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.


Literacy Narrative: Fitness and Rediquette

Here is a literacy narrative that focuses on communication within a specific community. If we look at literacy as more than simply the act of reading and writing (or the ability to do these things) and consider comprehension, fluency, and context as well, learning how to be part of a new community is an excellent example of literacy in action. Different situations call for different communication skills, and part of joining a new group is learning their ways of thinking and being and then putting them into practice.

“It’s kind of like a cult,” he said, as he bent over the back wheel of my bike to look at the derailleur. “Welcome.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

In May of this year, after stepping down from my roller derby team, I decided to buy a bike. After some pretty extensive research involving an ex-boyfriend, a self-proclaimed bike snob, and a lot of Craigslist postings, I ultimately purchased a 2016 Trek FX 7.3 in matte black from a local bike shop (LBS) called D&D Bicycles and Hockey in Westland. D&D ultimately won my business because they offered a three year service plan, 10% off the bike rack and gear I was getting as well, and many of their employees are female. In fact, they were the only bike shop I went to that had women present at all, and it was the only place I felt welcome as a new cyclist.

Since the day I bought my bike, which I promptly named Sirius Black, I’ve rode 186 miles. I’ve raised the seat a good 2-3 inches, replaced the saddle, added a rear rack, a Towpath Rider sticker, and I’ve watched my average speed go from 11mph to just over 13 (thanks, Strava!). It’s been in for service once, at the D&D shop in Northville, where Dan shook my hand, introduced himself as a “bike nut,” and welcomed me to the community he affectionately referred to as a “cult.”

I started biking because I wanted another means of exploring Michigan and Ohio. I’ve gone on some pretty great hikes up north and at Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of Cleveland, but have always skirted around the bike trails with reluctant curiosity. I did have an old 3-speed cruiser for a short while when my daughter was 3, but it wasn’t meant for long rides and we only used it to bike from our tiny apartment to the library in town (which was hard! Pulling a bike trailer on an old cruiser is no joke!). When I started playing roller derby, I really began to see what my body was capable of, but the late night practices and pressure to advance quickly so as not to let my team down were no match for my anxiety and consequential health issues. I stopped skating, and instead looked to outdoor activities I could do at my own pace, on my own time.

Once I started biking, I also began to look for online resources because I had questions about gear and trails, and I missed feeling like I was part of a larger community. This led me to Reddit, where I discovered the r/ladycyclists subreddit, and I also joined the r/xxfitness subreddit which is an active, women-specific fitness group that focuses primarily on powerlifting. Learning to use Reddit was a challenge because it seemed that there was a fairly strict system in place that had little tolerance for users who weren’t doing it right. This is called “Reddiquette.” For example, reading a subreddit’s FAQ and searching through existing posts before asking a question is essential. If you don’t do this, other users, or even a auto-bot (an automatically generated comment based on post content) are quick to correct. Sometimes titles are required to contain certain information, too, and as I’ve become more familiar with the site, I can see why. Titles like “Just starting out, need help!” and “Leggings??!!?!?!?” are less likely to be read than titles that give specific information about what the user is asking or sharing. A better title might be “Form check, 150lb squat” which tells readers that a) the user has a specific question, b) there’s probably a video, which means that experienced users might click to offer their critiques, and users new to lifting might click to see what squatting 150lbs looks like, and what that person could do better to improve their form.

There’s also an upvoting/downvoting system, which is like the currency of Reddit, similar to Facebook likes but with more value. Posts that get upvoted have a greater chance of being seen on the front page; subreddits can be organized by “hot” or “top” (those with the most upvotes) in addition to recency, and I think “hot” is the default setting. Users can also downvote when they think a post is irrelevant, cruel, or repetitive. Like face-to-face groups, each subreddit is its own community with a distinct set of expectations. When I first joined Reddit, I posted questions and relied on the expertise of others to help acclimate me to these new communities both on- and off-line. Now, as a user, cyclist, and gym member with more experience, I am able to share information with other users by commenting on their posts in addition to posing new questions that come up as I go. I also feel more comfortable connecting with others in person because I don’t feel like a total “noob.”

Since joining Reddit and putting more miles on Sirius Black, I’ve developed more confidence in my physical abilities, and I’ve gained knowledge that directly applies to my physical activity. Through r/ladycyclists, I’ve learned about saddle height and knee pain, which padded shorts to buy, why clipless pedaling systems use shoes that clip in (it’s an oxymoron!), and in a related subreddit I found the motivation I needed to start commuting to work by bike. Through r/xxfitness, I learned proper squat form, discovered Strong Curves (a workout program), and made friends with a few local women who were looking for accountability. I’ve also learned how to use a previously unfamiliar form of online communication. I’ve learned how to format my posts using html. I’ve learned how to upload photos or video to imgur to share. I’ve learned that YouTube videos can be unlisted if I only want people with the link to view them (though Reddit itself is public). I’ve also been reminded that all communities have a set of rules that members are expected to follow. Sometimes these rules are explicitly stated (ie: FAQ on a subreddit), and sometimes these rules have to be observed in action or learned through trial and error.

There are insiders and outsiders in every community, and while at times I still feel like I walk that line, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable crossing the threshold. Sure, my body is my own, and my accomplishments may have happened regardless of whether or not Reddit exists, but the support I have found there and the communication skills I’ve gained have been so valuable. A few months ago, Dan’s warm welcome at the bike shop would have intimidated me, but my metaphorical toolbox helped me navigate that conversation with ease. Here’s to many more years of riding, and an ongoing journey that isn’t bound by geographical location, but by what I am willing to put into it.

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Meet Sirius Black. She’s a girl.