Teaching the Value of Literature (and Other Paradoxes)


In this paper, I report on the new capstone course for the English major at Western Sydney University. The course was delivered against the backdrop of the former federal government’s Job-ready Graduates package, which misrepresented the employment outcomes of humanities graduates, as well as their contributions to the economic, cultural and political health of the country. As the Morrison Government’s higher educational reforms inadvertently demonstrated, the value of literature is difficult to quantify, not least because literature turns the idea of use value on its head. In a political climate hostile to the teaching of university English, the reframing of literary study at university in terms of the value of literature presents pedagogical opportunities I discuss with reference to the choices and approaches adopted in LANG3094: The Value of Literature during the pandemic in 2020–2022.

We live in an age of the overworked, and under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid. (Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as Artist’)

If the value of literature is never far from the lecturer’s thoughts at the lectern, the times have conspired to keep the elements of its demonstration firmly front of mind, helped along by the nihilism of machine learning, the culture of post-truth politics, the rise of fascism from neoliberalism, and the ongoing ecocide. The reasons why today’s school leavers might accept offers to study in the humanities at an Australian university are hardly self-evident, considering the cost of higher education, rising job insecurity, falling home ownership and a future colonised by public debt. The picture has been further clouded by the education policy of the outgoing Coalition Government. As humanities students braced for life in lockdown in the annus horribilis of 2020, they woke to find their subject choices under attack by the federal government, bent on engineering ‘job ready’ graduates by hiking course fees. Increasingly, the question facing prospective university teachers and students is not just why literature, or why the humanities, but why university and not, say, a technical college?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s admiration for President Donald Trump as a ‘very practical’ leader was an early warning of the pragmatism he had in store for the sector, a vocationalism aimed not just at students but also at the populist sentiments of his party’s base (Cole; Szego). His education minister, Bachelor of Arts graduate Dan Tehan, presented the latest coalition impost on the sector to the National Press Club as a ‘win win’ for students, who, presumably, would one day take solace from the news that the job they never wanted was in an area of national priority. The win-win logic was for government, not students. By making the humanities the privilege of the wealthy, Morrison and Tehan could fashion reality after the populist fancy that literature and the arts are a playground for the well-to-do. The entire country could now be made productive by deciding for students what jobs fitted them – or the economy – best. The paternalism evident in the coalition’s contempt of the ‘lifestyle choices’ of Indigenous Australians in remote settlements returned in the contempt for ‘lifestyle degrees’. It seems the corporatisation of tertiary education was not comprehensive enough for corporates advising government and staring down the prospect of mass resignation and burnout (see Ruppanner et al.). The Government’s boosterism impressed no one, least of all students. Defying economic logic, humanities enrolments went up with the fees, as the conditions and prospects of ‘real world jobs’ in science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries came to light (White; Hare). Unlike their guardians in Canberra, students have not fallen victim to the great science hoax. As COVID lockdowns lowered around the globe, proof that the ‘uselessness’ of the arts preserved more vital uses was everywhere apparent, from Lagos to Winnipeg (Paris; Bravo; Peralta). The academic precariat would have preferred the JobKeeper payments granted in other sectors, if only for the recognition that they were workers holding down jobs, not sinecures; but spiritual consolation was all the subsistence on offer.

The central achievement of the Job-ready Package was to thrust the value of literature and the humanities to the centre of national conversation (Whitlam; Albanese; Hurley; Fischetti and Coleborne). A renewed defence of literary culture in our undergraduate courses had become an imperative before the populist manoeuvrings of the Morrison Government, however. The pressure to spell out the practical uses of the humanities is endemic to the neoliberal academy, with its value-for-money model that promises fee-paying students meaningful jobs and bright careers. The timorous response of university leaders to the Government’s philistine attacks betrayed their uncertainty about a product that must seem in perpetual need of guarantee by rankings tables, data analytics, bibliometrics, brand management, public relations, and customer satisfaction surveys. The uncertainty feeds an insidious line of attack on the humanities that comes from inside the sector, behind the universities’ public stance of praise for the arts programs it keeps putting under the knife. Preserving literature from the productivity maximisers, like preserving the planet from deadly growth, defends the future from technocapitalism. Finding time to read, remember, and wondering how it all might be done differently – slowing down the clock – is the new radicalism.

