Cultural literacy for today’s Europe

Ever wondered whether it would be possible to look at societal questions in a literary way? The field of cultural literacy—known as literary and cultural studies (LCS)—does exactly that. Today, LCS research has changed from an exclusive focus on literary works to studying such phenomena as disability, multilingualism, nostalgia or texting.

Cultural literacy is a way of looking at social and cultural issues–especially issues of change and mobility–through the lens of literary thinking. It is part of the general movement of interdisciplinarity within the humanities and between the humanities and other disciplines. But it is also a distinctive activity within that larger movement.

A recently published ESF Science Policy Briefing reports on a project run between 2009 and 2011 by the European Science Foundation’s Standing Committee for the Humanities and the Individuals, Societies, Cultures and Health domain of COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). It set out to explore what research is currently being conducted by scholars trained in literary studies. And how this research can contribute to solving the challenges facing Europe today. These include questions of education, health, migration and integration, multilingualism and inter-generational relations.

LCS research sees cultural and social questions as readable, defining this through four key concepts: textuality, fictionality, rhetoricity and historicity.

The concept of textuality represents the complexity of all cultural objects and activities. Whether it is an aesthetic construction or a social process, any cultural object can be understood as an artefact. The focus is on the formal shape of this artefact. LCS techniques that describe, explain and contextualise such structures are valuable tools for understanding and analysing any social entity, from a law to a bodily gesture.

In cultural meaning, the referential of many artefacts supposes a difference between the real and unreal that is best described by the term fictionality. As its Latin root suggests, a fiction is something fashioned, but it does not necessarily focus on authorship. Like other virtual forms, fictionality may be rule-bound in the sense that it presupposes rules of artifice, but it is not bounded by natural laws. A fiction is not a lie, but its truth-claims are not testable. To study the fictionality of any object is to study how kinds of truth-effect are artfully achieved.

Assuming language or similar structures to have probable purposes and undoubted effects is rhetoricity. The concept is derived from the art of persuasion through speech – rhetoric – as developed and practised in antiquity. But it may be extended to any formal or informal techniques that persuade or manipulate. Metaphors and other figures of speech pervade every level of discourse, and they are never innocent. Why, for example, do we still speak of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences? To be able to identify rhetoricity as a phenomenon that invades all kinds of communication is one of the most important facets of cultural literacy.

All human artefacts and practices have extension in time, whether or not they have extension in space. Their freight of past is essential to their meaning. While the age of the ‘grand narratives’ is over, the historicity of things relates to their formation as ‘little narratives’, the quality of being a tale told and heard. Historicity has two faces: it relates both to the synchronous historical context of a socio-cultural phenomenon and to its position in the diachronic processes of change of which it is a part.

Using these concepts, the ESF-COST project ran a series of international, interdisciplinary workshops on ‘Remembering and Forgetting’, ‘Cultural Migration’, ‘Electronic Textuality’ and ‘Biopolitics, Biosociality and the Body’. These debates, in addition to the Science Policy Briefing, are due to be published as a collection of essays in 2014.

In the course of the four workshops we discussed such questions as: how to measure and analyse whether it is true that people read less than they used to (it is not); how metaphors from horticulture – grafting and hybridisation – can inform the way we think about social and political change; what happens when we look not just at life-narratives written by migrants but at their poetry; and how the new ‘memory museums’ help or hinder our ways of remembering the past, including pasts we have not lived.

Other, more immediately practical questions included: how might urban planners in our fast-gentrifying cities take into account the way that walking around these changing spaces is a process of writing and reading? And how might those who design robotic prosthetics to solve problems of disability consider the ethics of such adaptations in the light of stories told by their users?

The Science Policy Briefing makes four key recommendations. The first is to create a conference series which will explore and develop cultural literacy as well as advance the field of LCS research (the first conference will take place in London in 2015). The second recommendation is to inaugurate a European Forum for LCS research which will bring together researchers and policy-makers. Third, we recommend that funding agencies should introduce flexible instruments geared towards the small-scale networking of LCS research, which give proven value for money.

Finally, we want to encourage innovation in higher education, introducing basic LCS principles to non-LCS students and vice versa. Ultimately, we aim to increase cultural literacy among the next generation. These relatively low-cost actions would ‘take at the flood’ a vast and growing tide of inspiring new research.

Following these recommendations would bring to the European table a vast body of research and researchers who have much to contribute to the debates that concern us all. It would introduce a new way of thinking about cultural change in a time when that change is already affecting our lives and those of our children.

Of course other kinds of research are equally crucial but, we would argue, they are not more crucial than refreshing our ways of approaching the challenges that face Europe in the present and future.

Naomi Segal

Professor of French and German Studies, Birkbeck, University of London

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Neil Winton

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