The Literary Aesthetic and Reading for the Other

The literary invents worlds for us, but also shows how life ought to be lived, or how the world could possibly be.

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The crisis in the Humanities and the ‘function’ of literary-aesthetic studies have become the truths we take to be self-evident. As scholars in these fields rush to establish their relevance by addressing contemporary crises and concerns – planetary climate change, rising fundamentalisms, to name two – the backlash also comes: that literary-aesthetic studies have strayed too far afield. And yet Literature – as an institution, profession, habit, craft and industry – thrives. 

There could be two reasons for the flourishing of the field: the necessity of the aesthetic as a part of life itself, and the protocols of reading that it enables.

The literary and the aesthetic

Responding to the instrumentalisation of literature – that it must address social problems and ‘larger’ concerns rather than just offer aesthetic pleasure – another of the foundations of Literature, Rita Felski proposes that we treat literature as ‘usable’ rather than ‘useful’ where ‘usable [is] a word that better captures its chameleonlike ability to speak to diverse interests and desires, to morph into different roles and functions’. Felski’s definition is still within the problematic of ‘use-value’ and the urgent need to state that ‘we literature people are useful/useable too’; but it makes a wholly different kind of sense too.

The literary invents worlds for us, but also shows how life ought to be lived, or how the world could possibly be. In the process, it introduces us to what Martha Nussbaum argued in Love’s Knowledge (1990) as the moral debates of the world (in which there are the human and nonhuman). Readers see characters taking moral positions on various subjects and learn, at least subliminally, how to take such decisions themselves. This implies a pedagogic role for the literary.

Then, as Aristotle famously proposed, the literary text enables emotional release (catharsis). For those who argue that these are solely sensations and therefore apolitical, because there can be non-cathartic feelings aroused too, Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings argues that 

the noncathartic feelings  … could be said to give rise to a noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release … and does so as a kind of politics. 

Ngai’s focus is on paranoia, envy, irritation, anxiety, among others. Ngai’s argument is that the formal aspects of a literary work – which we must pay attention to, especially matters of tone and representational strategies – generate its ‘affective bearing, orientation, or “set toward” its audience and world’. Ngai further argues: ‘the formal aspect that enables these affective values to become significant with regard to how each critic understands the work as a totality within an equally holistic matrix of social relations’.

The key point is that what counts as affective values, say in one period and one culture, may not be the same in another place and age. Aesthetic and affective qualities are not inherent in the work alone, but are historically and culturally specific. In other words, the literary aesthetic emerges between the text and the social relations in which it is produced and consumed. 

Most importantly, then, the literary aesthetic is a component of our everyday aesthetic experience, shaped by our contexts and non-literary texts, and aesthetic experience is central to our experience of the world. The critic Isobel Armstrong asserts that the aesthetic in everyday life is linked to ‘playing and dreaming, thinking and feeling’. She adds: ‘the components of aesthetic life are those that are already embedded in the processes and practices of consciousness’. The aesthetic is a part of the ‘creative and cognitive life’, and therefore literary aesthetics and aesthetic training contribute to the shaping of the social world we occupy.

The aesthetic is one way of understanding the world, just as the STEM disciplines offer one way of understanding the world. The aesthetic is also one way of understanding the self

That is, the literary and the aesthetic are modes of interpretation and understanding of how we see ourselves and the world we live in. When for instance, we do not understand that all humans are injurable then we consign some of them to the category of disposable persons, leading to heinous acts of brutality against such persons.

Mohammed Shafi, one of the accused in the Elanthoor ‘human sacrifice’ case, being produced at court, in Kochi. Photo: PTI

The recognition of the injurability of humans does not come from reading just the standard anatomy textbooks that uncover the fragile nature of bones and muscle: it also comes from reading literature which has historically documented the consequences that befall those identified as non- or lesser humans and the circumstances in which they become non-persons. As Lynn Hunt famously demonstrated in her Inventing Human Rights (2007), when the 18th century Europeans read the sentimental novel they came to realise that the working classes and people of other races also shared features – including sentiment – with the white races. This, argues Hunt, led to the recognition that despite the diversity of races, all humans share common features:

“Eighteenth-century readers, like people before them, empathised with those close to them and with those most obviously like them—their immediate families, their relatives, the people of their parish, in general their customary social equals. But eighteenth-century people had to learn to empathise across more broadly defined boundaries … In reading, they empathised across traditional social boundaries between nobles and commoners, masters and servants, men and women, perhaps even adults and children. As a consequence, they came to see others—people they did not know personally—as like them, as having the same kinds of inner emotions.”