As designers of curriculums, we like to think the value of literature is evident in all our courses, whatever their subjects, approaches or texts. Our unlikely existence as scholars in the corporate academy might seem demonstration enough of commitment to literature and lifelong learning. But holding literature as an article of faith or professional raison d’être leaves us, too, prone to take it for granted. The activities and mental processes associated with literary studies, though anchored in the premise of value, do not congeal into object lessons on a PowerPoint slide. The authentic sense of literature as invaluable and so indemonstrable poses a recurrent challenge to the teacher who would communicate it, sustained by an activism of book reading that draws an inevitable comparison with Don Quixote. Secular faith in the agency of literature to shape subjective and collective identities has a Quixotic heritage that spans the political divide. The transformational power of the work represented by Don Quixote is at the heart of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed and offshoots such as Rogelio Miñana’s Quixote-inspired performance activism,1 as well as more traditional pedagogies such as those of Pierre Rykmans, for whom literature is the corrective to the lethal abstractions and explanations of ideology. ‘Only literature can suggest the essential,’ said Rykmans, ‘because literature isn’t expected to come up with conclusions’ (in Paquet 124). By opening the imagination, literature allows us to practise – quixotically – new patterns of thought and feeing, ‘to rehearse turns of phrase and habits of mind, senses and sensibilities’, as Leigh Dale put it, ‘that allow us to think differently about what is valuable and what is right’ (20).

Teaching the essential by firing the imagination is easier said than done, and often better done with story and suggestion than with explanation. In his 1996 Boyer lectures, Ryckmans suggested that literature’s uselessness preserves a survival value that manifests in more extreme situations, when life is reduced to essentials – and bread alone is not enough to live by. He cites the testimonies of Primo Levi at Auschwitz, ready to sacrifice the day’s rations to recall a forgotten poem, and of Wu Ningkun, whose eyes and ears opened to Hamlet not when he was engaging in erudite debates about Shakespearian tragedy as professor of literature in Chicago and Beijing, but when he was a prisoner in a labour camp in north-east China during the Cultural Revolution. When a blizzard out of Siberia confined prisoners to their cells, Wu could return to the pocket-sized copy of Hamlet he had smuggled past authorities, where Elsinore loomed as a metaphor of the repressive state, the ghost as a chorus of a million victims, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a nation of hypocrites and informers, and Hamlet as a tragic hero worthy of his suffering (Wu 100–01). Wu’s experience was repeated by Edith Bone, who preserved her sanity in extreme isolation (including five months in total darkness) after her jailing by Stalinist security police in postwar Hungary. Denied access to books, Bone kept herself sane by reciting and translating poetry and keeping mental inventories, including a register of her vocabulary in six languages and the characters she could recall from Balzac, Dickens, Stendhal, Tolstoy and others (Bone 111).

In a pragmatic world, art occupies the position of the useless with such authority, said Tom Robbins, ‘that we find ourselves in the contradictory position of having to concede that the non-essential can be very essential indeed, if for no other reason than that an environment reduced to essentials is a subhuman environment in which only drones will survive’ (198). Robbins’ discovery that ‘the most useful thing about literature is its uselessness’ is a rediscovery of Zhuangzi’s ancient parable of the Crooked Tree, the lodestar of Ryckmans’ time in the hall of uselessness. Having condemned a rotting old oak tree as useless, a travelling carpenter has a dream in which he is rebuked for ranking the crooked tree below useful trees like apple or pear trees, which are stripped and abused for their uses. ‘Their life is bitter because of their usefulness’, says the old oak to the dreaming carpenter: ‘They do not live out their natural life but are cut down in their prime. They attract the attention of the common world. This is so for all things. As for me, I have been trying for a long time to be useless [which] is very useful to me’ (in Toub 363).

The parable concludes that while everyone knows the uses of the useful, few know the uses of uselessness. As the Morrison Government unveiled its vision of Australia as a manufacturing powerhouse, lockdown revealed the uses of uselessness in the centrality of the arts (and its unpractical practitioners) to social life. When Britain rose to become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse at the end of the nineteenth century, Gilbert, the languid Don Quixote of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Critic as Artist’, surveyed a society ‘degraded by its constant association [of thought] with practice’, a country whose ‘need of unpractical people’ was consequently greater than any other. When ‘[t]he necessity for a career forces everyone to take sides’, Gilbert explains, disinterested judgement becomes impossible because ‘[t]he sure way of knowing nothing about life is to make oneself useful’ (385). Indeed, liberal arts education will always appear useless in the eyes of the practical world. As Ryckmans puts it: ‘The superior utility of the university – what enables it to perform its function – rests entirely upon what the world deems to be its uselessness’ (‘Idea of the University’ 464). In a disenchanted age that knows only the uses of the useful, Don Quixote, that impractical humanist, is a figure of autonomy. His great twentieth-century admirer, Franz Kafka, provided another such figure that perhaps suits us better. Rotpeter, the talking ape of ‘A Report to an Academy’, is invited to speak about his former life as an ape to a learned academy, only to remind his audience that his ape nature is as far behind him as theirs is behind them. He turns the tables on his civilised masters by reporting not of his free life as an ape but of the brutal conditions of his incarceration and acculturation, when he learns to imitate the crude manners of his human captors and make a place for himself on the great variety stages of the civilised world. His performance to the dignified members of the academy is a tightwire act: if he falters, he goes back in the cage.

