Uses of Literature: Recognition

Rita Felski is the author of Uses of Literature, a book that outlines several distinct purposes that literature may serve. Some of these will likely appeal to you more than others, depending on why you read (or don’t). ENG 132 students will explore two of Felski’s chapters throughout the semester (recognition and knowledge) as they relate to the material we are studying. One of our fundamental questions for the semester is the value of studying literature: why read? Why discuss it? What can literature do? What can it accomplish?

The first chapter in Felski’s book is “Recognition.” Felski begins with her own question: “What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book?” We’ll be looking at this particular use of literature in the context of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a graphic memoir about the author’s experience growing up in a small midwestern town with religion as the backbone of his adolescence.

Here are a few quotes from Felski’s chapter that I think are worth discussing:

What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book? The experience seems at once utterly mundane yet singularly mysterious. While turning a page I am arrested by a compelling description, a constellation of events, a conversation between characters, an interior monologue. Suddenly and without warning, a flash of connection leaps across the gap between text and reader; an affinity or an attunement is brought to light. I may be looking for such a moment, or I may stumble up on it haphazardly, startled by the prescience of a certain combination of words. In either case, I feel myself addressed, summoned, called to account: I cannot help seeing traces of myself in the pages I am reading. Indisputably, something has changed; my perspective has shifted; I see something that I did not see before (23).

  • Think about an experience you’ve had as a reader, or even as a viewer of art or a film, or an audience member at a performance. Were you looking for connection or did you find it unexpectedly? What effect did that encounter have?
    • The most recent time this happened to me was when I was reading Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. It is a series of short stories that all take place in the midwest, and the stories were pretty bleak…dark, depressing, with broken characters. I was reading the last few stories at the park by my house while my daughter played on the merry-go-round, and I found myself narrating what was happening in my head in Campbell’s style.

Felski writes about how we perceive and process the world around us: “we make sense of what is unfamiliar by fitting it into an existing scheme, linking it to what we already know” (25).

  • How did you, as a reader, respond to and engage with Thompson’s story? Was it familiar? In what ways? If it was unfamiliar, how did you bridge the gap between your experiences and his?

Felski quotes Proust, who explains that when we read literature, we also read ourselves:

Cultural history, as well as casual conversation, suggest that recognition is a common event while reading and a powerful motive for reading. Proust famously observes that

every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity (26).

  • Do you think this is true? Think about how we come to understand the world in which we live. Some of what we know comes from our parents or our environment, some comes from direct experience (this can reinforce or challenge what we believe), and we are also influenced by the media, be it television entertainment, news, social networks, advertising…does the desire to better understand yourself (or perhaps a desire for validation or acknowledgement, particularly if you are part of a marginalized group) motivate you to read?
    • Consider how we often define things by what they are not. Felski argues that the “other” is how we come to understand ourselves: “We are fundamentally social creatures whose survival and well-being depend on our interactions with particular, embodied others. The other is not a limit but a condition for selfhood” (31).
    • Felski also suggests that language is what allows mutual experiences to be understood. We take language and bend it to meet our needs, language is how we develop self-knowledge and assert our identities (think about labels, but also how we choose to describe our experiences, or how we adapt to the language used around us in order to participate in conversation and community).

Felski outlines two different experiences of recognition: perception of direct similarity or likeness (38), in which we connect intimately with a character or an event by way of shared identity, voice, or experience; and self-extension (39), where we find hints or aspects of oneself in something unfamiliar, or strange. Both of these are categorized as “affinity,” or likeness, either direct or through more generalized experiences. There is also “allegiance,” which you find yourself in alliance with, or rooting for, a particular character. Of course, sometimes we find no likeness whatsoever, and our differences are reinforced. We experience the character as “other,” which is not a bad thing – this can help us to understand different perspectives and backgrounds, and can also help us understand ourselves better.

One of my favorite statements from Felski in this chapter is this:

We do not glimpse aspects of ourselves in literary works because these works are repositories for unchanging truths about the human condition, as conservative critics like to suggest. Rather, any flash of recognition arises from an interplay between texts and the fluctuating beliefs, hopes, and fears of readers, such that the insights gleaned from literary works will vary dramatically across space and time (46).

In other words, context matters. To Kill a Mockingbird was relevant 50 years ago, and is still relevant today, but we’ll read it differently in 2016 based on recent events.

  • Does this make literature timeless? Can literature play a role in preserving the history of a people, even if it is fiction? How should we handle the teaching of classics versus contemporary and lesser-known literature?

Felski, Rita. “Recognition.” Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp. 23-50. Print.


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