Why do I work with literature? Am I not a leach? Don't I just suck resources from society (I'm currently on fellowship, next year they'll start paying me to "teach" other students how to speak German)? Will what I do now "lead" to something important in the future?
Why can't I do something practical, such as computer science, or engineering, or business? Or something that will benefit mankind? Or do something exciting? For example, shouldn't I have been an astronaut? Or a marine biologist?
Instead, I am working on my PhD in German Literature (with side interests in Slavic lang/lit, linguistics, and a lot of computer-oriented work). In a world (in a U.S. economy) increasingly unfriendly regarding the arts and humanities, do I need to justify my existence? I did almost two years ago to Ben, and I had done so over two years ago to Leena in a similar way. Now, two years later, I thought I might return to this subject.
What do we gain by studying literature (and by literature, I loosely include other "art" and cultural artifacts)? Is it merely a subjective pleasure or is it an objective measure of being "cultured"? Ultimately, does it have a purpose, a function, a role that is important? If so, is this a role that can be overtaken by something else?
That is, have we "out-grown" the written word, or, at least, literature as we know it? Has film taken over, or TV? Does the world of fiction offer us something special, something we can not get elsewhere? Related to the above question (does literature have a purpose/functin/role), should we instead run with terror if literature is thus functionalized and made dependent upon society; would we not be happier (and better off?) with something independent - autonomous, per se?
Let me argue that literature plays an important role for the individual. This role is pedagogic, therapeutic, and perhaps even spiritual, although not necessarily all at once, or even all for all people. This is most evident in didactic works and works which seek to define and/or mold. "National" literature can at times fulfill that role, or at least attempt to, for it seeks to 1) define the "national" and 2) provide the individual a place in such a national context. Some "literature" is polemic and seeks stir thought, to agitate it and set it in motion. Through other literature feelings are brought to expression. More "modern" (or modernistic) works may alienate the reader, and in so doing bring the reader to a new perspective, a new manner of perception even. The variations, while not endless, are great, and although it is possible for a writer to write for no one, one must assume that in general a writer (or artist) creates for an audience, even when such an audience is only the author him/herself. In any case, literature is an interaction between a reader and a text, and this interaction causes change, if perhaps only temporary within the reader. This "change" may be emotional, it may be "intellectual", it may become a matter of reflection; that is causes thought in the reader independent of the text.
Writing about literature is a "meta" function at one level, for it allows us (supposedly) to talk "about" something else, to distance ourselves and perform a type of abstraction. This may be in order to better "understand" a given text, it may be in order to generalize and/or compare, etc. At another "level", our talking/writing about literature is merely the creation of another text, one which, like ones before it, can be analyzed and discussed. Writing "about" can clarify and explain, but since the simply reading of a text is limited to the text itself, writing/talking about it can contextualize it, can help one to understand difficult points, can interpret the text, and can link the text to other cultural artifacts, be they works of art, ideas, or events. Hence, the text is not isolated, and writing about texts has a unifying function that bridges the gap between paper and mind.
Changes that occur to and within the subject are ethical. By ethical I cannot and do not merely mean to relate to "good" versus "evil" or "right" versus "wrong" behavior. By ethics, one has to refer to all actions undertaken by an individual that relate to an individuals interactions (inter = between) with other people/objects/subjects. If we let ethics be how we conduct activities/interactions between people, that is, ethics is necessary for social behavior, and if literature and the discussion of it impacts ethics, then literature indeed has a important role in our world.
For certain types of "literature" this is a trivial claim, for it is easy to show that certain authors throughout history, such as J.C. Gottsched (18th century German Enlightenment writer, etc.), have clearly meant their works as pedagogical tools; Gottsched, for example, interpreted tragedy as pointing our moral behavior (or, immoral behavior); the viewer should defnitely learn from dramas in this regard. However, I would argue that insofar as literature impacts the individual, it impacts the individual's interactsions with the world around him/her, and hence is important for personal ethics (the only type that mean anything anyway), and this extends beyond plainly pedagogically minded works.
We could divide questions of philosophy into several areas, including (but perhaps not limited to) ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. To briefly summarize, ontology concerns itself with the question of what is - the nature of being. Epistemology, instead, is interested with what we can know (regardless of what actually is). Aesthetics, while commonly taken to be the study of that which is beautiful ("I find that aesthetically pleasing"), is in the broadest sense the study of perception and experience (not what is experienced, but the process of actually experiencing). As one may notice, we have moved from "what there is" to "what can be known" to "how is perceived"; we have moved from a a topic which does not ncessarily need observers to one that requires them, since it (aesthetics) necessarily concerns itself with perspective, point of view (are they the same?). Ethics can be seen as a final step - the relationship of the observer to the world about him/her. One might note that this division of philosophy does not leave us with 4 completely independent realms; as arranged here, each is connected to the preceding in one way or another.
