Tag Archives: literature

Uses of Literature: Knowledge

The second of the four uses of literature that Felski outlines in her book is Knowledge. The chapter begins by illustrating two schools of thought regarding what kind of knowledge, if any, can be obtained from literature:

  1. Literature is seen as a semblance, shadow, illusion, or even counterfeit/imitation, in relationship to the world. It is secondary: a representation of reality, but not reality itself. An untruth.
  2. Literature is a reflection: a mirror of reality.

The question of literature’s relationship to knowledge remains open; much will depend, of course, on how we define the act of knowing. In my first chapter, I focused on literature’s potential merits as a guide to self-interpretation and self-understanding. I now turn to what literature discloses about the world beyond the self, to what it reveals about people and things, mores and manners, symbolic meanings and social stratification. Not all texts, of course, lend themselves equally well to such an analytical rubric; my concluding chapter centers on works that actively defy or disrupt our frameworks of social reference. But one motive for reading is the hope of gaining a deeper sense of every day experiences and the shape of social life. Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder out sense of how things are (Felski 83).

In other words, we’re moving from what we can learn about ourselves through literature, to what we can learn about the world. Felski seems to find both ideas above equally plausible, and offers an alternative way of seeing: “Once we relinquish the false picture of a reality ‘out there’ waiting to be found, we can think of literary conventions as devices for articulating truth rather than as obstacles to its discovery” (84). Here, she calls reality a false picture, but seems to favor truth – lower-case-t-truth (multiple truths?) versus capital-T-truth (one truth).

Felski uses the term mimesis, which is defined as imitation: you probably recognize the term “meme.” Memes are repeated images: sometimes the text changes, but because the core image is the same we recognize it and come to understand what it means, regardless of whether or not the text is present. Consider Success Kid. She invites her readers to imagine mimesis as a redescription, which makes sense. Every time a new meme is created with the Success Kid image, it is redescribed. It is not merely a copy, but an interpretive process. I like what she says about truth, quoting Ricoeur:

The world against which we measure the truth claims of the literary text is a world that is already mediated via stories, images, myths, jokes, commonsense assumptions, scraps of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, popular aphorisms, and the like (84-85).

Put simply, my truth is not your truth, because we each experience the world differently, so we cannot argue for some universal truth or a single reality, as it doesn’t exist. Therefore, literature is by default both truth and untruth, both representation and reflection, both illusion and reality. No matter where it falls on the spectrum here, it can teach us.

Felski introduces metaphor (figurative language – a representation and a reinterpretation, yes?) to the argument next, pointing out that even our use of language is “tangled up with our embeddedness in the world” (86). Basically, language use depends on context, and it both creates and is used to create reality. In the same way, worlds create selves (we are defined by the constraints of the world we live in) and selves perceive and react to worlds (we change and adapt to the world we live in). Language creates us, just as we create it. Felski says next that “what metaphor and mimesis share is the capacity to generate new perspectives, to make possible other ways of seeing, to intensify meaning by dynamically recreating a world already mediated by language” (86).

One gift of literature is intersubjectivity: the ability to share experience across more than one conscious mind. Through literature, particularly through well-written characters, we can come to know specific societies or communities from the inside, as if we were truly a part of that group. We share their inner monologues, their actions, their conversations. At the same time, this can backfire, particularly when characters are not accurately portrayed, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. This is why it is important that people tell their own stories, otherwise someone may speak for you, and they may not do you justice.

Felski uses one of my favorite poets as an example next, Pablo Neruda. She references his “Ode to Things” (one of my favorite poems is “Ode to My Socks”), reminding us that it isn’t just people, or places, or events that one can know as a result of literature; perhaps we should also know the inanimate objects we hold on to in our lives. Poetry, Felski argues, can do that.

Of course, literature can mislead us; it can even offend us. But as Felski says, “literature, by dint of it’s generic status as imaginative or fictional writing, cannot be automatically precluded from taking part in practices of knowing” (103). Though literature, and especially poetry, might be placed in the box or domain of creative writing, it is not without value: literature, according to Felski, is a “form of social knowledge…[texts] fictional and aesthetic dimensions, far from testifying to a failure of knowing, should be hailed as the source of their cognitive strength” (104).

Think about this as we read Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead.” Felski is talking about literature, but I would argue that much of her argument in this section of her book could apply to poetry. What can poetry do, for us? What good is poetry? What might it accomplish?

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A Little Bit of Comics History

I didn’t come to comics by way of superheroes or films. I didn’t read them as a child. I had never even held a comic book in my hands until 2014, when I heard about Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes through a friend on social media. I picked up my first issue of LJ (a variant cover!) at Motor City Comic Con in 2014, and started reading Ms. Marvel not long after that. Somewhere along the way I had understood comics to be a boy’s world, and so it was exciting to discover there were comics that had women front and center. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Saga and Bitch Planet in addition to LJ (though I’ve stopped following Ms. Marvel as closely), and my bookshelves include a number of graphic novels as well (mostly nonfiction).

