Brevity features short posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas I encounter at Harvard. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.
In contemplating topics as disparate and interrelated as identity and race, violence and colonialism, migration and kinship, religion and fundamentalism, truth and reconciliation, why do we (or should we) turn to literature?
In Girl in D.C., I wrote:
So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.
In one of my classes, Genealogies of the Global Imagination, taught by Professor Homi Bhabha, several answers to the question of ‘Why literature?’ have been gradually taking shape. Here’s a tentative synthesis of some of my notes, mostly inspired by Professor Bhabha.
While every discipline has its own discourse (from science to history to art), literature absorbs the discourses and structures of knowledge from all these disciplines. And it does so while keeping the subjective, the affective, and the emotional alive.
Most texts from other disciplines refer to the disciplinary paradigm that they are situated in (e.g. scientific method, ethnography, historiography, social practice, forms in art, religious ritual, legal constitution). Yet, literature creates the norms within its very narrative and makes us rethink these norms. Even if a work of historical fiction is historically situated, the provocative gesture of the literary will not be judged on its factuality, but by other criteria such as emotional ferment, imaginative capacity, empathy, etc.
In particular, literature makes us think about language in a self-conscious way (an act of interpretation) and interpretation as an ethical endeavor because:
- the act of reading assumes a dialogical relationship
- therefore, engaging with literature is based on faith and trust in a dialogue with something outside you.
When we consume literature, we think, Why is he/she saying this to me? More than just an act of meaning-making, we are also engaging in subject formation—we ask, How am I being implicated in the textual process?
So, why literature? Because it’s an encounter—like friendship—with some mode of meaning which doesn’t immediately reveal itself to you. You have to work with it in a meditative, normative approach in order to interpret.
Do you think literature is needed to understand our world today? If so, why?
Lots of love,