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Posted at: Oct 2, 2016, 2:00 AM; last updated: Oct 2, 2016, 2:00 AM (IST)

Words that drive society

In Praise of Literature

by Zygmunt Bauman and Riccardo Mazzeo.


Pages 158.


Shelley Walia

The traditional nature of a university like Nalanda or Shantiniketan has gradually disappeared. In such centers of learning, the study of liberal arts became a process of reflection in the midst of a struggle to create a new social order. It was a process of emancipation towards dynamic involvement in the historical process. Seeing the world through the eyes of an artist brought the reader closer to not only ‘the matchless smell of humanity,’ but also had a deep ‘pick-me-up’ effect of the glorious teeming contradictions of tragedy and comedy, of hope and despair that informs our daily existence.

Zygmunt Bauman and Riccardo Mazzeo in the book In Praise of Literature argue for the redirection of sociology and literature towards active politics, justice and freedom. In other words, art and literature can never be cordoned off from social sciences and social theory. Literary scholars bring perceptive readings to bear upon social and political texts in the same way as sociologists throw light on the human condition. For instance, Greek Tragedy is aptly used in putting across a case in criminal law having direct bearing on social welfare, or Plato and Gibbon facilitate the understanding of diplomacy or important aspects of human value and the meaning of life, the chief concern of liberal arts.

In order to have an overall developed personality to cope with modern-day crisis, it becomes vital not only to study literature, but also see its relevance in economic, political and class terms. Such is the coalescing of radical sociology and the humanities, more so at a time when the old certainties are questioned and a civil society is being built around new identities and forms of empowerment.

The authors stand up against severe compartmentalism of disciplines. Focusing on sociology and literature, they argue that the two disciplines, though continually treated as distinct, have a lot in common. The methodology of sociology is no doubt scientific but the findings of the two are similar; novels, for instance, and sociological texts are ‘mutually complimentary.’ They do not work at cross-purposes and it is indeed their differences that make them at once fundamental to each other: ‘They feed each other and depend on each other in terms of their agenda, their discoveries and the contents of their messages. In a world characterised by the continuous search of their sensations and the fetishism of consumption, they bring fundamental existential questions back into the public agenda.’

It is this dialogue between the two disciplines that constantly reshapes culture and in the process irons out the complex ‘intertwining of biography and history as well as of individual and society.’

Such transgression of disciplinary constraints enables us to enter a space of contestation and reconciliation between fine arts and the real world out there, which we now call culture, a system that according to Adorno, carries a certain ‘sacrosanct irrationality,’ removed as it is from the ‘naked necessity of life.’ Both arts and sociology are therefore, split between what is deception or truth, illusion or reality. However, such a dichotomy, as Adorno puts it, sustains human gratification and the desire for ‘falling for the swindle.’ This is the portrait of an entire social order with all its heights and depths, its decadence and the Dionysian love of life.

Literature and sociology here become ‘reciprocally enriching,’ a cross-border traffic that goes against the grain of strict codification and demarcations.The question that needs to be focused on is the relevance of the arts to social behaviour and society’s attitudes towards knowledge, belief and morals.

Interdisciplinary approach of this nature, therefore, is committed to social reconstruction, a left-oriented sociology of literature that constitutes a dialectical and dialogical process, lending new possibilities for the reexamination of life from various comparative perspectives which Bourdieu calls ‘the intellectual field,’ or Fritz Ringer defines as ‘a network of relationships.’

The crossing over from literary practice to social theory or vice versa gives a broader critical and philosophical grounding to the study of ideology and resistance, knowledge and power, the major concerns of humanities in a world overtaken by ‘pseudo modernism’ that spells disaster for our pulverised culture of ‘unreliable Wikipedia and blogs.’

Reading of literature if displaced by the internet is a reflection of the human sensibilities that are unable to partake in real life situations of human interaction and togetherness with all their emotional depth and feeling.


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