Looked at one way, the sociology of literature is dead. Thirty years ago, the phrase was widely in circulation; handbooks and companions were being published, forums and centers such as the Essex Sociology of Literature Project were flourishing. Today, if you put “sociology of literature” into Amazon’s search engine, you will find a list of used and out of print titles. The Essex Project is long gone, having dropped the term “sociology” from its rubrics in the mid-eighties and formally disbanded a decade later.
But looked at another way, the 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 methods.
Even this long list omits much of what is most exciting in the present state of the sociology/literature “contact zone.” Our seminar will coincide with the preparation of a special issue of NLH devoted to new sociologies of literature and featuring new work by leading theorists in queer studies, postcolonial studies, digital humanities, race theory, and other fields. As the essays for this volume arrive, I will seek the authors’ permissions for us to read and discuss their just-emerging work alongside the more established titles on our syllabus.
Written work for the class will include a short (1000-word) book review, an annotated bibliography, and a research paper of 4000-6000 words. My expectations for these papers are realistic; no incompletes will be allowed.
Undergraduates are not permitted to take 700-level courses.