'The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth'

Author discusses new book about close reading in the era of Twitter, "fake news" and denigration of the liberal arts.

June 29, 2018
 

These may seem like difficult times for the literary scholar and professor: pundits trash nonvocational education, while many young people confine their close reading to social media.

Christopher Schaberg finds plenty of reasons to worry in his new book, The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (Bloomsbury). But he also sees reasons why literary study is more important than ever. And in the book, he argues that humanities professors shouldn't apologize for their passions or their commitments -- either in their research or their teaching. Schaberg, the Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: When you say we are in an age of "post-truth," what does that mean?

A: By this phrase I mean to highlight the way that referring to -- or trying to find or state, in earnest -- the "truth" of any given state of affairs seems not to be persuasive (or even worthwhile) to many people. Viral news stories and clickbait headlines, no matter their veracity, have more cultural purchase and value (literally, in terms of ad revenue) than the slower work of untangling and articulating what is actually happening in the world. I suppose it is strange, in a way, to be coming at the topic of "post-truth" from the vantage point of literature -- poems, fiction and other artistic forms that revel in ambiguity. But it seems to me that by learning about the subtleties and textures of language and communication, people are better equipped to engage -- and to remake -- a world overflowing with messages, meanings and power. Ironically (or perhaps strategically), this is also a time when the study of language and literature is often cast as outdated, out of pace with new technological objects and systems. So it seems important to me to consider these two things together: literature and our age of post-truth, co-existing and in tension.

Q: Much of today's age, as your book notes, is about speed and brevity (think social media). Does this challenge the idea of the careful reading of literature (that's longer than 280 characters)?

A: Twitter is such a fascinating media form. It’s an incredible tool for broadcasting opinions, for sharing news and even for poetic observations and insights. It’s also, of course, dangerously fascistic for the ways that it can turn reading and writing into mere "following": endless, habitual scrolling and liking, mixed with occasional trolling and public scolding. I’ve used Twitter in my classes by having students keep notes on and discuss whatever we’re reading, using a common hashtag for our course, but I’ve also nearly lost my mind in class when I’ve noticed a student staring into their phone scrolling down a Twitter feed when we’re trying to closely read a paragraph in a novel.

I’m completely ambivalent about this subject, because while in many ways smartphones are the scourge of college seminars, in other ways they offer new texts to actually think about -- and use. Furthermore, the speed and brevity of digital media are so taken for granted as the norm that when we actually manage to slow down for 50 or 75 minutes and linger on a paragraph, a sentence, a word -- it is like something truly mystical and powerful is happening, something that my students actually are struck by, and transformed. That sounds transcendentalist and lofty, but it still happens, it really does, and in some ways the effect is even stronger with the little machines in our pockets buzzing and begging for our allegiance. When a six-line poem can effectively wrest attention away from a $699 iPhone for a half hour, it’s something to behold.

Q: You write about settings (Walmart, the airport) that are not associated with literary study. How do you find inspiration in these settings? (Schaberg is also the author of The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flights.)

A: Part of my own experience has been understanding -- and even forcefully jostling -- the literature classroom beyond the ivory tower realm it often occupies in our cultural imagination. I remember having various jobs in college and grad school that had nothing to do with my academic pursuits, and yet I would have to do my homework during the downtimes, or I’d find some resonance or cross application of ideas to a context outside the classroom. Book learning would become vividly real, and the world of work and play would likewise become a skein of codes to be understood and navigated.

So in my book I tried to foreground this double maneuver: seeing literary study as labor, as (just) a kind of work, and then also turning to outside settings such as airports, consumer sites and forests and river deltas as spaces rife with ambiguity, paradox and linguistic or philosophic nuance -- things that often get reserved for literary interpretation. This sort of mirrors my approach in freshman writing courses: I’d rather encourage my students to write about mundane things in their lives -- to really linger on and pay attention to the details that comprise their everyday existence -- rather than push them to take … fully developed stances on Big Issues. There is a time for the latter, sure -- but it has to be grown from more patient, attentive processes of learning. From minutes and pages filled with observation and reflection first. And this sort of thinking and writing can (and should) happen everywhere that usually gets left beyond bracketed Works of Literature.

Q: You worry about careerism. How does that threaten literary study?

A: I see a trend on university and college campuses to bolster career placement services, success coaching and advising centers not housed in academic departments. I get why institutions do this, I think: it’s like an insurance policy for parents and students. Or at least it's an insurance policy of perception: these sorts of centers convey and create an architectural optic showing that the school cares about the students’ successful completion of their degree, a degree that is carefully tracked to lead to a lucrative and stable career trajectory. But I think this is, in truth, an elaborate fiction, even a farce. A big part of college is wandering, figuring things out in nonlinear and random ways. Making unexpected connections between disciplines, or finding a mentor in a place where you didn’t expect to find one. Getting to know friends and classmates and professors over a not fully charted four-year journey.

When funding is channeled into career and nonacademic advising centers, it is inevitably pulled away from academic units -- fewer tenure-track faculty lines, for instance -- and the core of an institution is threatened: courses that seem too abstruse or difficult or irrelevant to careers go on the chopping block. So careerism palpably threatens literary study as well as other liberal arts modes of inquiry. I’ve seen this play out at institutions of different sizes and scales, always with different justifications and new buzzwords deployed to justify the justifications. Here’s the odd thing: I actually (and increasingly) love the part of my job that involves advising and mentoring students, and helping them as they are on the verge of graduation to think through job opportunities or risk heading out into the unknown. And I love seeing my students land great jobs after college. I prioritize and value my ongoing correspondence with former students as they develop and grow into their adult lives. So it’s not that I am skeptical of careers per se, but just how careerism gets front-loaded by institutions as if students should be planning and thinking about their careers from day one. Instead, let students read poems, let them flounder while learning a new language, let them work on a philosophical problem, let them do an experiment without knowing how it will turn out -- let them wonder.

Q: At many colleges today, humanities and general-education programs are shrinking. How do you feel about the future of literary study?

A: On the one hand, there is real cause for concern, as attention spans get shorter and shorter and as rampant professionalization overshadows the more abstract aspects of life. Not to mention deeper strains of anti-intellectualism in contemporary culture at large. But on the other hand, we’re also familiar with reports of how college graduates with liberal arts backgrounds tend to adapt better to the shifting landscape of the job market today (and most likely for the foreseeable future). Might literary studies have a practical function at this nexus? In one chapter of my book, I wonder about what literature even is -- it is an uncertainty I’ve had that has only grown over the years. Sure, we know what literature is in a stale, static sense, but what does literature do, what is literature for -- especially in a media ecosystem and in a political economy that prefers quick communication and deliverable ends? If anything, the questions for literary study are more intriguing and interesting than ever. So I feel strangely hopeful about the future of literary study. Of course, we need leaders at all levels who recognize the importance of liberal arts education in the service of a better world. And this is certainly an unsettled matter.

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