At the core of Kafka’s fable is the discovery that education (and civilisation) is built on the destruction of nature. Rotpeter’s report on his former life as an ape conceals a special sting for the scholar working in the neoliberal academy, as I discovered after teaching it for the first time in 2020. Ryckmans could still hold an embattled faith in the scholarly vocation with reference to John Henry Newman’s ideal of a degree-less university. If it is getting harder to do so now, it is because clinging to one’s faith in the value of literature means occupying a position of bad faith, by pretending that the neoliberal university still upholds the spiritual ideals of education or Bildung. Like Rotpeter, the university is trapped, Jerry Zaslove points out. It tries to retain the ideals of pure knowledge but is driven to make a profit. The result is cynical knowledge, which is felt most painfully in the humanities. The humanities have long defended the ennobling idea of education as autonomy or Bildung, even when forced to be cynical and pretend that the public sphere has not decayed under the influence of money and power, and that science and technology will lead us into a sustainable future (rather than destroy the planet). Rotpeter embodies this cynical knowledge and the desire for a way out. Rotpeter is us, the modern cynic who no longer believes in culture as freedom but must imitate it to find an escape. This is because culture – the culture we have built on the destruction of nature – is something from which we must find a way out.

The attempt to replace literature and literary study with something more productive risks replacing the life we have with something far worse. The risk is disguised by the illusion, propagated by techno-utopians since the early internet, that the networked digital world is protective of autonomy rather than the comprehensive threat to democracy Shoshana Zuboff has called ‘surveillance capitalism’. The cynicism of a neoliberal world of uninhibited digital markets, data sweeps, monopoly and disinformation – the nihilism of post-truth politics – is a situation from which we must find a way out. For historian Timothy Snyder, literature – not the social media furnished by tech giants – is the model of autonomy, as resistance to the fascist threat Vladimir Putin poses to the West. Reflecting on the emptiness at the core of the Putin regime, Snyder distinguishes between the familiar fascism of mid-twentieth-century Europe, which mobilises the individual with an ideological vision, from the newfangled fascism of the twenty-first century, which demobilises the individual with a cynical and nihilistic one (130). Putin, his propagandists and his credulous admirers on the American right have managed to convince more than just docile Russians that nothing really matters anymore, now that corruption is the rule in Washington, London and Canberra, as it is in Moscow. The boundless dissembling of propagandists like Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Solovyov, who use mockery to dissolve all values into cynical acceptance of oligarchy and state repression, is likened by Snyder to the work of soulless literary critics. By contrast, the defence of democratic institutions, embodied by Ukrainian resistance, needs the truth, the articulation and differentiation of values Snyder associates with the ‘solidity’ of literature (131).

Snyder does not follow Michiko Kakutani (47) in seeing the disinformation age as the Frankenstein's monster of postmodern relativism, despite making a similar appeal to literature given substance by the thinkers Kakutani attacks (like Theodor Adorno and Jacques Derrida). His reflection on the normative character of democracy and warning against the listless faith that democracy will always be there, a family heirloom passed on to us rather than something to fight for, invites reflection on the ethical character of literary study to shake off the lethargy that assumes literature is just there, a luxury item or lifestyle choice subsidised by the taxpayer. In his satirical reflections on the uselessness of literature in the face of natural disasters like the 2019 bushfires, Chris Fleming imagines our world after ‘the great minimalist purge of 2030’, in which ‘all literature was pushed into the ocean because it didn’t Spark Joy’. The realisation ‘that in ridding ourselves of literature we didn’t stop telling stories for the sake of something we glibly called “the truth”’, but instead ‘just told bad stories and then pretended they were the truth’, will have come too late. A ‘better cultural life’ will have been replaced by ‘a poorer one’, and reading literature with ‘read[ing] shit’, for ‘we didn’t substitute action for thinking – we just substituted thinking well for thinking like idiots’.2

