The New Sociology, or, in Praise of the Middle Zone

in 20 under 40, James F. English, LATfob, new sociology, New Yorker

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Mark McGurl’s The Program Era ends with an insightful reflection on the problem of "scale" in literary study — our almost automatic assumption that we must always scale up the stakes of literary study in order to argue for our relevance.  Bigger, we commonly assume, is better, and will garner for us more funding, more attention, more significance. "[I]t is characteristic of the cognitive expansionism of literary studies… that most of its energy has been invested in extending outward from the nation rather than inward to the regions and localities, not to mention the institutions, that are equally corrective to the thoughtless assumption of disciplinary nationalism." McGurl concludes (rightly, I think) that there is no one right scale of literary study, and that a focus on the subnational — for example, on the institution — is as valid an area of critical focus as a focus on the transnational, cosmopolitan, diasporic, and global.

James F. English makes a similar point in his brilliant book on cultural prizes — both literary and nonliterary —The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value.

On the other hand, we have various attempts to survey and pronounce upon the circumstances and trajectories of cultural life as a whole, based on general theories of cultural production and consumption and broad assessments of national or global trends. What’s left out is the whole middle-zone of cultural space, a space crowded not just with artists and consumers but with bureaucrats, functionaries, patrons, and administrators of culture, vigorously producing and deploying such instruments as the best-of list, the film festival, the artists’ convention, the book club, the piano competition. Scholars have barely begun to study these sorts of instruments in any detail, to construct their histories, gather ethnographic data from their participants, come to an understanding of their specific logics or rules and of the different ways they are being played and played with. In our time, prizes have become by far the most widespread and powerful of all such instruments. But there are many other candidates for the sort of analysis I am undertaking here, especially in the areas of arts sponsorship, journalism, and higher education.

McGurl and English participate in what English has called — and what I think we should all, in our mania for naming, call — the "New Sociology of Literature" (on which there will be a forthcoming issue of NLH). Take a look at English’s course description of the same name, to get a sense of its contours:

[T]he convergence of sociology and literary studies has never been more widespread or more productive. Some instances include the history of the book, as developed by Chartier, Darnton, Stallybrass, and others; the sociological critique of aesthetics as revolutionized by Bourdieu, Herrnstein Smith, Guillory, and the New Economic critics; analyses of literary intellectuals and the conditions of academic life (Graff, Readings, Watkins, Collini, etc.); the expansion of reception studies (Radway); the impact of systems theory on literary studies and aesthetics (Luhmann); and recent scholarship on culture and governmentality (Hunter, Bennett). Meanwhile, within Sociology departments, the study of literature has acquired new energy and visibility, thanks to the revitalizing impact of Bourdieu, the influence of Konstanz school reception aesthetics (Griswold, Long), the “strong program” in cultural sociology at Yale (Alexander, Smith), and the explosive theoretical interventions of Bruno Latour. Finally, we can point to the recent impact of work by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova, suggesting as it does that the expanded optic required by comparative, transnational, or global frameworks of analysis demands a new articulation of literary with sociological method.

I think this middle zone — whether or not we want to call its study "sociology" — has much to recommend it as an area of focus. At best, our focus on the "middle" helps us keep in sight both the difficulties that inhere in individual works or groups of works and the broader "field" within which authors reflexively position themselves. For example, does this framework — English’s focus on prizes; and his discussion of the analogy between athletic and humanistic contests — not illuminate the New Yorker‘s recent cover, "Literary Field," by Chris Ware, which launches its "20 under 40" fiction issues (more of which are forthcoming)?  Is the bitter, eye-rolling, angry conversation the publication of this list has aroused not precisely predicted by English’s analysis, not in some sense precisely its point?


What is the significance of issues like this?  A similar commotion or uproar arose — entirely predictably — after The Millions released its "Best Fiction of the Millennium" list last year.  To what degree should we accept such lists and prizes as a natural part of the cultural field, or, if we don’t like such lists and prizes, what can we do to dismantle these middle-zone institutions?  I ask these questions both because I’d love to read your answers in comments and also to remind skeptics what reflexive sociology should be: not a weary explanation for why we’re all fundamentally cynical position-seekers — though who can deny that we sometimes are? — but rather a way of understanding our own situation, and the larger dynamics our individual choices participate in creating, that allows us finally to take control over that situation, to change the field or dynamic we are also analyzing and embedded within.