It was this recognition that constructed the category of the universal human (albeit male, as later critics have observed) and from there rose the ideal of universal human rights. Similarly, it was the 19th century’s news coverage of the plight of refugees in various parts of Europe that induced statesmen, theologians and academic activists to seek humanitarian aid and parliamentary interventions – thus producing the humanitarian movement of the age, as documented by Caroline Shaw in Britannia’s Embrace: Modern Humanitarianism and the Imperial Origins of Refugee Relief (2015)

The literary aesthetic also contextualises the present in ways so as to expect a certain kind of future. The genre of sci-fi unfolds a future in the present in, say, William Gibson’s fiction (Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in Neuromancer, way back in 1984, well before the arrival of the World Wide Web). The critic Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. writes of the genre:

“Readers of SF anticipate words and sentences that refer to changed or alien worlds. All fantastic genres make some use of fictive neology. Heroic fantasy invents words to evoke the archaic origins of its worlds. Phantasmagoric satire delights in wordplay that simultaneously masks and insinuates the objects of its derision. Gothic and supernatural tales invoke esoteric and folkloric terms to create the sense of a concealed or forgotten past. SF is distinct, in that its fictive neologies connote newness and innovation vis-à-vis the historical present of the reader’s culture. They are fictive signa novi, signs of the new.”

Invoking the new and the not-yet-here, as sci-fi does, is to create a prospective teleology so that we work towards it.

The literary aesthetic that drives our pleasures, paranoias and anxieties also tells us how to ‘read’ the life we lead and see around us, to experiment, and come to an understanding of the moral codes that inform, or ought to inform, our lives. 

I now turn to one specific attribute of the profession of literary studies.

Protocols of reading

The assumption that literary studies, with its greater interest in contexts of literary production, consumption, ideologies and politics, is now less interested in the craft and the ‘words on the page’ invokes anger, sorrow and fear. One of the world’s leading critics and a professor of English at Harvard, Marjorie Garber, mourns:

“Some literary historians and historicist critics within departments of literary study are in danger of forgetting, or devaluing, the history of their own craft and practice, which is based not only on the contextual understanding of literary works but also on the words on the page.”

The insistence on close reading – arguably the foundation of literary studies – returns with considerable evocative force in Garber:

“Let us not speculate on [Shakespeare’s] personal or professional motives his inner thoughts, his relationships with his wife or children, his cultural aspirations, his finances, his religion, or his attitude toward the reigning monarch…but rather the text of the play and what it tells us.”

There are several points of contention here in Garber’s elegiac note on the transformation of literary studies.

Surely there is no one ‘close reading’ either. Marxist close readings are not the same as deconstructive or poststructuralist close readings. A psychoanalytic close reading will generate interpretations of a wholly different nature, just as those who undertake a reading of digital texts would follow a different protocol of reading. 

Then, the study of the literary is about more than just literary tropes or themes: it is about the operations of the language, rhetoric (persuasive speech), reading and writing skills and of course Critical Theory. Ideally, these skills are taught via a range of literary texts. This means, the practitioners of literary studies are not solely focused on cathartic emotions encoded in texts. They also pay attention to – again ideally! – protocols and formal practices of reading, writing and interpretation. 

Moreover, as Laura D’Olimpio in her recent essay argues, the arts and the aesthetic experience ‘is a vital component of a flourishing life and if education has a role to play in preparing students to lead flourishing and meaningful lives, then we must include aesthetic education on the curriculum’. Thus, training in aesthetics enables one to have a larger creative and cognitive range that then fuels a flourishing of the life of the mind and thereby of life itself.

If we think in utilitarian terms, acquiring the protocols of reading is also about the acquisition of specific skills. Reading is about the language of a text, and this does not necessarily mean literary texts. Thus, developing modes of close reading is about the skill to read language and not just literary language. While this may be the heart and soul of literary studies as its essential skill set, the ability to read texts closely works equally well for film scholars and cultural studies specialists who decode the formal properties of digital texts, film, fashion, sports and political speeches with the same attention and analytic surplus that Stephen Greenblatt does for a Shakespeare play. 

