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The Centre for Humanities Innovation

Manifesto for the Literary Humanities

James Carney and Emily T. Troscianko 

Does the oncologist love cancer? And yet it’s a point of faith that literary scholars should love literature. It’s the one taboo that remains inviolate in cultural scholarship—the presumption that literature is worthwhile. Why is this? What is it about literature that means it should be universally announced as valuable, when half the time its message is so trite that it wouldn’t make the daily sentiment in a business calendar. Here’s some famous examples: “Don’t overthink things!”, “Don’t be too ambitious!”, “Don’t let possessiveness cloud your judgment!”, and “Don’t take people at face value!” So we ask ourselves: what is the origin of the conviction that literature matters? This is the question we volunteer for a new departure in humanistic inquiry. To be clear from the outset, we’re agnostic about the answer: it may be that literature redeems every quantum of energy that it absorbs—and it may not. What interests us is why we overwhelmingly align with the claim that it does. How might we pursue this question in practice?

Here’s how: by making the humanities inhuman. If we’re ever going to understand why we are so infatuated by literature, we need to take up the puzzled perspective of a Martian anthropologist. If literature isn’t important—if it doesn’t make us cleverer, or more empathic, or more reproductively viable—what makes us think it is? And if it is important, in what ways is it—really, not just instinctively—and why are those ways so hard to qualify and quantify? We want a dispassionate humanities that sees through the seduction instead of being taken in by it. Here’s a few ideas to start with, all selected for sobering effect:

1. Let’s talk to other disciplines—but actually talk, not just listen, or dictate, or defend ourselves. There’s no “us” and “them”, there’s just an “us”. Being mature can be weirdly empowering. 

2. Let’s reject the indiscriminate pluralism that says one paradigm is as good as the next, and infinite questions better than limited answers, and instead work out which approaches are most plausible, and precisely how far that plausibility can really be established.

3. Let’s develop a well-designed programme of empirical work to get us closer to rejecting what doesn’t make sense and embracing what does (or at least might). There is no reason why this programme can’t start with the subjective assessments of the individual critic—but it would be self-defeating for it to end there.

4. Let’s be inhuman, by trying to understand our humanness better: specifically, let’s stop pretending that our interpretations are impartial arguments when in fact most of them are as intimately personal as the insides of our own mouths. And let’s recognise, too, that there are many axes of interpersonal variation informing our interpretive stances. Race, class, and gender may have the frisson of the barricade and the megaphone, but they’re a pretty impoverished sample of the full range of active influences.

5. Let’s be ambitious, but let’s be humble too. We’ve come to know a little about ourselves lately, but not a whole lot—and even that little we’ve scarcely had time to process. Yet we can’t imagine a better situation for our discipline. For years we’ve been told the game is over; as far as we’re concerned it hasn’t even begun. It’s time we started to play.

About the Authors

James Carney holds a Marie Curie Fellowship in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; he also holds a Junior Research Fellowship at Linacre College, Oxford. His research centres on the intersection of empirical and interpretive approaches to cultural representations—and to literature in particular.

Emily T. Troscianko is a Junior Research Fellow in Modern Languages at St John’s College, Oxford. She currently works on “cognitive realism” in French and German Realist and Modernist prose fiction, attempting to illuminate from a cognitive perspective what it means for a literary text to be realistic. Her monograph Kafka’s Cognitive Realism came out with Routledge in 2014.