Academic journal article CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture

Science Fiction and a Rhetorical Analysis of the "Literature Myth"

Academic journal article CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture

Science Fiction and a Rhetorical Analysis of the "Literature Myth"

Article excerpt

The topic of cultural literacy and its relation to education has been a subject of academic and public debate for many years. Both conservative (back-to-basics) and progressive thinkers have pointed out the problematic nature of culture and literacy in our contemporary society. Cultural studies problematized the distinction between "high" and "low" cultural practices and new literacy studies focused on the politics of traditional--Western--notions of "literacy" and criticized the idea that literacy often only refers to reading and writing. The concept of multi-literacies was introduced to refer to different kinds of literacies related to different media and networks. This critical perspective problematizes traditional concepts such as the literary canon: one form of literacy related to one specific medium, the book, and literature as a major genre. Specifically the idea that the literary canon is "the best that has been thought and said in the world" (Arnold 6), has been criticized for its elitist perspective and corrected from - amongst others - feminist and postcolonial perspectives.

Harvey Graff has coined the concept "literacy myth" suggesting that policy makers have overstressed the importance of (a particular kind of) literacy. Literacy myth starts from the assumption that improved literacy leads necessarily to all sorts of good things: economic development, cultural progress, and individual improvement. From the perspective of literature and literary education, this can be related to what we conceptualize as the "literature myth." The assumption is often that reading literature--in particular canonized literature--will make you a better and smarter person, lead to individual improvement and collectively to social progress. There is a large corpus of scholarship about whether new media and the digital turn has impacted negatively levels and ways of reading literature, thus not only the knowledge base of society but cognitive capacities of the population at large (on this, see, e.g., Birkerts; Liu; Lopez-Varela Azcarate and Totosy de Zepetnek). In a parallel situation Brian Street criticizes how the literacy myth is used in literacy campaigns that present literacy as a panacea for solving all sorts of problems and we argue that the same can be said about the literature myth. Street confronts two models of literacy: the autonomous model based on the traditional view that literacy is divorced from the social context versus the ideological model based on the view that literacy is a socio-political construction. This last model emphasizes that literacy is best described as an engagement within specific contexts of human practice, so that literacy can be understood as a process of socialization. This provides a critical--for some a progressive--perspective because it situates literacy in the context of the power structures of society and institutions. Literary culture and literature education have also been located in the context of social structures. Terry Eagleton refers to the "ideology of literature" and claims that social structures as for example the nation state use literature as a "moral technology [that] consists of a particular set of techniques and practices for the instilling of specific kinds of value, discipline, behavior, and response in human subjects" (96-97). This technology produces a specific kind of knowledge which serves "certain functions of power" that are "vital to the ends of social order" (97). Eagleton emphasizes that this moral technology is not just the "simple communication of a range of practical moral values, such as authority is good or evil" (98), but that it is more subtle and elusive because it teaches one to "be" moral.

From these perspectives, literary culture (and high art in general) has been increasingly subject to criticism and correction. However, there is also a growing body of scholarship that defends this same literary culture. Not only from the back-to-basics point of view with a nostalgic longing for an elite status of literary culture, but paradoxically enough also from critical points of view that wonder if the deconstruction of the literary canon has not caused an (exaggerated) neglect of the possible added value of literature and art in general. …

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