Value and Literary Study

Aaron Santesso

“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” said William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Literature isn’t the most utilitarian field, but it’s a vital one for those interested in educating themselves. Its presence in the curriculum is one of the things that makes a university a university instead of a trade school.

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” as one poet said while mourning another—and while this line is often (incorrectly) read as defeatist, Auden goes on to say that poetry is “a way of happening.”  It won’t fix a broken iPad or invent a new polymer, but it might help you live a better, richer life.

What is the value of studying and teaching literature? For some, it is that it “makes you a better person”—or, to put it in slightly more measured terms, that it increases your capacity for empathy. This was the argument of Matthew Arnold, for one, and it was the conclusion of a recent, widely-cited study published by two social psychologists. For others, the value of literary study is found instead in a slightly more practical ability called “critical thinking,” which we improve when we learn how to read well.

I confess that for myself, the “value” of studying and teaching literature is something much more ephemeral: I’ve known enough literature-addicts who were also horrible people to be skeptical of the first claim, and I’ve been in academia long enough to know that everyone, in every field, thinks that they’re teaching “critical thinking” (even if no-one really knows what it is). But I do think that literature represents an extremely important and powerful body of knowledge and cultural practice, and that it influences a wide range of activities and institutions. And more than that: it gives some insight into the human condition itself. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” as one poet said while mourning another—and while this line is often (incorrectly) read as defeatist, Auden goes on to say that poetry is “a way of happening.”  It won’t fix a broken iPad or invent a new polymer, but it might help you live a better, richer life.

How so? For starters, studying literature can provide perspective. Literature allows us to view issues through various prisms—historical, psychological, etc.—that we would otherwise not have access to. The personal intellectual, philosophical and even spiritual ramifications of this should be clear enough. Less evident, perhaps, is that this broadening effect can have practical social implications. Our own motto here at LMC suggests that we provide “humanistic perspectives on a technological world.” This doesn’t just mean slavishly celebrating technology: it means enriching it, or pointing out its shortcomings, or identifying areas where “humanistic” approaches make more sense than “technological” ones.

One of these areas, I suggest, is surveillance. My most recent book, The Watchman in Pieces, co-authored with Professor David Rosen (Trinity College), is about the connections between literature and surveillance, and how the two have “grown up” together and influenced each other over the past 500 years or so. Although most of the book approaches surveillance from a philosophical angle, I also spent a good amount of time interviewing people who worked in surveillance fields (FBI profilers, Scotland Yard detectives, casino security, etc.). One thing we learned, and which we tried to convey in the book, is that people have been alternately enthusiastic and worried about new surveillance technologies for centuries, even as people who actually work in the surveillance industry continue to rely on what we might call “humanistic” skills: analytical ability, interpretation, putting things into perspective, etc.

While some people imagine literary studies as a retreat from real-world issues, then, my own experience has been the opposite, and I am dedicated to showing the relevance of literature to pressing social, political, technological and legal issues. Ideas have to come from somewhere; often, they come from literature (as Shakespeare put it, poets “give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”). An example: privacy was first formally identified as a right which needs legal protection by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in their famous 1890 essay “The Right to Privacy.” Professor Rosen and I wrote an article showing how much of the language Warren and Brandeis used to define the value of privacy was taken from poetry (specifically, from Wordsworth). Our own article has now been cited in several law review articles—as well as The New Yorker. I cooperate with numerous non-academic institutions and outlets: I’ve worked with the ACLU and PEN/America on surveillance issues; Professor Rosen and I recently wrote a piece on Tolkien and NSA surveillance for Slate.

My research interests are fairly diverse: I’ve published on everything from zoos—an obsession of mine—to the connections between science fiction and fascism. My original training is in the literature of the “long” eighteenth century (Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Pride and Prejudice, etc.), and I teach Enlightenment literature regularly; I also teach courses on classical literature, spy novels, utopian literature, media studies, fantasy literature, and other topics. This comes in handy at a school like Tech, where humanities professors tend to teach across a broad range of subjects. I do teach a class on surveillance and literature, where we practice honing interpretive and analytical skills—the skills intelligence analysts cherish, incidentally. As those social psychologists studying the value of literature put it, good readers just might be better at “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” when they look at people. Of course, very few of my students go on to futures in the intelligence world (as far as I know…), but they do work in fields ranging from law to politics to finance, and I try to provide some lessons that they can draw upon as their careers progress.

Whether I’m researching or teaching, I try to engage with the latest technology, with current trends, with the issues of the day, etc. But I also try to balance all this with something permanent and timeless. Poetry may make nothing happen, but Auden also pointed out that poetry has one great virtue: in an ever-changing, trend-chasing world, it remains stable; it flows through society and connects people; “it survives.”

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