Reading Institutions: Reassessing Literature’s Public Commitments

Laura Bieger

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic


    In current debates about the future of critique, sociological approaches have gained much traction, with Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory as two key points of reference. My paper discusses the post-critical tenets of this line of work, and it discusses how they can be used to reassess literature’s public commitments—especially its share in creating and maintaining a robust reading public. My proposal rests on the following assumptions: that readers and media are co-actors in the constitution of the public sphere; and that the public sphere shares this constitution with the literary field.
    Based on these assumptions, I contend that transformations in the literary field and the public sphere are bound to affect each other; and that to determine the governing rules and structural patterns which regulate the transactions between these two domains, we need an extended notion of literary, institutional, and media agency. Moreover, and crucially, we need to widen the scope of our engagement with literature beyond the entity of the individual text to consider how its making (being written, published, reviewed, reissued) and its doing (finding readers, spurring responses, generating publics and prestige) are conditioned by historically specific institutional and media networks.
    This post-critical approach to reassessing the public commitments of literature foregrounds the dynamic relations in which literary works gain their form, meaning, and value in thoroughly mediated relations of proximity or distance, and opposition to or alliance with other texts. These relations are public to the minimal degree that they involve publication—and to the maximal degree of invoking change (of address, opinion, outlook, behavior) in the public sphere. Both scenarios hinge on text-reader-relations that are forged within this dynamic structure. Their public amplitude depends on the degree to which literary field and public sphere are synchronized.
    Engaging sociological approaches by Habermas, Bourdieu, Luhmann, and Latour as well as works in literary and media studies inspired by them (Warner, Seltzer, Glass, McGurl, Leypoldt, Kelleter, Felski), I propose approaching the reading public through the symbolic and material transactions between public sphere and literary field. In foregrounding aspects of mediality and media agency in my assessment of the co-constitution of these two domains, a further aim of mine is making a methodological contribution to this line of work: by introducing media as players in the literary field, and by challenging the ideal of transparent communication that persists in theories of the public sphere to this day.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2018
    EventThe Futures of Critique - Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany
    Duration: 29-Jun-201830-Jun-2018


    ConferenceThe Futures of Critique

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