Friday, August 26, 2005


What was a war historian to make of all this?

The atmosphere between the youngest generation of history and literary studies academics is much friendlier than it used to be. There is a lot for us to learn: particularly on reading texts and using cognitive psychology. The boundary between the disciplines here is sometimes pretty blurred.
That having been said, there are some areas in which our academic paradigms are still very different. Military history (as distinct from war history) does, I think, encourage a pragmatic, empiricist approach. The result is that I can bristle at an overly theoretical – or an overly metaphysical/metaphorical – approach. There does seem to be a tendency amongst literary scholars to say ‘the well established fact that…’ where ‘well established seems to mean ‘asserted by lots of other eminent literary theorists’ rather than ‘proven by use of evidence’. I suspect I’ll get some flak for saying that, but I think plenty of literary scholars would acknowledge these faults – just as I would acknowledge the numerous problems in my own discipline. One of them is an unwillingness to theorise – so perhaps this is swings and roundabouts.
There is also a more general issue which I think relates to the place of war in popular culture. In this field in particular there is a tendency to regard strongly held beliefs as historical facts. By its nature, modern war attracts strong beliefs and assumptions. ‘War is bad’, ‘Armies (and generals) are stupid’, ‘All war is traumatic’. Lay readers, literary scholars – and many military historians – often end up inflicting these beliefs on the past, imposing ahistoric judgments because of what they ‘know’ to be the truth.

I was surprised that I was the only speaker at the conference to consider audience reaction. I think that reception studies is an area that some literary scholars are interested in, so I’m surprised that nobody working on this area spoke. Even if excellent work being done on the creation of these texts, without studying the whole process we are hardly looking at ‘cultural memory’. Many of those working in the field of literature are telling us how the roads are made, but they don’t seem to be paying much attention to the atlas.


Anonymous Astrid said...

(1) "well etablished facts": yes and no -- no, never!, when we (i.e. literary scholars) are talking about our own field (interpretations of literary works are always - per definitionem - open to debate) But as soon as we reach out to other fields (history, cognitive phychology, medicine… you name it) we tend to assume that these 'hard' sciences have in abundance what we lack: well established facts (and then we are happy to seize them ...)

(2) reception studies: extremely important for cultural memory studies, because what is not read/watched is cultural memory wise a non-entity --- but extremely difficult to operationalize. Empirical literary reception studies have never been something to write home about. Pure statistics don't tell you much. There is a critical German article on the reception on television called "and what if only the dog watches?" I think this captures very well the fact that there are many different modes of reception: thoughtless consumption, fervent belief, aesthetic pleasure ... Still, reception has to be taken into account, and Dan's sound combination (at the ACUME conference) of looking at the production, the actual work (and its changes) and the reception (at what Paul Ricoeur would probably call mimesis 1, 2 and 3) is surely a good way to proceed.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Well, my tongue was slightly in my cheek with the comment about 'well established facts'...
Absolutely right on how hard it is to put reception studies into practice. But just because it's hard doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And for me the big difference between the genuine attempt to study cultural memory (in history or literature) and the superficial imposition of modern perspectives on the past lies just there. Do we try to read ourselves into the contemporary context, or do we just report our response to the text?
I think there are clear examples where we can point to non-canine viewers and gauge their responses (to a degree, it was in the interests of television companies to measure such things).
Just reading your Anglistentag 2003 article: cracking stuff on different forms of reception and mimesis which all cultural historians would benefit from reading. Is it online anywhere?

2:21 PM  
Anonymous Esther said...

the well established fact that…’ where ‘well established seems to mean ‘asserted by lots of other eminent literary theorists’ rather than ‘proven by use of evidence’.

ROFL! :)

I'd also be interested to links or references for Astrid's work.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Astrid said...

dan, esther,
no, it's not online; the bibl. reference is

Astrid Erll: "Reading Literature as Collective Texts: German and English War Novels of the 1920s as Media of Cultural and Communicative Memory." In: Christoph Bode, Sebastian Domsch & Hans Sauer (eds.): Anglistentag München 2003: Proceedings. Trier: WVT 2004, 335-354. [shortened version in Frame. tijdschrift voor literatuurwetenschap 18 (2005) 1-2: 48-69]

of course I have it here on my computer, but placing it online would probably result in some sort of copy-right problem ?! esther, I can send it to you via mail, if you can't get hold of it in england.

and dan,
"tongue was slightly in my cheek" (how do I 'quote' in this system?!) > I know...

6:45 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Depends whether you yielded the copyright to them when they published. If not, I would imagine you can do what you like. And I think web-publishing is in some ways safer: it's very easy to prove that you were there first. At Esther's advice, I equipped this site with a creative commons license: - I'd have a look if I were you.

10:16 AM  

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