Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Brian McHale


Why study literature? Among the most compelling reasons is one that derives from the work of the contemporary Israeli cultural theorist, Itamar Even-Zohar. In Even-Zohar’s view, the most valuable product of the literary system is not texts as such but the cultural models from which texts are constructed, and which they in turn help to maintain and circulate. “The most consequential socio-semiotic product of literature”, Even-Zohar writes, “lies… on the level of images, moods, interpretation of ‘reality,’ and options of action. The products on this level are items of cultural repertoire: models of organizing, viewing, and interpreting life” (Even-Zohar 2004). If we adopt this view of literature’s cultural function, its cultural work, then one reason to study literature is that literary study provides extraordinary, privileged access to a culture’s models of reality, enabling reflection on culture’s world-making and world-maintaining functions. Literary study allows us to glimpse how a culture organizes itself and the non-human world around it, and this applies not only to historically or geographically distant cultures, whose models of reality might be alien to us, but also to our own contemporary culture, whose models might pass unnoticed, taken-for-granted, pitched below the threshold of our attention, without the salience or foregrounding that literature imparts to them.

Far from being a mimetic theory of literature, Even-Zohar’s approach is a thoroughly semiotic one. Literature gives us access not to raw, unmediated reality (whatever that might be), but to prefabricated reality, ready-made reality, reality filtered through and shaped by a culture’s grid of categories and structured according to its system of relations.1 By this account, literature mirrors, not the world, but world-models, the world as mediated by a culture’s modeling systems, beginning with the fundamental modeling system of language itself. In this respect, Even-Zohar’s approach has much in common with other semiotically-oriented theories of literature and culture that emerged in the later decades of the 20th century, especially the

1 See Itamar Even-Zohar [1990] 2009. “‘Reality’ and Realemes in Narrative”.


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