Republic of Readers? The Literary Turn in Political Thought and Analysis by Simon Stow18 December 2007
As any good book reviewer ought to do, I will have to declare a prior interest in the author of the book I am about to review. I took several undergraduate classes in political philosophy from Simon Stow, and consider him to be one of the best professors I had during my undergraduate days. (Somewhere in my files, I still have the notes I took from his classes.) So when I saw that he’d published a book based on his dissertation, I thought it only appropriate to purchase a copy for myself and attempt to write a brief review of it.
Republic of Readers? The Literary Turn in Political Thought and Analysis by Simon Stow
Most anyone who has made a serious study of the techniques of literary criticism will know that a number of long-established critics like to look at books through a decidedly political lens. Marxism, postmoderism, feminism, New Historicism — the list of these and other ‘isms’ is long and still growing, and often confusing for those who would prefer to simply read a book rather than try to look at the book with the help of a theory that is supposed to explain What It All Really Means. Yet in the past half-century or so, this political ‘turn’ in literary theory has been mirrored by a similar literary ‘turn’ in political theory, in which political philosophers examine certain works or styles of literature in an attempt to determine the effects that books and reading can have on the creation of political ideas. Political and social philosophers like Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Terry Eagleton, and Judith Butler have examined the relationship between books and readers, trying to develop theories that explain the proper or ideal role of literature in political thought.
The literary turn in political theory has produced some rather thought-provoking ideas. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, suggests that books like Charles Dickens’ Hard Times or E.M. Forster’s Maurice can help create a feeling of empathy and understanding for those who have been put at an economic, political, or social disadvantage by the current state of society, raising our political and social consciousness. Richard Rorty claims that reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire will help readers recognise cruelty when they see it, both in other people and in themselves. (He uses the seductively cruel paedophila of Humbert Humbert as a case in point: if readers of Lolita come to realise that they have started to accept Humbert’s claim that he was seduced by a prepubescent girl, would that sudden self-awareness make the readers more aware of their own capacity for cruelty or their ability to objectivise other people in the way that Humbert objectifies young Dolores Haze?) These and other ideas of the role of literature in political thought — and the thinkers who developed them — are the focus of Republic of Readers? The Literary Turn in Political Thought and Analysis.
Stow’s book looks at the literary turns in the political thought of Nussbaum, Rorty, Eagleton, and Butler, and attempts to identify the common strands in their competing arguments. He devotes a good portion of the book to picking apart the inconsistencies and problems with these arguments — not necessarily to say that these arguments are entirely wrong, but more to show that some of the underlying assumptions in these arguments are very subjective, more often based on how Rorty or Eagleton or Nussbaum or Butler thinks that a particular work of literature should be read than on how a reader might look at the text for the first time. Stow points out this and other problems with the different textual readings and their applications to political thought, and in doing so he attempts to separate — or perhaps even rescue — political philosophy from literary criticism.
One word of caution: It helps to have a good acquaintance with literary and political theory before delving into this book. I myself have only dabbled in the shallows of political philosophy and literary criticism, so a reader who is less than familiar with either the theorists or the texts mentioned would likely find this book somewhat rough going. (Having had the advantage of sitting through the author’s lectures in the past, I was able to follow his arguments better than I think I would have otherwise.) But for students of philosophy and literature who are interested in a review of the literary turn in political thought — one that avoids the shrillness all too frequently found in this discipline’s debate — Republic of Readers? provides a calm and measured study that does quite a bit to heighten readers’ awareness of the role that literature often may play in shaping how we look at the world.