- How I Think About LiteratureReading as Expectation of Good (And Better) Things
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“How I Think about Literature” is the title of a series of lectures organized by Stanford University’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. Since its inception in the Fall of 2010, the series has featured faculty members from the division and occasional external speakers, such as Stanford’s president, John Hennessy. The ostensible purpose of these lectures is to draw attention to the presumed common denominator among scholars from different departmental and linguistic traditions who, after 2010, found themselves reorganized within a single administrative unit. This common denominator could only be one sufficiently general to hide from view the institutional partitions that hinder reciprocal curiosity, and sufficiently specific to justify the programmatic conciliation of disconnected academic traditions. Hence the focus on literature, and the tenor of my talk, delivered on November 18, 2013. The text of that talk constitutes the body of this article, from which the marks of oral delivery and circumstantial motivation have not been expunged.
Taken literally, the invitation to address the topic, “How I think about literature,” is nothing short of a provocation. A provocation to think about how I think about something that we generally agree to call literature. These five words contain several assumptions. First, that people think about literature. The stress on the “I,” on the particularity, implies a generality of others. Second, that we are reasonably agreed on the meaning of “literature” and think about it with catholic breadth, which means that it has become an abstract concept rather than a collection of particulars. Third, that literature is something people think about, regardless of whether they actively practice it. I suspect that if we were pressed for a more precise definition, our small community would break up into factions about what counts as literature. The potential for taxonomic disagreement was brought home for me when a colleague asked whether there was such thing as Catalan literature.
Calling literature “that X about which I am expected to be thinking” presumes that the object of my thought exists as a discernible source of experience. Of mental experience in the first place; of aesthetic, ethical, or political experience secondarily. And since I am asked to think about literature as an object that generally fulfills these requirements, it transpires that I am invited to think outside the frame of a specialty that is the space of literary reference where most of us will never meet. And so I must, for the occasion, think about an object that we all identify within the field of our specialized discourses, and at the same time I must think it outside or on the threshold of this field. Do not expect me therefore to speak about Iberian Studies or to promote my alleged expertise. I believe that the demand on me is more radical than that, for it presumes not only that I think about literature but also that I know how I do it. It presupposes self-reflexivity and a sense of method. Furthermore, the overall theme contains a question en abyme. Stated in the guise of an assertion, namely that I think about literature, that I know how I do it, and that I am capable of explaining it, is a question that can be variously formulated as “How do I think about literature?,” “How can I think about literature?,” “Do I think about literature?,” “How do I think when I think about literature?”
To do justice to any of these questions, which are implicit in the theme proposed, I must try to restore the phenomenon “literature” to its pre-disciplinary appearance, [End Page 39] unencumbered by the adventitious set of concepts and concerns we have erected in the name of theory. In taking the questions latent in “How I think about literature” earnestly and putting aside my so-called expertise, I am clearly taking a risk. If I am foolhardy enough to come before you without donning the armor of a specialty, it is not because I am overly self-confident, for without the shield of my discipline I feel quite vulnerable to your intelligence. It...