Being Impressed by Lit

Noam ChomskyLinguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky once said, “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”

Have you ever said something with absolute certainty, only to realize, upon questioning, that you learned it from a work of fiction? Since the advent of the printing press and the growth of literary publication and distribution, books have the ability to transport readers to places they might never experience.

Similarly, books can – and often do – serve as the foundation for individuals’ knowledge about cultures different from their own, historical events distant from their lifetime, and life situations they have never known. This simple fact gives novels and their writers a great deal of power to effect social change.

For this reason, I have chosen Tony Christini’s website, Imaginative Literature and Social Change, for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

“Imaginative writing can be both literary and political simultaneously, and inevitably is, to varying degrees. In its own way, fiction can accomplish something similar to what Noam Chomsky and many other progressive workers try to accomplish through nonfiction: the creation of works that clarify and better the world socially, politically, culturally…”

Christini says his website, “explores imaginative literature and literary criticism and social change, and in particular how the former two can contribute to the latter.” The site deals primarily with problem novels and plays and propaganda novels.

The site goes no further into judging the impact of literature used for political and/or social change. To fully explore the issue, I think Christini’s analysis needs to follow the argument to its logical conclusion. He cites W.E.B. Dubois, who said, “…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.”  Literature is subject to bias, and its fictional nature allows inaccuracies to be presented as truth.

Although I fully support the potential positive influences of literature on social change, it is worthwhile to add a cautionary note against allowing literature to entirely replace other forms of inquiry.

Think about Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha. If a reader was not judicious and did not read the fine print, he or she might not realize that Sayuri, Golden’s narrator, is fictional. She is based on research, but other researchers have criticized Golden’s portrayal of geisha culture. (See Immortal Geisha and EJCJS).

Christini does not mention that Noam Chomsky repeatedly issued this same caution. In an interview, Chomsky responded to a question about the statement quoted on Social Lit. He added, “Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.”

However, with this cautionary note in mind, it is encouraging to see a website that recognizes and seeks to define the role of literature in social change; because, for good or ill, literature has a tremendous amount of power over what we think about, what we think, and how we think.

Thanks, Tony, for your thought-provoking website!

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