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Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century

Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century

by Mark William Roche

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Not just another jeremiad against prevailing isms and orthodoxies, Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century examines literature in its connection to virtue and moral excellence. The author is concerned with literature as the teacher of virtue. The current crisis in the humanities, Mark William Roche argues, may be traced back to the separation of


Not just another jeremiad against prevailing isms and orthodoxies, Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century examines literature in its connection to virtue and moral excellence. The author is concerned with literature as the teacher of virtue. The current crisis in the humanities, Mark William Roche argues, may be traced back to the separation of art and morality. (“When the distinction between is and ought is leveled,” he writes, “the power of the professions increases.”)
The arts and humanities concern themselves with the fate and prospects of humankind. Today that fate and those prospects are under the increasing influence of technology. In a technological age, literature gains in importance precisely to the extent that our sense of intrinsic value is lost. In its elevation of play and inexhaustible meaning, literature offers a counterbalance to reason and efficiency. It helps us grasp the ways in which diverse parts form a comprehensive and complex whole, and it connects us with other ages and cultures. Not least, great literature grapples with the ethical challenges of the day.

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Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century

By Mark William Roche

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10449-3

Chapter One


The arts and humanities, including literature and literary criticism, concern themselves with the fate and prospects of humankind. These fields have been placed under increasing pressure to give an account of themselves-partly because unlike science and technology the value of the arts and the humanities is not immediately apparent, partly because states and universities have suffered harshly competitive fiscal demands, and partly because increased criticism has been lodged against the arts and humanities from both within and beyond the academy. Any attempt to justify the arts and humanities must account for their universal purpose and their specific role in a given age. Today the fate and prospects of humanity are under the influence of technology-the technological transformation of the world was the defining feature of the twentieth century, both in the strict sense of the harnessing and transformation of nature and the creation and application of tools, machines, and information and in the broad sense of an elevation of means-ends rationality.


Technology represents a mode of means-ends thinking thatallows us to manipulate material for a given end. We can be said to live in an age of technology when four conditions have been met: first, our daily living presupposes constant interaction with the products of technology, such that we have as steady a relation to these products as we do to nature or to other persons; second, the most dramatic events of our era are defined by technology, in this case new inventions that change our lives dramatically, for better and for worse; third, our mode of thinking is very much driven by the paradigm of technology, by which I mean above all technical rationality; and fourth, technology takes on a life of its own, becoming not just a means to a higher goal but its own end-such that, for example, the products of technology elicit new needs as much as satisfy intrinsic needs. These conditions apply to the contemporary age and have increasingly defined the modern world since the first industrial revolution. In the words of the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, "Technology is the thought of our age in visible, pictorial terms" (26.63).

The influence of technology on modernity places new tasks before both literature and literary criticism, and a legitimation of these spheres must reflect on these new tasks. Accordingly, I analyze the moral aspects of literature and literary criticism in general, discuss prominent categories of the technological age and the influence of technology on literature, and address what great literature and literary criticism should be specifically in this age. The topic is innovative in at least two respects. First, the question of a moral justification of literature and literary criticism tends to be neglected-both by philosophers, who have increasingly retreated into the narrow confines of their own subdisciplines, and by literary critics, who despite their attention to issues of self-reflection have focused more on historical and sociological issues, pragmatic concerns, and questions of ideology or interpretation than on the fundamental principles of their profession, including the value of literature and literary criticism. Exceptions, such as Sven Birkerts, are few and far between and surface for the most part outside the mainstream of the academy. Conferences on the profession of literary criticism tend to address its history and sociology, the descriptive not the normative sphere. When the future is thematized, one tends to speak of pragmatic concerns, such as there being either too many students (in graduate programs) or too few students (in undergraduate programs) and in the latter case, how we might enroll more students. Sometimes the suggestion made is to become more interdisciplinary, which need not mean-but unfortunately often does mean-that beyond expanding our horizon, we should also abandon the teaching of literature as literature. We rarely ask why we should read literature and why we should pursue literary criticism, nor generally is the question asked, What are our specific obligations as literary scholars in an age marked by technology and increasingly threatened by ecological crisis? This inattention to the ethical challenges of modernity is one of the central reasons for the contemporary crisis in literary criticism, and the emphasis on the how at the expense of the why is-as we shall see below-simply another expression of technological consciousness.

