What are literary studies?

Literary histories were created in the nineteenth century as part of the nation-formation process but did literary works produced in this period really participate in that in such a self-aware way? What if some of them work against it — intentionally or not?

Also, literature is taught to teach language and culture, but also aesthetics, rhetoric, discernment; literature refines sensibilities. It is also taught as part of nationalistic enterprises. Does cultural studies serve this last purpose as well?

That is: do those who reject literature as meaningless, elitist and irrelevant, and prefer to study television, do so for the nationalistic or essentializing reasons some study literature? Are our students trying to identify a Volksgeist? Was literature abandoned when theory interdicted studying it for Volksgeist and national character or soul?

The problematizing discussion of the terms culture and national culture may be even more important than I had realized.




Filed under Questions

4 responses to “What are literary studies?

  1. Jonathan Mayhew

    I hate the reverse snobbery against literature.

    It’s a useful reminder that literary studies is a 19th-century nationalistic enterprise. Then my contention that the meta-narrative of Hispanism is the peculiarity of national culture is almost a given. I think it begins in the 18th century, but that’s a minor adjustment.

    Cultural studies is still about the national narratives. In peninsular studies, not having to deal with literary texts makes this even more apparent, and the metanarrative takes central stage. All the issues are “cultural issues,” and the “refinement” of literature becomes something you don’t have to bother with as much. The main issue becomes Spanish nationalism vs. Basque, Galician, and Catalan nationalisms.

    • Z

      Yes, I hate it too. I am going to stop feeling sorry for my Peninsular class and hit them in the head with Literature and Theory even though they do not speak Spanish.

      Yes, and it also makes the Doris Sommer thesis on Latin America a given (and created since 1930, in her view, it is almost neo-Platonist, she thinks 19th century pre-imagines post-vanguare theories of mestizaje and nation).

      Cultural studies may have been really diluted. To many it seems to mean popular culture studied with traditionalist techniques and ideologies from literary studies.

      These people are all so bourgeois, they think literature is a refined parlor game.

  2. Jonathan Mayhew

    Here is a quote for you

    “El florecimiento de las literaturas nacionales coincide, en la historia de Occidente, con la afirmación política de la idea nacional. Forma parte del movimiento que, a través de la Reforma y el Renacimiento, creó los factores ideológicos y espirituales de la revolución liberal y del orden capitalista. La unidad de la cultura europea, mantenida durante el Medioevo por el latín y el Papado, se rompió a causa de la corriente nacionalista, que tuvo una de sus expresiones en la individualización nacional de las literaturas. El “nacionalismo” en la historiografía literaria, es por tanto un fenómeno de la más pura raigambre política, extraño a la concepción estética del arte. Tiene su más vigorosa definición en Alemania, desde la obra de los Schlegel, que renueva profundamente la crítica y la historiografía literarias.”

    Mariátegui, 7 ensayos

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