All posts by Laurie

Cultural Capital of Literature

“The weight of items of legitimate culture can also be analyzed by looking at the importance attached to purchasable signals in contrast to culturally acquired ones….In the U.S., in contrast to France, access to goods…is more important than modalities of consumption…This trait might be becoming more pronounced, as exemplified by the recent rapid diffusion of the expensive yuppy culture, and the simultaneous decline of cultural literacy” (page 163).

Lamont and Lareau are very critical of the ways in which cultural capital as a theory has been distorted by U.S. sociology into a much narrower and exclusive theory that focuses primarily on high culture. In opposition to this phenomena, they offer a modification of this approach that would actually look into all forms of American cultural capital. “Legitimate capital” is of particular interest to Lamont and Lareau, as it seems to have become something focused more on items’ material values than on the value of their consumption and the ways in which we can mobilize them. I feel this idea can be applied to the culture of literature, as we often see literature as simply physical texts that are produced and reproduced in order to be possessed. Extending the ideas of Lamont and Lareau, literature becomes less of a tool that we can put into use and instead is reduced to something we are only interested in creating and obtaining. The status that U.S. society has assigned to literature is largely superficial; we put texts on a pedestal as if some sort of prize to aspire for (and not necessarily to aspire to), but we fail to remove the prize from the pedestal to actually comprehend their internal value. It’s as if literature itself (and thus, literacy and literary circulation) have simply been reduced to status symbol.

Woolf on Freedom in Literature

“Charlotte Bronte, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumble and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands…Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a properly natural shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Bronte, she got infinitely more said. Indeed since freedom and fullness of expression are the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women” (Woolf, 606).”

Woolf’s argument seems to be that while it is understandable that women like Charlotte Bronte allowed their own oppression to infiltrate their narratives, it also was something that limited a text or novel and impaired the writer’s full potential of genius. This is why Woolf compares Bronte to Jane Austen, who wrote Pride and Prejudice with no hint of or influence from her own feelings of imprisonment or limitation as a woman. Instead, Austen worked within her own frame of reference instead of fighting or questioning it, as Bronte did by expressing her own longing for freedom. To Woof, this ability to craft and build a narrative that is free from limitations is essential to a writer’s “integrity”. However, I’m left to wonder if Austen can really be considered someone who was able to fully express herself when her work simply reflected her own world and world view, which was a limited one. As Woolf concludes, the social status and role of a woman could not avoid have a large impact on her writing, so mustn’t the same be true for Austen despite her “properly natural shapely sentence”?

Foucault and the Power of Texts

“Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere…‘Power,’ insofar as it is permanent, repetitious, inert, and self-reproducing, is simply the overall effect that emerges from all these mobilities…[‘Power’] is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (Foucault).

Because Michel Foucault sees power as something that is present always and in every realm or interaction, we can extend his theories from “History of Sexuality” to understand not just how power relates to sexuality, but also how power relates to literature and texts. To Foucault, power relations of society dictate our discourse, which then perpetuates power. Extending this theory, the ways in which we comprehend, talk about, or even create literature are dependent upon the ways in which power relations operate both within and outside of the text; the text then serves as another source that mobilizes power because it is an interaction between itself and the reader. Thus, Foucault would consider literature and text to be yet another medium through which power is communicated and exerted, as well as something that comes to be and comes to be understood as a result of the power relations surrounding it. However, this is not a process that breeds and rebreeds the same result time and time again. Foucault purports that power relations are not static, and so the process must also not be static. This is why literature and our understanding of literature have both shifted so frequently and so drastically over time.

Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality,” The Critical Tradition. 3rd ed. Richter, H. David. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.


Marxism and Literature

In On Greek Art in its Time (from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), Karl Marx examines the ways in which ideological forms (such as art and literature) arise out of a particular social landscape, are shaped by social history, and then are discarded once new progressions and productions can take their place. Marx argues that highly developed art and literature often come about in societies that may not be highly developed technologically or socially. He cites Greek mythology as an example of this, but poses the question of how these well-respected traditions and stories can still exist alongside the progressions of modern society. He asks, “Is the view of nature and of social relations which shaped Greek imagination and Greek art still possible in the age of automatic machinery, and railways, and locomotives, and electric telegraphs? Where does Vulcan come in as against Roberts & Co.; Jupiter, as against the lightning rod; and Hermes, as against the Credit Mobiler?” (Marx, 411). Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that mythology exists as a pinnacle of art and literature that — though it may lose its relevance — can never again be duplicated or attained in modern society. However, he maintains: “A man can not become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child and must he not strive to reproduce its truth on a higher plane?” (Marx, 411). In saying this, Marx declares that we can still attempt to hold our modern literature and art to the standards of “childish” Greece while utilizing the progresses of our “adult” society to strengthen our efforts. To Marx, ultimately literature (and the role of literature) is shaped and bound by the society in which it arises, but can remain a timeless ideal for all literature going forward.

Brooks and Formalism

“If we heard that Mr. Guest testified that he put his heart and soul into his poems, we would not be very much impressed, though I should see no reason to doubt such a statement from Mr. Guest. It would simply be critically irrelevant…[T]he reduction of a work of literature to its causes does not constitute literary criticism; nor does an estimate of its effects,” (Brooks).

This passage from Cleanth Brooks’ My Credo indicates that Brooks has a very specific definition of what form is and what formalist criticism should (or, rather, shouldn’t) entail. While he previously mentioned his belief that form and content must be inseparable when we critique literature, he is sure to note that the writer’s intentions and motivations are not included in either of the aforementioned pair of elements. Likewise, Brooks maintains that the meanings we interpret from a work and the influence or force we perceive it to have are not welcome in a true formal criticism. To ascribe to Brooks’ definition of formalism, one must analyze the work itself as a standalone piece and ignore the external forces that critics are so tempted to draw on in their criticisms. Brooks explains that so often in these criticisms we confuse the psychology and biography of a piece of literature with its form and thus distract ourselves from gaining a true understanding of the work itself. While he concedes that these explorations are compelling, ultimately his belief is that good formalist critique means that critics must analyze a piece of literature with their blinders on.

Brooks, Cleanth. “My Credo.” Kenyon Review 13, no. 1 (Winter 1951): 72–81. <>.