Second, although the philosophy of technology is a burgeoning field, few philosophers of technology reflect at any length on art, even those, such as Hans Jonas and Karl-Otto Apel, who address ethics and technology. Here, too, the exceptions are few; one thinks above all of Walter Benjamin's well-known contribution The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Although philosophers of technology have tended to neglect literature and literary criticism, one can integrate their insights by asking not only what arguments and categories these thinkers introduce and to what extent they are valid but also what relevance their ideas have for the study of literature in the technological age. In this sense I attempt to extend such thinkers as Jonas and Apel beyond their immediate claims. Some attention has been given by literary critics to the thematic study of technology in literature, and much can be gained from the few analyses available. Nonetheless, literature seems to be ahead of literary criticism, as there are seemingly more works, including anthologies of literary works, that thematize technology than literary-critical studies of the topic. In contrast to the modern tendency to place in opposition to one another two dominant spheres of knowledge, science and technology over against the humanities and the arts, the Greek notion of techne suggests that technique and art need not be viewed as exclusive poles. Techne means both art (e.g., literature) and craft (i.e., technique). As such it differs from episteme, which signifies pure knowledge or science. For the Greeks the artist was a craftsman, shoemaking was an art, and sculpture was a technique. For Plato no distinction existed between the fine and the mechanical arts. This connection between technique and art is widely characteristic of the premodern world. It is prominent, for example, in drawing and painting, where perspective, anatomy, and geometrical proportions assumed great significance; thus, for Leonardo da Vinci art and science were one and the same. Nonetheless, a shift occurs beginning in isolated cases already in the sixteenth century and, bolstered by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth, becoming widespread by the end of the eighteenth (Kristeller 507-27). Art and technique no longer serve the same purpose but develop independently and autonomously. The artes liberales and artes mechanicae diverge, and technology becomes aligned with science and industry, while art develops stronger ties to the humanities.

In Man in the Age of Technology Arnold Gehlen, one of Germany's earliest philosophers of technology, recognized that the emergence of the technological age was sped by the congruence of science, technology, and capitalism (11-13). Rapid scientific advances accelerate the development of new technologies, both of which require the investment of capital. Also, technical inventions make the market that much more efficient, improving infrastructure, commerce, and the number of desirable goods. In turn, the competitive nature of the market economy hastens the already quick developments of science and industry. Science and technique have become so intertwined that systematic reflection on technique has become integral to the techniques themselves, and so many diverse techniques function in such close cooperation that today one speaks simply of "technology" even when describing the object sphere. Technical breakthroughs in the modern era were not isolated phenomena but "came in clusters, interacting with each other in a process of increasing returns" (Castells 1.37). In this way isolated techniques were transformed into the mass phenomenon of technology. Today, with so many technical innovations converging into shared enterprises and cooperative endeavors, the sense of technology as a single entity is accentuated daily. The complexity of modern technology, in its intersection with science and capitalism, represents not simply a quantitative break from the techniques of earlier eras, it is qualitatively different. In the premodern era, the poet frequently drew metaphors from the world of technique; Homer, like the medieval poets after him, was still close to the life worlds in which techniques, such as plowing or weaving, played roles. In contrast, the modern poet rarely employs metaphors from today's technology, the jet engine or the nuclear reactor, for example. The complexity of modern technology and our distance from its inner workings further this break and its effect on poetics. Not surprisingly, Dürrenmatt speaks of "the technology that has become impenetrable" ("Ich bin" 34).

Given the complexity of modern technology, literature and technology seem to have become separate and unbridgeable spheres. Half a century ago C. P. Snow advanced the thesis that natural scientists and literary intellectuals live in separate worlds. With increasing specialization in both realms, along with post-modern critiques of reason arising in the humanities and the prestige of traditional humanistic study diminishing among many scientists, Snow's claim has lost little of its relevance. Rare is the person who crosses these borders. Yet such crossings are to be encouraged, and the connections between literature and technology may be greater in principle than they appear at first glance. Technology is creative, and literature follows certain laws. Commonalities exist between them, as ancient and medieval thinkers believed, and the spheres are enriched when interaction and reflection surface in both directions. Certainly the differences between traditional techniques and modern technology will render any contemporary crossing of these spheres qualitatively different from, and immensely more difficult than, those of earlier eras.

