Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Literature and Inequality book talk now available online.

 The Zoom book talk I gave on October 15 regarding Literature and Inequality is now available online here.

I speak for about 20 minutes after NYU Law School dean Trevor Morrison introduces the proceedings. Then Branko Milanovic and Kenji Yoshino offer remarks, followed by my very brief response and questions from the audience.

Although I'm capable of being a harsh self-critic, I was pleased with the event both when it happened, and upon rewatching it at the above youtube link. I felt that I was clear, and that I effectively conveyed a lot of information about why I wrote this book, what it does, and why one might want to read it. Branko and Kenji were gracious, articulate, enjoyable to watch, and made interesting points.

Watching the video may actually be fun (at least for some tastes), and one of course you don't have to stay the whole way through (as it's 90 minutes in total).

One interesting point from Kenji was as follows. Law and literature scholarship has from the start been grappling with the question: why would literature be of interest to those working in the realms of law, social science, or philosophy? The dominant answer for decades, dating back to James Boyd White's pioneering work and also emphasized, for example, by Martha Nussbaum, is that literature can activate one's empathy, and permit one to imagine the lives of people living in very different circumstances other than one's own. Thus, one's sympathy and understanding are broadened, etcetera.

Kenji observed that my use of literature is quite different. Not that there's anything wrong with the White-Nussbaum rationale and approach, but I was interested in doing something quite different. Literature often has great ambiguity. Indeed, even bad literature can have this quality, although perhaps it is statistically (so to speak) more common in great literature. Stories, characters, and portrayed social settings can resist simple, straightforward, wholly consistent interpretation, just as one's dreams may pack in multiple layers, meanings, and perspectives.

In illustration, Kenji noted that, in my Jane Austen chapter, I quote a leading scholar who tried to procrusteanize Austen into being a conservative / traditionalist ideologue, but who felt forced to admit that Elizabeth Bennet must have gotten away from her. Kenji agrees with me that surely Austen never intended for Elizabeth to be reduced to the status of spokesman for an ideological viewpoint. Elizabeth's being so rounded a character , and one who contains multitudes, contributes to the complexity and nuance that Pride and Prejudice brings to its portrayal of social conflict amid the top 1 percent in Regency England. Such qualities may be hard to replicate through philosophical or social science approaches.

With extra time to reflect, I would now further add that, in Pride and Prejudice, at least as I read it, Elizabeth really is championing a cause. But it isn't "conservative" or "radical" (as dueling Austen critics would have it) - rather, I see her as championing the claim that personal merit - not birth or wealth - should be the fundamental ranking metric under which people in her broader social circle are judged.

Needless to say, if we were to imagine Elizabeth writing an essay in which she set forth this belief, it would fail to offer the rich insights the novel does. But instead, of course we see her in action and in dialogue - for example, as she battles Lady Catherine de Bourgh, along with Darcy until he capitulates. Elizabeth deploys her fundamental belief in the importance of personal merit, relative to birth and wealth, as she acts under the further influence of her own moods, interests, and needs. She is driven by her faults and prejudices, as well as by her immense virtues, and has a range of motivations that are neither always in perfect harmony with each other, nor entirely within her consciousness or control.

Obviously, we end up deriving a lot more insight about the feel of inequality, in a richly rendered society of a particular era that features these rival ranking metrics, than we would have gotten either from Elizabeth's hypothetical essay, or from anything of that sort that Jane Austen might have written in her own voice, had she not instead had the good sense to write novels.

Literature is not just one thing. Indeed, neither empathy nor ambiguity is always at his core. Also, great literature is not invariably that which is the most empathetic, or the most ambiguous. But I enjoyed hearing from Kenji how my use of literature differed from many previous ones. Perhaps others will take up versions of this angle as well.


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