I had read graphic novels and manga before I started reading comics, but honestly, comics were a harder genre for me to navigate as a new reader – my graphic novel and manga experience prepared me to read the panels, but the entire comic book world was unfamiliar territory. Marvel Universe was a phenomenon I couldn’t find a point of entry to. Same with DC Comics. On top of that, women in comics have historically been portrayed as sex objects, which is a huge issue for me. I had no interest in picking up something displaying a scantily-clad woman with large breasts on its cover (no matter how much I might appreciate the female body). I wanted to read about strong, smart women who didn’t exist solely for the purposes of male pleasure – and those series do exist, if you’re willing to do some digging (and fortunately, there is less digging to be done now that female-friendly comics have become more established in the culture). I do still feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes when I peruse the shelves at Green Brain Comics here in Dearborn, because there are so many titles. Comic book aficionados know the creators, the big names in the industry, the canon and its criticism, and that can be (okay, it is) very intimidating.

In April 2016, Dan Merritt from Green Brain gave a talk at the Dearborn Public Library on the history of comics. It was a small but fascinating discussion that helped me understand how comics became what they are now. As someone who still has major reservations when it comes to superhero comics, I do feel like an outsider, and maybe I always will. I’m okay with that. I value the history of comics, though, in that it helps me understand the larger context that the literature I do read is a part of.

Comics, traditionally, were seen as young people’s territory. This is partly because we associate pictorial representations with children (Dr. Seuss, anyone?), and because we’ve created a system in which literacy (in this case, the ability to read and write) is a marker of intelligence and status, therefore pictures are for those who are less smart (this is explained in further detail by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics). Comics were, for a long time, regulated by the Comics Code Authority, which limited depictions of violence and graphic imagery believed to be harmful to children. Keep in mind that this was the 1950’s, and what was considered “appropriate” for children was also racially charged (ie: people of color were rarely seen, and could never be portrayed as heroes).

The underground comics (comix) scene developed in response to such regulations. Comics that defied the CCA were published and circulated in underground networks. Mainstream comics were still very much present, though the Code was revised to include lessons of morality; in other words, comics were seen as potential teaching tool, still for an audience of adolescents. Marvel and DC generally followed the CCA; in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a three-part Spiderman story was released in partnership with the U.S. Dept of Health that explicitly portrayed drug use as dangerous. The CCA remained through the 1980’s, though its influence waned as it relaxed, and comics aimed at adult readers became more popular. Marvel and DC currently use their own ratings system to designate appropriate age groups for what they publish.

The Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) now owns the CCA seal, which serves as a reminder of the restrictions placed on comic book creators. The seal was acquired during Banned Books Week:

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “As we reflect upon the challenges facing intellectual freedom during Banned Books Week, the Comics Code Seal is a reminder that it’s possible for an entire creative field to have those rights curtailed because of government, public, and market pressures. Fortunately, today comics are no longer constrained as they were in the days of the Code, but that’s not something we can take for granted. Banned Books Week reminds us that challenges to free speech still occur, and we must always be vigilant in fighting them.”

If you were to walk into your local comic book store today, you may find a designated children’s section, but that section would be just a fraction of what is available for an adult audience. Traditionally, comics have focused on horror, sci-fi/fantasy, and the supernatural, and this is generally still true today though some stories have become darker and others have become more playful. High artistic standards have elevated comics as a recognized form of literature by readers and scholars alike, and film adaptations have brought comics to new audiences. Creators have also regained creative control, and independent publishers like Image (a spin-off of Marvel) formed to honor creator-owned work. There has also been a strong push for more diversity in comics, though one major issue there is with the readership: people who have historically been excluded from comics storylines aren’t likely to know that anything has changed unless they are explicitly, humbly, and kindly invited back to the table.

So where do graphic novels fit in? Graphic novels are essentially book-length comics with more sophisticated and varied content, according to the ALA. While I don’t love the ALA’s language (graphic novels are more “grown up?”), the sentiment may be true: graphic novels are more literary and “cultured:” they deal with subject matter that moves more slowly (compared to the action of comics) and is more intellectually complex. That doesn’t mean it’s “better” or that people who read comics are dumb, graphic novels just do something different; the genre features serve a purpose. The memoir is a common theme in contemporary graphic novels. Blankets is a good example of this, as are both of Alison Bechdel’s books.

I hope I’ve done comics justice here; again, as an outsider working her way in, I don’t always feel confident sharing backstory, because I may not fully understand it. However, the internet makes a lot of information freely available (much love, Wikipedia!), and people care enough to make sure that information is accurate and detailed (thanks to those who wrote, revised, and provided footnotes!). I’ve also picked up some new books to read, including Watchmen by Alan Moore, considered to be one of the key works that brought comics to mainstream readers. I have Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, and Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature on my to-read list this semester as well.

Below are some links to check out:

Much of this post was adapted from the Comics Code Authority Wikipedia page.

We Need Diverse Comics on Facebook

Women Don’t Read Comics (this one has a video *and* the article is a transcript of the video, hooray for accessibility!)

American Splendor is a book and film about Cleveland-based Harvey Pekar, one of the big names in underground comix.

ComiqueCon, a celebration of women in comics, is an event held annually in Dearborn at the Arab American National Museum!

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?

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