Nonetheless, already with the emergence of photography and later with film, we again see both the need and the opportunity to bridge art and technique. Some of today's most avant-garde artists have returned to this original union by using technology to create great art, as, for example, in the computer graphic art of Charles Csuri. One is also reminded of Edgar Allen Poe's description of the poetic craft as involving, in his metaphor, "wheels and pinions" (289) or of his construction of "The Raven" as proceeding "step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem" (290). One thinks as well of Gottfried Benn's statement that "a poem very rarely comes into being-a poem is made" (1059) or Dürrenmatt's description of himself as a "craftsman" (Bienek 108). So, too, can we consider the integration of art and technology in such spheres as sculpture, graphics, and film, or the architect's necessary engagement with both spheres, which reached a high point in the integrative efforts of the Bauhaus. Not only do we see occasional integration, we see actual inversions, whereby a bridge, for example, may evidence a certain beauty and elegance, and a painting may be distinguished by its jarring negation of beauty. In any age the artist must execute well in his or her chosen medium. A goal of this book is to suggest that on many levels art can respond to technology's positive and negative moments in as yet unexplored ways. Technology is an imaginative enterprise, and much of the wisdom contained in it has a poetic dimension, but it nonetheless seems to lack certain aspects privileged when we speak of art as opposed to technology. This book attempts to define these features.

Not only does a scientific technology emerge that differs from the techniques of art, both art and technology become autonomous vis-à-vis morality. For centuries art was created within an overarching moral universe. The link between art and the sacred is obvious to anyone who reflects on the history of the visual arts or music. Carl Dahlhaus has shown in The Idea of Absolute Music that the connection between music and text and the development of music within a functional context, a paradigm that was prominent from antiquity to the seventeenth century, dissolved in the modern era. Music increasingly developed what was unique to itself, a purely independent instrumental music without concept, object, or purpose, which became known as absolute music. Also in literature we see the dissolution of a tradition that encompassed virtually all literary activity through the end of the eighteenth century and viewed literature as serving a moral purpose and as embedded within a broader moral frame.

The catalysts for the disassociation of art from morality were multiple. First, modernity increasingly lost its belief in a religious or even simply a moral frame. The distinction between is and ought that Kant had emphasized and that elevated morality in the wake of the modern dissolution of religion loses all effectiveness if the normative sphere cannot be adequately grounded, and skepticism toward such grounds has consistently increased since the nineteenth century. Second, if the normative realm cannot be grounded, one turns to being, though no longer a realm of being that has implicit in it a normative claim, but sheer facticity. The social sciences, which emerge at this time, approach the descriptive sphere with new methodologies, and literature in some ways does the same, though with different means, analyzing the complexity of the modern psyche, our human relations, and our social world, including modern humanity's lament over a loss of orientation. Analyses of this broad and increasingly complex realm of reality become further and further divorced from the kind of thinking that focused on transcendental claims and, indeed, more and more removed from any moral sphere of evaluation. The recognition that many spheres of social reality had not been included in previous claims of synthesis and the discovery of alternative paradigms, bolstered by the emergence of historicism, also contributed to this erosion of the transcendental. Third, a central idea of modernity is that each sphere of life is fully autonomous. Art, business, law, politics, science-each develops according to the logic of its own subsystem, and each sphere is divorced from the moral realm.

This idea is imaginatively expressed in Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, to which I return below, and has been prominent in the analyses of sociologists from Max Weber to Niklas Luhmann. The artist is slowly freed of having to work in harmony with other spheres. A concept of originality replaces the idea of contributing to our understanding of the cosmos, of God, or of human potential. This freedom unleashed an incredible range of options and led to some extraordinary aesthetic works. It also precipitated not only a divergence in spheres and a rejection of the ideal of holistic knowledge but also in some thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, who reflects on the aesthetic, ethical, and religious modes, a theoretical sharpening and an embrace of the distinctions, and in some writers, Oscar Wilde, for example, a deep antagonism between the aesthetic and the ethical: "The sphere of Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate" (1048; cf. 17). Indeed, in "The Decay of Lying" Wilde argues not only that art has intrinsic value and need not be viewed as subordinate to external ends but also that art cannot serve any external ends; if it does, it is no longer art (976).


Excerpted from Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century by Mark William Roche Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Mark William Roche is I. A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Professor of German Language and Literature, and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame.

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