of course, but also readers, accused of idleness for instance or silly indulgence to as useless, if not dangerous, an activity as spending time with books about nothing.

One of the most surprising passages of the book, which can be found in the section on the alleged lack of social and societal relevance of literary texts, discusses the role of cultural studies in these debates. Marx’s position, which is a vibrant tribute to the British pioneers of the discipline, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, is all the more refreshing since it helps overcome one of the most deeply rooted prejudices against cultural studies. It has often been argued, indeed, that cultural studies has been the gravedigger, first of literary studies, second of literature tout court. The current competition between literary and cultural studies departments or the tricky ‘culturalization’ of the literary curriculum as a last lifeguard against the final disappearance of literary studies, may have become a reality of current academic life, but what Marx clearly demonstrates is how such a perception is due to a blatant betrayal of the ideas of Hoggart and Williams. Both Hoggart and Williams were very much in favor of literature and the inclusion of literary studies in the emerging paradigm of cultural studies, which would be crippled, they argued, by the abandon of the literary imagination as well as the literary canon. Marx also shows how this misreading came about: he rightly considers it the collateral damage of the hold-up on cultural studies by sociology and the social sciences in general. Incapable of making sense of the rebellious exceptionality of the literary text which they could not frame within their abstract generalizations, sociologists such as Bourdieu –but it would be unfair to put the blame just on him, in spite of the huge responsibility his way of thinking has had on the statistic streamlining and hence erasure of the literary text qua text– accelerated the move away from close reading and literary scholarship. It is now time to repair the damage and to start reading again. And cultural studies has to speak up for the key role it has always wanted to give to literature.

William Marx, La Haine de la littérature. Paris: Minuit, 2015.