Rafe McGregor on the Value of Literature and the Arts



my name is rafer gregor and i'm lecturer in criminology at leeds trinity university I suppose that it raises an immediate question about the relationship between literature and criminology and the answer to that is peculiar to my background which is very much multidisciplinary in between my BA and PhD I had a career in law enforcement my various degrees are in psychology politics philosophy and education the thread that binds all of these together in my academic career is my interest in ethics which have studied in various theoretical or applied forms for over 25 years and I see criminology as a branch of applied ethics I also see a very close relation between ethics and aesthetics as two branches of what's called value theory and analytic philosophy having said that the value of literature is explicitly concerned with distinguishing literary value from ethical and other values but I'll come back to that in a moment the book presents an argument for distinctively literary value that is final rather than instrumental and independent from the values usually employed to defend the institution of literature most commonly ethical cognitive religious and political values the idea that there's a distinctively literary value is not new or even controversial but what I wanted to achieve in the book was a path between two extremes first the literature can be valuable in of and for itself and second there committing to this type of value does not serve a literature from the world and the main stream of human concerns I hope to have shown in other words that we can isolate the value of literature from the values I've just mentioned while nonetheless showing why the institution matters for arts culture and humanity but the value of literature the book is nonetheless part of my overall ethical project the first step is to demonstrate that there's no necessary relation between literary value and ethical value after clarifying the relationship between the two types of value the next step is to demonstrate what ethical and practical purposes literature can but does not necessarily serve and that's the subject of my next book which is called narrative justice expose the impact of narrative represent a prison from criminal inhumanity you Trin it was relatively recently in the early 18th century the literature and the other art forms were discussed in terms of having an autonomous value in philosophy this idea took the shape of the development of aesthetics as a separate branch within the discipline while in our criticism it was associated with the identification of Fine Arts as a distinct category of artistic practice the relationship between this autonomous value let's call it aesthetic value for short and the traditional values with which art was associated have been debated ever since the reason I think that an independent literary value is so important is distinct from my argument in the book the argument in the book is intended to convince readers that I'll quote here the value of a work of literature as literature is the value of the experience afforded by the work and the experience afforded by the work is valuable to the degree that the experience produces literary satisfaction hopefully some readers will be convinced and those that aren't well at least see why it's a complex and interesting claim to make but you could be convinced by my argument but still find my reason for making it unconvincing my reason for making is my personal view is that what is unique to the literary use of language is its complete freedom from a limitation and that thus freedom from limitation is connected to the intensity of the particular kind of satisfaction afforded by the literary experience I make a few brief comments to this effect after concluding my argument at the end of chapter 6 of the book which are there for readers to take or leave as they prefer once we start pressing the literary use of language into the service of particular ends as a means of verification clarification cultural critique catharsis or therapy then I think we lose sight of what is most important about it this doesn't mean the literature can't or shouldn't be used for all of these instrumental purposes but those value as an end in itself should be recognized before we start putting it to other uses you can see the link here to the first question I felt I needed to write a book about the autonomy of literature before I wrote about the impact literature can have on criminal inhumanity the relationship between autonomous value in the passage of time has received surprisingly little attention and literary aesthetics aside from the discussion of Humes relatively brief mention of the test of time the test of time is something of a dual edged blade with respect to writing reading and criticism on the one hand if there is a distinctively literary value independent from moral political and religious values then great literature need never go out of date this would explain why or at least be compatible with the continued appreciation of the works of Homer Dante and Shakespeare on the other hand the difficulty in distinguishing literary value from the other values with which we associate literature may well mean that we can only be certain that a work has literary value once it has stood the test of time at the critical level it may last be difficult to establish the distance necessary to be able to make a valid evaluation of the literary merits and flaws of a contemporary work one practical implication of autonomous value is that there's no need to emphasize contemporary literature at the expense of historical literature when teaching literary studies another practical implication is that the literary canon should not be shaped by particular political ideologies both of these implications push the institution of literature in the same direction I encourage all readers to be more rather than less inclusive in their practice it is of course the danger in separating ethical and the true value that we might be promoting works which are themselves promoting a moral or immoral behaviour or lifestyles but there's also benefit and our literature is not perceived as promoting a particular moral agenda the focus on autonomous value is I think much more likely to encourage reading on a global scale than well attention but unrig arrest attempts to United literary and moral value a several aspects of literary value in the book but the one with which I'm the most concerned is literary thickness I describe literary thicknesses characteristic of literary appreciation and involving the reader's attention to the combination of literary form and literary context in terms of function this wreath Ignace is characteristic of literature such that if a work is a work of literature it will reward the demand for literary thickness the particular relationship between form and contents and tell by the Sri thickness determines the relation between work and world which is a pro reference but anti cognitivist position in other words literary works are about the world but the value is not related to the truth or falsity of their representations of the world the two extended critical examples in the book of Peter carries true history of the Kelly Gang and Jane could seize the lives of animals I used them to demonstrate the r a fine line between literature and history in the former case and between literature and philosophy and the latter these choices were made with various considerations in mind including being able to offer a relatively comprehensive treatment of the works within the confines of a single chapter if I wasn't limited by space all the time it took to reread all of them I would choose the following three novels James Joyce's Ulysses David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Marlin James's a brief history of seven killings I think the most recent of these is probably the shortest but it still comes in at just under 700 pages and there's neither brief nor history which is why I didn't use any of them as examples in my book these three great novels each and a unique and singular way all succeed in treading the line between fiction of fact between being self reflective works of literature and having important things to say about humanity and the world in which we live most importantly for me however they all exemplify the complete freedom from restriction that is such an important feature of the literary use of language you this was one of Derrida's many hyperbolic claims that we used as evidence of both his brilliance and a charlatan REE depending on who was commentating John Gibson was one of the few philosophers working in the analytic tradition who was engaged with Tara's work and he explains this rhetorical flourish as a claim the literary use of language is non referential on this view which is popular in the 60s 70s and 80s the words in the literary work do not refer to abstract or concrete things in the world but to other words there are two versions of this thesis in the stronger the words in a particular work take their meaning from other words in the same work from the patterns of similarity and difference established within that work in the weaker the words in a particular work take their meaning from other works there's literary isolationism in each case because in the first the work is cut off from the world and the second the institution of literature is cut off from the world the problem is that if the literary use of language is entirely self referential in other the stronger or weaker sense then it becomes difficult to explain why literature is so important my view is that literature like all arts is not only by people for people but also about people and things that are important to people once it ceases to be about the things that human beings value then it becomes difficult to justify literature in terms of an institution and practice in which individually and collectively we invest such vast amounts of time and resources this isn't just true of literature of course but of all art forms unfortunately from my perspective this movement towards the Thetis ism and formalism was a consequence of the development of aesthetics as a discipline and the fine arts as a practice the 18th century saw a focus on beauty as an autonomous value of art and variations of beauty like significant form have subsequently been used to argue for an artistic value that is not just independent from all of the types of value but isolated from the world the challenge I faced in the value of literature was to establish the independence of literary value without isolating military institution from the world I think that the key issue here is to clarify the relationship between literary value and truth value and to establish a position on reference that retains a link with the world I think I achieved this with literary thickness which allows us to recognize the substantive connection between work and in literature while maintaining a formal distance that looks beyond their piston illogical and ideological values frequently conflated with literary value you

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