Literature, Politics and Pedagogy

By Srebrnik, Henry | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Literature, Politics and Pedagogy


Srebrnik, Henry, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

Political scientists tend to eschew works of fiction, preferring instead to concentrate on "hard data" when providing analysis of political behaviour. But "fact" and "fiction" are not necessarily exclusive categories. Works of fiction may provide insights into the cultural and social milieu that shapes the political process. Literature serves to "translate" the personal into the realm of the collectivity. Having students read a novel or play may be the most effective means of introducing them to a different political culture. Stories about the experience of particular people constitute an important corrective for the dehumanizing effects of abstract theory or generalization. Political scientists making use of literary texts therefore believe that the study of literature has something to add to our understanding of politics.

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University teachers who offer interdisciplinary courses in the culture, history and politics of a country or region have long included novels and short stories in their syllabi. Political scientists, on the other hand, have tended to eschew works of fiction, preferring instead to concentrate on "hard data" and the reportage of "actual events" when providing analysis of political behaviour. They have been especially concerned with the post-modern blurring of "fact" and "fiction." Classically, the genres of reporting in history and the social sciences relied on their ability to differentiate among facts, their representation, and their interpretation.

But facts, as Hannah Arendt suggested long ago, cannot be related without narrators and narratives. History, she wrote, is what historians have constructed, and causality is in the mind of the storyteller: "What the storyteller narrates must necessarily be hidden from the actor himself, at least as long as he is in the act or caught in its consequences ... Even though stories are the inevitable results of action, it is not the actor but the storyteller who perceives and `makes' the story."(1) Yet if narrators affix imprints of their own, then of course it follows that there is no representation without interpretation.

In the past century, when "truth" has indeed been stranger, and more horrific, than "fiction," the traditional distinctions between reality and fantasy have been questioned by those who contend that the truth-claims of factual genres are no longer tenable. "The slippage between the imagined and the real has allowed for bold crossings over and mingling--between fiction and autobiography, and between history and fiction," Judith Levy has written.(2) English literature professor Jay Parini, who has been "working in a curious, alluring space between fact and fiction" by writing novels about Tolstoy, Columbus and Walter Benjamin, calls upon us to remember that "fact" and "fiction" are not necessarily exclusive categories; the latter word derives from the Latin fictio, or "shaping," so novels, biographies and works of scholarship are really all placed along a continuum of "fruitful selectivities."(3)

Do political scientists, then, make too much of this dichotomy between reality and fiction? And, if we should decide to make use of fictional accounts of historical or political events, are we, untrained in literary theory or critical methodology, doing our students a disservice by ourselves blurring this line?

I realize that I am stepping on a lot of academic and literary toes. Professors of literature find themselves exasperated by students who are already inclined to regard any text as "mimetic," a simple reflection of political and social developments, and whose idea of literary criticism is to complain that the characters do not behave "realistically" (in so far as they are even able to discern "reality" in the cultures of peoples about whom they know very little). Am I not simply compounding the problems they face by, so it seems, encouraging students to take a simplistic view of works of art? …

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