Unlike pure, unmediated experience, literature and the discussion about it is concerned with reflection, which in turn results in changes to the subject (the "reader"). Whether these changes are "progressive" is another matter, and at this point of little concern. Changes to a subject necessarily affect how such a subject sees the world and reacts/interacts to/with it.
All communities beyond that comprising of the individual - and perhaps even that! - are imagined. Insofar as the concept of others as different and distinct from the self are a matter of recognition and not perception, they are a matter of reflection, and that which is reflected is not the object itself, merely a signifier of it, the signified. Hence, it is imagined. This is clearly the case regarding the nation, as (in a different manner) argued by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. But this is true of the state, the municipality, the town, the village, the social group, the family. The individual can interact with others by way of instinct; mere reflex ("Have a nice day." "You, too."), but to treat others as other subjects, not merely as objects and catalysts for action, action based on something beyond instinct is necessary, and by definition, this requires ethics.
Ethics, and "morals" are social in nature, not purely indvidual. "Do not kill." "Do not steal." "Do not commit adultery." And so on - "others" beyond and besides the subject are required. And it is almost a given that all humans must make ethical decisions. Only three situations come to mind where this is not the case, and all require the isolation of the subject. First, we could deal with a person who is alone and fends for him/herself in the world, providing his/her own food and other needs. Since this is, when not accompanied by human tools, a tedious and difficult endeavor, little time will be left for such a person to consider and/or partake of other, "non-necessary" activities. Secondly, we could have and individual who has left society behind to live on his/her own, but unless that person resorts to being the "first" person (previous sentence), this person will have to rely tools, etc. gained from others - hence, there is an implied other, which implied that at some point there was, likely, ethical decision making made by someone. Finally, we could have someone who has left society or has been left by it for some reason - imagine "the last man on earth" - who, unless he/she has no human implements (that is, our first example) will partake of artifacts gained from society at some point, even if such a society no longer exists. Humans are social creatures.
Furthermore, humans interact at varying degrees of complexity with "others". There is one-on-one interaction - such as that between mother and child, friends, lovers, etc. We then interact in small groups - families, for example, and other social circles. These sometimes extend to the tribal and/or clannish level, occasionally to the town or city, and from there - perhaps - to the civic. The civic can be extended from the city to the so-called nation, a true "imagined community", since, as Anderson notes, no member of the nation will ever actually meet all the other members of such a nation; but in their imagination (and their imagining) they are linked as close as brothers. The nation is not the end-all, be-all here, for 1) the nation as such is a modern concept, and cannot be taken as an a priori category of sorts; it is arbitrary among other things. However, we can see the nation as one element in a chain of constructs beginning with the individual and growing to the universal; everything short of the universal, however, by definition has it's marked "other".
The individual is singular and finite, bounded by space and time, both in terms of influence and existence. Each new level (above) can transcend the individual, but such transcendence is not a given, or it is not innate; it is interaction between members of such groups that creates this illusion of transcendence, and whlie this is clearly an illusion, it is a necessary one, for without it 1) the larger group cannot hold together and 2) the groupd ceases to maintain its meaning (are these two really different?) Cultural texts - text produced by a culture (replace text with artifact, if you choose) - are one such means or glue, but they are not functional, for if they were, this would indicate the primacy of the larger group over 1) the individual and 2) the text/artifact, when instead it is the text/artifact that makes the imagining of such groups possible. That such texts then become functionalized - by way of other texts! - does not speak against this.
Such texts can be, from the perspective and goal of the individual, be ways to transcend the individual, to reach (out to) others and to leave something behind. The search for something beyond the individual, the search for the universal, is not merely an aspect of the religious, for that is merely one expression of this drive; it is is synonymous with the search for meaning. The creation of such texts is an endeavor of some group - even if that group consists of one individual. No text has inherent meaning; only in the intereaction between subject and text does this meaning come into place, and it can be that the inferred meaning is taken to be from the creators of the text; this is inference, though, and is indicative of the attempt to create connections between individuals and groups. Talking about and reflecting on such texts, whatever they may be, is hence a product of the performative aspect of ethical behavior. And hence, our circle is complete.
I don't know my first word(s), or when I took my first step. I don't remember my first thought, or the first piece of solid foot I ate. There are many firsts that are lost to me, even though there must have been a first.
There are other firsts that stick in my mind. Sometimes I have dates for them. Places, times. People who were there.
Sometimes "firsts" are also lasts, or at least events that have not been repeated up to this point.