Between Impressions and Data: Negotiating Literary Value at the Humanities/Social Sciences Frontier


The fifty years spanning the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century saw literary studies established as an academic discipline within humanities divisions. These commonly also housed history, philosophy, classical and modern languages, and linguistics. The new discipline of English certainly engaged in fractious turf wars with each of these adjacent departments, but the idea of the humanities as literary studies’ natural home was rarely questioned.

This paper ponders what insights and intellectual dispositions literary studies missed by being placed at institutional remove from the social sciences, also coalescing intellectually during this period. Literary studies’ humanities base predisposed it to valorise specific texts over their common print medium; to focus on rarefied aesthetic evaluation rather than consider the economics of book production, distribution, and consumption; and to construct retrospective canons of emblematic works rather than to attend to contemporary literary developments. In foregrounding these in-built assumptions long naturalized by literary studies’ academic environment, this paper engages in speculative thinking, imagining disciplinary 'roads not taken'.

Granted, literary sociology has long existed as a marginal activity within English departments, imported from French social history, spurred by Marxist literary criticism and, in particular, prompted by book history’s reconceptualisation of bibliography as ‘the sociology of texts’ (McKenzie). Yet there are still other models for blending humanities and social science approaches, specifically the disciplines of media, communication, and cultural studies. This newer, hybrid discipline has thrived for some decades at the borderlands of humanities and social sciences but literary studies has had surprisingly fitful and uneven traffic with it. The present era of digital humanities, in which traditionally humanistic disciplines are reconsidering their relationship to print culture and to each other, presents an optimal time to reassess how past institutional structures formed the mental horizon of English and – equally – how alternative settings might facilitate new intellectual schemas.

Literary studies’ chief intellectual challenge at the present moment is that its object of study, governing theories and analytic methods are premised on the printed book, yet the discipline manifestly exists in a world where the publishing, promotion, discussion, reviewing and documenting of reading occur via digital platforms. In short under-acknowledged print-culture assumptions underpin literary studies’ academic project. In the late twentieth-century context, where emergent digital technologies were frequently pitted against literary (read print) culture, it was difficult to remain open to rethinking literary studies’ operating norms without risking total capitulation. But now that existential threats to the book have subsided, while the pace of digital technology continues to accelerate, it is both timely and urgent to consider how literary studies can help the public make sense of literary culture in the digital era, and in doing so ensure its continued existence as a scholarly endeavour. With the humanities generally,…

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Published 30 October 2023 in Special Issue: Literary Value. Subjects: Literature - Study & teaching.

Cite as: Murray, Simone. ‘Between Impressions and Data: Negotiating Literary Value at the Humanities/Social Sciences Frontier.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.aa3f8c1d48.

  • Simone Murray — Simone Murray is Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Monash University and an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.