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  • Everywhere and Nowhere: The Sociology of Literature After “the Sociology of Literature”
  • James F. English (bio)

The “Sociology of Literature” has always named a polyglot and rather incoherent set of enterprises. It is scattered across so many separate domains and subdomains of scholarly research, each with its own distinct agendas of theory and method, that it scarcely even rates the designation of a “field.”1 But for purposes of clarity and simplicity, I will focus here on the fate of sociology in the recent history of literary studies. Is literary studies actively invested at present in the project of sustaining a sociology of literature? As currently configured, and facing the particular disciplinary circumstances that we do, are literary scholars capable of producing a new sociology of literature? Would they be favorably disposed toward one if it came their way?

One hesitates to answer such questions in the affirmative. New or old, the sociology of literature seems to possess little traction in literary studies. Nobody appears to regret the passing of an “old” sociology of literature, invoked these days (where it is invoked at all) as a stale and outmoded approach, like reader-response or archetypal criticism, barely worth a chapter in the latest theory anthology. But nor would many literary scholars embrace the prospect—as they perceive it—of a new sociological turn, of a more “sociological” future for literary studies. If the old sociology of literature seems all too old, a superseded relic of an earlier moment in the discipline, a new sociology of literature can seem all too contemporary, in step with ominous trends that are driving humanistic inquiry toward some small, sad corner of the increasingly social-science-dominated academy to endure an “interdisciplinary” afterlife of collaborative media research.

I am speaking here of images and perceptions, of what the phrase “sociology of literature” might conjure up in the disciplinary imaginary of the Eng Lit or Comp Lit professoriate. I am not speaking about any actual program of research, about attempts to connect the core mission of sociology with that of literary studies, articulating in new, more thorough, or more provocative ways the social logic of literary texts and [End Page v] practices and/or the literary forms of social texts and practices. That multifaceted enterprise is alive and well, as I believe anyone awake to the excitements of our profession should be aware, and as the essays in this special issue of NLH vibrantly affirm.

But there is the image problem, this resistance, at the very least, to the nomenclature, this need to place scare quotes around the phrase itself. “The sociology of literature”: something critics tried to do a long time ago, or (more worryingly) something critics are starting to do today instead of the proper tasks of literary history and criticism. When exactly did this distancing become habitual, and why? Rita Felski and I embarked on this project partly as a way to address those questions. Having entered graduate school in the early 1980s, we well remember when “the sociology of literature” was a term widely in use by literary scholars and critical theorists alike. This was especially true in Britain which, as Raymond Williams observed, remained into the 1970s a “backward—indeed an undeveloped country” with respect to sociology as an academic discipline.2 With little in the way of an institutional establishment to hinder them, British scholars whose training and higher degrees were in literature could make free with the mantle of “sociologist.” In addition to Williams himself (whose visiting appointment at Stanford in 1973–74 was in the social sciences rather than the humanities), one thinks here of Richard Hoggart (labeled a sociologist in most bibliographies and encyclopedias) and Stuart Hall (who was named Professor of Sociology at the Open University in 1979), as well as younger figures like Francis Barker, Colin Mercer, and Graham Murdock, all of whom came to be at least as closely associated with sociology as with English. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, these sociologically inclined literary critics worked productively alongside an emergent generation of cultural sociologists (Tony Bennett, John Hall, Andrew Milner, David Morley, Charlotte Brunsdon, Jim McGuigan, Janet Wolff, and many others...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. v-xxiii
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-31
Open Access
No
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