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Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts, Continued


Let’s keep considering the Great Writers of English Literature and seeing how they responded to their roles as part of the power structure of the ruling class of Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s how Cultural Studies work at its most basic.

Let’s accept the fact that the British Writers of, say, the nineteenth century, were a major part, a highly influential part of the power structure of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, and let’s think about what the values were of that power culture and how those values shaped the world then and how those values persist today.

Great Britain was the greatest colonial power of its day. Its empire covered the globe and its former colonies still feel its cultural dominance, right? The values of Great Britain’s power class we now know have proven terribly destructive to most of the world. And yet many of us as part of the power class of the current most powerful nations in the world may be blind to the terribly destructive cultural values of our predecessor as most powerful nation on earth.

Of course, you may say “So what,” and even among intellectuals, most simply leave such issues at that. But for those who consider Cultural Studies professionally, this question has long been settled across the board. How do you answer the question “So what?”

Let’s see your comments.

That’s it for my series on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Now, go back to your study and pick a fine volume of Great Literature from your shelves and lose yourself in their poetry, fiction, or drama.

As for me and The Literary Life blog, how about we take up perhaps the biggest question of all about literature and art: What is Art? And we will do so by examining what one of the greatest writers ever had to say: Leo Tolstoy.




Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts


Ok, it seems that nobody today wants to be considered elitist in our culture, as I have been writing about in my recent posts on Ways to Approach Great Literature. For many readers, Cultural Study is an antidote to elitism.

Here, for example, we would consider recent Great Writers of English Literature and their works in order to see how the culture of 19th and 20th century Great Britain formed those writers and works and how those writers through their works reflected their culture.

A basic assumption of Cultural Studies is that we all are products of the dominant culture. A few of us may be perceptive enough to know that and to react against it, but only of few can ever truly separate themselves from the power culture—even when we might think we have done so. Except, of course, those invisible people all around us who are rejected from the power culture.

Or, to ask a question from the last post again, Do the desperately poor from the Third World, for example, create art? Can that art ever possibly be considered great? Most readers would say no simply because the creation of art requires some measure of leisure.

So, one way to approach the Major British Writers and all the Great Writers is to notice what values they assume in their Great Literature. How do their values support the privileged class? When do they subvert the assumptions of power and privilege? What writers are mouthpieces of the power class and what writers countermand the assumptions of power?

In other words, we can see how these writers respond to their culture. Because they are distant from us much will be transparent. Perhaps, then, we can turn to our own culture and begin to see how it works as well.

This approach, however, presents as many problems, if not more, as elitist approaches. Nevertheless, cultural studies in its many guises, such as Postcolonial, Feminist, Gender, Popular Culture studies, dominate current academic debates in literature and English departments in the U.S. and especially in the U.K. Thus, what I have been talking about in this very short post is merely a blurb for the complex but favored Way to Approach Great Literature (as well as less than great literature). Preeminent among those problems of cultural studies is that literature no longer is read for its own artistic value but is seen as valuable primarily as artifacts for studying culture, then and now. In fact, most cultural critics would not separate Great Literature from other literature, the distinction between High Culture and Low Culture no longer being considered valid in any of the arts.

What do you think? Leave comments in the box below and be sure to keep reading these posts already posted on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Stay tuned for more next Thursday.


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