While literary studies, as Paul Jay notes in his book on the crisis in/of the humanities, has professionalised close reading, it is not restricted to literary scholars:

“For this reason, any serious return to a focus on reading in literary studies (and in the humanities in general) has to broaden attention away from a narrow notion of close reading … to focus instead on practices of reading … It emphasizes instead that humanists have at their disposal a range of styles and types of reading geared to produce different results for different purposes. Such an approach to reading also stresses that reading is not innate; it is a practice, and therefore has a professional dimension.”

To be sure, close reading can also produce hate, anxiety and desire. It was, as we now know, the imaginative representation of distant worlds and their treasures in literary texts and fabricated travelogues such as John Mandeville’s that invoked the desire to explore and to conquer – leading to the ‘discovery’ of the ‘new world’ and colonialism. When contemporary reading protocols highlight these texts and their inherent imperial motifs, they also alert us to structural racisms and oppressions whose sins from the Early Modern cast long shadows now.

To the competent reader, the Papal Bulls of the 11th century, the Early Modern travelogues and the 18th century House of Commons debates about the ‘new world’ are cultural texts whose structures of feeling divided, organised and colonised the world. Reading closely today enables us to see the tradition of a certain kind of imperialising textuality, so that we can be alerted against the same textuality asserting itself in accounts of, say Antarctica or outer space – places now open to colonisation as the East Indies or Africa once were, or as Greenblatt demonstrates about Trump’s America through a reading of Shakespeare. (Whether being alerted, even in woke cultures, produces social and political action is however a moot point.) 


Former US president Donald Trump. Photo: REUTERS/Jim Bourg`

Reading well is to read for the self – to understand, comprehend, deal with – but also for the Other. 

Today, we see scholars in medical humanities, history, sociology and cultural studies employ similar modes of reading once associated solely with literary studies specialists when reading: the apparatuses and processes of medical treatment (Lisa Diedrich and Rita Charon, the latter with dual degrees in medicine and literature), political communication (John Street), the social histories of medicine (Roy Porter), visual texts (WJT Mitchell), philosophy and neuroscience (Catharine Malabou), cinema (Colin McCabe), celebrity cultures (Chris Rojek) to name just a handful of disciplines in the broad field of culture and communication studies.

Then there are literary studies scholars like Sianne Ngai, who examines the structure of anxiety in three radically different texts: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Herman Melville’s Pierre. The reading draws out points of similarity and difference and thereby demonstrates that the skill of disentangling a text is as applicable to the thriller film as it is to dense philosophical prose or the novel. No longer is reading a ‘canon worship of the past’, as Felski notes – and it is a good thing too. In related fashion, no one reads texts – of all kinds, from Shakespeare to sci-fi to libel tracts and anthropology – better than Greenblatt, Frederic Jameson, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, and they are literary critics of varied persuasions. 

Training in the literary aesthetic, therefore, enables and empowers the individual to appreciate and experience art – which indisputably contributes to the flourishing of life and greater pleasure in forms of beauty – but also to read rhetoric across media and genres. It alerts us to subtexts, the unstated and the hyperbolic. It alerts us to prejudice and bias, to discern the truth value – or lack of it – in statements and public discourses. In Rita Felski’s words in her neat essay in Profession:

“To teach a survey course in literary theory is to induct one’s students in techniques of suspicious interpretation, to train them to read between the lines and against the grain…. the animating spirit of our inquiry is the conviction that appearances deceive and that texts do not willingly surrender their secrets. Instead of being emblazoned in the words on the page, meaning lies beneath or to the side of these words, encrypted in what the literary work cannot or will not say, in its eloquent stuttering and recalcitrant silences.”

That is, close reading enables ‘suspicious interpretation’ that excavates a textual unconscious, whose origins lie in the political unconscious of collective sentiments, politics, the social fabric that promulgate tropes of national identity and pride, jingoism and myths of progress.

In the process, the reading enables us to reflect on those unlike us, but to whom the same dignity, rights, interiority, freedoms are owed and whose embedding in certain structures – racism, patriarchy, totalitarianism – destroys any chance of being possessed of dignity, rights, interiority and freedom.

Pramod K. Nayar is a professor at the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad.