Author Topic: Literature and social change  (Read 890 times)

Literature and social change
« on: August 26, 2020, 11:11:10 AM »
Hello.

I would like to know if people think that novels/plays/poems/etc have any practical impact on society. Obviously they can express ideas which then get absorbed and talked about, but does that translate into any real world changes? --- Can literature 'change the world'?

If no, did it ever? If yes, will it still do so in the future?

One thing I was thinking about was dystopian novels. There are a lot of good 'warnings' aren't there; yet, how effective have they been? Aren't things still a bit 'dystopian', and maybe worsening?

If you don't have much of an opinion but can recommend a book/article I'd be grateful for that too.


(There is usually a spot where the OP opines too, but if I start typing on this topic it won't take much more than a sentence to reveal my ignorance.)

Thomas

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #1 on: August 26, 2020, 11:18:16 AM »
1984 led to people quoting made-up passages from 1984 because you can't say anything these days (just like in 1984!).[1]
 1. I realise all passages from 1984 are technically made-up. You know what I mean.

rack and peanut

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #2 on: August 26, 2020, 11:46:24 AM »
Dystopian visions of the future have been ignored because sci fi is often dismissed by "serious literature".

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #3 on: August 26, 2020, 01:41:41 PM »
Literature is written  by people who are themselves inside a culture, it doesn't so much change society as reflect changes going on within that society. It's part of the change, the same way that music and fashion are. If you're talking about dystopian sci-fi, Phillip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a great example of a book which was written in the seventies and would't have been written in the fifties, or today.

Thomas

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #4 on: August 26, 2020, 02:09:00 PM »
Atomic aftermath flick The Day After (1983) budged Reagan's feelings about nuclear war, apparently with real effects on policy:

Quote
President Ronald Reagan watched the film more than a month before its screening, on Columbus Day, October 10, 1983. He wrote in his diary that the film was "very effective and left me greatly depressed," and that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on a "nuclear war". The film was also screened for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A government advisor who attended the screening, a friend of Meyer's, told him "If you wanted to draw blood, you did it. Those guys sat there like they were turned to stone." Four years later, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed and in Reagan's memoirs he drew a direct line from the film to the signing.

There must surely be a literary parallel out there in history.

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #5 on: August 26, 2020, 03:45:59 PM »
I think that you have to go back in time a little to get to an age where literature was relevant enough to change the culture. Certainly the romantic age would be the most obvious candidate for demonstrating the power literature once had to reach a huge audience - and the most obvious piece of literature would be Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which was a huge commercial success and gave rise to our modern intuition that love is a source of meaning in life just as important as all other sources of meaning. Moreover, that it was right and fitting for a young man to fall in love with a young woman his age, and for them to share an outlook on life, in order for it to count as "true" love.

One might also point to Oliver Twist which changed how polite society in victorian Britain considered the underprivileged. It made people think of the working classes not as mere peasant stock who lived like animals, but as also harbouring "diamonds in the rough" who deserved to be rescued from their poverty.


The 20th century is an age in which literature, as an institution, was hobbled twice over: firstly by the abdication of authors from their lordly place in society, and their flight into the realm of bohemia (Joyce&Beckett, the beatnicks, the post modernist authors), and secondly the ascent of film, which through technological advances was soon able to compete with the novel in almost every respect. "Rebel Without a Cause" would be the most obvious choice, since it represents the age of the teenager which we are definitely still living in. "2001 A Space Odyssey" popularised the notion of human beings being agents for change not only on earth, but in the entire universe: man become God. And of course there was the sexual revolution, which is best exemplified by the James Bond films.

But if we were to stick stubbornly to literature, and look at those important countercultural authors, I suppose "On The Road" made it acceptable to not know what you are doing in life: to not have a plan in life. Today, I would say most people relate to that notion, and there is a sense in which if you don't live wildly in your youth, you haven't even really lived.

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #6 on: August 26, 2020, 04:00:37 PM »
Literature is written  by people who are themselves inside a culture, it doesn't so much change society as reflect changes going on within that society. It's part of the change, the same way that music and fashion are. If you're talking about dystopian sci-fi, Phillip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a great example of a book which was written in the seventies and would't have been written in the fifties, or today.

That's all true, but it's also true that some pieces of art sum up an age so well that they radiate out to a waaaaaay broader public whatever small clique of people they were reflecting in the first place. At that point it really can change how the culture behaves. I mean, if you include holy books into the definition of "literature" this is simply undeniable.

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #7 on: August 26, 2020, 05:52:36 PM »
It also now occurs to me that what I was saying about Kubrick's 2001ASO, about man being more powerful than God, could actually be dethroned and swapped out for...
H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine", which had a profound effect on the direction of classic Science Fiction on the way to the genre we now know as Fantasy, the enjoyment thereof certainly cutting across a huge strata of society in our day and age. That is a sort of societal change now I think of it.

(is it correct to capitalise genres of fiction?)

Poirots BigGarlickyCorpse

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #8 on: August 26, 2020, 06:22:21 PM »
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with helping to fuel the abolitionist movement. It also popularised and spread a bunch of stereotypes about black people.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and other reforms of the meat-packing industry. This pissed Sinclair off because everybody focused on the disgusting conditions in the meat-packing plants and not on the horrific plight of immigrants to the United States, which is what the book is about.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley birthed the science fiction genre.

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #9 on: August 26, 2020, 06:38:17 PM »
Would be interested to know if the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had any sort of effect on society.  I would assume not because look at the place.

Necessarily doesn't sell itself to the upper classes.

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #10 on: August 26, 2020, 08:40:27 PM »
Literature is a kind of wealth in itself, a society where working-class people can access great books is richer than one where this isn't the case. And imaginative writing doesn't necessarily have to have a clear campaigning message in order to encourage progressive social change, anything which stirs feelings of beauty or shoots bolts of clarity and comprehension into your mind is potentially disruptive to a social order which doesn't value human life or intelligence. Jonathan Rose's book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes gives an excellent picture of just how important imaginative literature of all kinds,(and classical music) were to the UK working class/labour movement.

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #11 on: August 26, 2020, 08:54:22 PM »
Atlas Shrugged is a bible for neoliberal sociopaths the world over, isn't it. That's definitely a case of a book leading to societal change, but not a positive one. Although I think Randism has fallen out of a fashion now that actual fascism is back in vogue.

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #12 on: August 26, 2020, 09:27:24 PM »
Not enough people read now for it to work directly. What does happen though is that it can influence a small group of ruthless activists who can then infiltrate organizations and subtly change them from the inside eg Blair.

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #13 on: August 26, 2020, 11:19:15 PM »
Atlas Shrugged is a bible for neoliberal sociopaths the world over, isn't it. That's definitely a case of a book leading to societal change, but not a positive one. Although I think Randism has fallen out of a fashion now that actual fascism is back in vogue.

A very important example. Good one.

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #14 on: August 27, 2020, 06:29:46 PM »
Thanks for all the replies.


Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which was a huge commercial success and gave rise to our modern intuition that love is a source of meaning in life just as important as all other sources of meaning. Moreover, that it was right and fitting for a young man to fall in love with a young woman his age, and for them to share an outlook on life, in order for it to count as "true" love.

Do you know any essays or anywhere I can learn more about this?


Not enough people read now for it to work directly. What does happen though is that it can influence a small group of ruthless activists who can then infiltrate organizations and subtly change them from the inside eg Blair.

You've reminded me of HyperNormalisation, where Adam Curtis mentions the influence of 'the science fiction writings of the Strugatsky brothers' as well as 'avant-garde ideas from the theatre' on Russian politics:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5ubluwNkqg

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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #15 on: August 27, 2020, 07:41:15 PM »
Do you know any essays or anywhere I can learn more about this?

Allow me to translate from my Reclam XL edition talking about "Werthermania" (I translate rather freely).

"The enthusiasm for the novel in Germany and abroad was so large that a true "Werthermania" developed and it was common to hear of "Werther fever" amongst those who were young at the time of its publication. Young fans would dress in Werther's iconic blue jacket / yellow vest / yellow stockings combo or - if female - in Lottie's iconic slim cut of dress and pink bow. Werther's lifestyle, or rather, his approach to life was imitated. A melancholy, sensitive sort of baseline of temper was the basic qualification for membership of the scene. Just as the book's most conservative critics had worried, many cases of Werthermaniacs following Wether's example to its logical conclusion: to suicide, did in fact come up.

Just as today fans of Harry Potter consume branded merchandise, from the age of Goethe we have many examples of a Werther fandom. Countless depictions of the characters and scenes from the novel are in evidence; expensive, highly illustrated versions were published with intricate etching-work [a "special edition" if you will - R.], Oil paintings and porcelain 3D figures were produced on commission from artists with the intent of bringing the text to life.  The company [based in the heart of Porcelain production - R.] Meissen was for 15 years in production of painted plates with "Werther" designs, usually portraits of Werther and Lottie together. "



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Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #16 on: August 27, 2020, 08:33:01 PM »
A little more:

After its publication in June 1774 the novel became a hit not only in Germany but in foreign editions as well. None other than a certain young Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, read the novel and avowed himself a Werthermaniac and, many years later, on the 2nd of October 1808 got the chance to receive an audience with Goethe, expressly to discuss the meaning of his novel.

This is from the afterword of another Reklam edition I have:

"The heart" is a phrase that comes up again and again in the pages of Werther. This central concept defines the entire work. It was unlike all novels that had come before it which we could say tended towards a focus on heroic deeds or the search for adventure. Neither is it like the fiction of our day which tends towards the depiction of either great mortal danger, or the great multifaceted triviality of our daily lives. No, this book is about love, or rather, a single love.

The love of Werther is indeed alone and without contingency, which is to say that his heart recognises no law outside of itself. Werther's free-moving lifestyle is not, as in real life, contingent upon specific social ties he was born into. In his attitude, he stands alone and independent, and in fact the form of the novel is essentially a monologue: his voice alone. The two (chaste) lovers, Werther and Lottie, are not thrown together by dint of their family, their friends, their church. Werther's only recognises the pure connection of the heart, and since it is impossible, and he recognises no contingent alternative, he must therefore die.

Re: Literature and social change
« Reply #17 on: August 28, 2020, 10:54:22 AM »
Thanks for that.

I don't know if this is true, but I read in here - https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(14)70229-9/fulltext - that '20 pirated editions appeared within 12 years of its first publication.' I kind of want it to be true.


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Found this fascinating article related to that bit in HyperNormalisation, about Surkov:

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/22/the-literary-intrigues-of-putins-puppet-master/

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