Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Anne-Marie Mai

Academic studies can be said to exist in a never-ending process of motivating their mission and subject field. If the critical questioning “Why study literature?” ends, it means the ending of the study itself. Literary studies in today’s post-national cultural context are challenged by the fact that the traditional reasons for studying literature as part of building a national identity are changing. In the European countries, national identity today has a multi-cultural meaning very different from the situation in the monocultural era of the 19th century.

As part of this change, national literary studies have extended their subject field and been renewed in terms of method; they have also experienced a growing research interest in cultural studies. Today, literature within national philology in the democratic countries is not studied to consolidate a mono-cultural formation, but rather to contribute to a post-national renewal within the literary and cultural field. Among several others, the literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has described the changes in contemporary literary studies in the article “The Future of Literary Studies?”.1 In his view, literary studies should enter even further into an oscillation between academic disciplines. Literary studies should become a facilitator to both material-oriented research of cultural canons and epistemological-oriented research of meaning construction, thereby changing their focus from literary interpretation to a broader epistemological and historical analysis.

As Professor Gumbrecht emphasises, the legitimacy and cultural importance of literary studies also become topics for discussion because of the development of new media and genres that have gained popularity among both artists and audience. Movies, music and digital cross-over artefacts have a far greater impact on a young audience than traditional novels or collections of poems.

In his discussion, Gumbrecht tones down the traditional modern defence of literary studies that underlines literature’s specific aesthetic and linguistic

1 Gumbrecht 1995, 499–518.


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