The cognitive value of literature as thinking (or thinking better) illustrated in Fleming’s satire suggests one way to demonstrate the value of literature in the classroom: namely, by teaching satire, as a literary practice that intervenes in the public sphere to expose bad ideas to sunlight. In 2020, we framed a new capstone course for our English major with just such a demonstration, on the cusp of a pandemic that threw our remaining two demonstrations into relief: the experiential value of literature and the survival value of literature. Titling our third-year major ‘The Value of Literature’ was, I suppose, a concession to the economic notion of value it seeks to invert, another capitulation to the financial market meaning of terms like value, performance, speculation. But we are now at a point when recovering the literary meanings of such terms has turned the defence of traditional scholarly values into an activist stance. It is worth remembering with Zoe Bulaitis that King Lear is also a performance and Brave New World a speculation (13–14). Bulaitis refers to the crisis discourse in the mid-sixties that warned of the ‘social triviality’ awaiting the humanities in a culture dominated by science and technology, reminding us that we have yet to succumb to this fate (15). With the ubiquity of digital technologies and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), however, we have entered a new phase of crisis and opportunity. The neoliberal dogma that literature and the liberal arts is a private luxury, an educational product within easy reach of the paying customer, is a symptom of the poor health of western democracies, and a wakeup call. The lesson of COVID for the university sector was the superior technology of books to screens, of live lectures and tutorials to online ones. The lesson of the AI revolution, which threatens to drown the public sphere in a carnival of simulacra, trigger a dystopian arms race and plunge us all into automated armageddon, is the need to arrest the decline of democracy by embodying the value of truth with the solidity of literature.

Literature as Experience

I think of reading a book as no less an experience than travelling or falling in love. (J. L. Borges, ‘Last Interview’)

Morrison’s Job-ready Graduate was mocked half a century ago in the pages of Anthony Burgess’s anarchic coming-of-age novel, MF, after the student Miles Faber, ‘appalled by the lack of oceanic mysteries in Business Management’, is advised to ‘transfer to something useless’: ‘But, when you come to think of it, Elizabethan drama can tell you a lot about business: intrigues, stabs in the dark, fraternal treachery, poisoned banquets’ (11). Miles’ discovery of the uses of uselessness implies two types of reader or literary value: the reflective reader, who draws the ‘useless’ ethical lesson of the destructive tyrant in Marlowe and Shakespeare, and the subjectivist reader, who mines literature for strategic lessons in self-advancement.

Fortunately, our students are less strategic than their guardians, despite the pressure on them to adopt a transactional view of their studies. They arrive in tutorials with a keen sense of reading for life lessons, naturally curious to learn how the study of literature can help them in some personal or practical way. Reading for life – and not just a job – is why students flock to the humanities, keen to unlock the ways literature can speak to their experience. Reading for life lessons is a valid reading practice that once upon a time inspired the teacher of literature. The teacher comes to learn, however, that their role is not to provide students with knowledge but to inspire the hunger to know. The poem or novel we put in their hands is like a map dotted with the names of foreign cities and unfamiliar regions, each proper name holding out the promise of experience. Students already know how to draw on their experience to orient themselves in the literary text. What they learn in tutorials is that their experience is not adequate to the text. They learn not just to impose their ideas on a text but to suspend them, to detach their sympathies and consider them in the light cast by the reflective process of reading. They learn about themselves by reading books – talking about them, thinking about them, writing about them.

Making sense of the literary work or reawakening its meanings involves observing, applying, listening, judging, reflecting and conversing with peers, eager to test their own perceptions and build their own meaningful constructions. The effort to uncover the text’s truth reveals our own, the values and prejudices through which we exercise judgement. The yield of reading is not knowledge in an objectifiable sense but insight into the inner nature of experience. Borges’ remark about reading, as an experience on par with travelling or lovemaking, recalls literature’s ability to take us on a journey or seduce us back to life. Still, Borges is not radical enough – hermeneutically speaking. Reading and interpretation is not just another field of experience, but the disclosure of the truth of experience, or its inner temporal core. Helping students articulate the interpretive process – which at the time meant arming them with tools to defend their educational choices – begins by unburdening them of the naive realism that conceives the interpreter and the text as monads incapable of interaction. The meanings we reawaken in the interpretation of a work unfold rather in a historical and dialogic space. By calling the work into the present, we recognise the different worlds separating the interpreter from the work and reflect on the cultural forces backgrounded in it, in acts of judgement that reveal the cultural rudiments of our own world. The temporal and cultural distance between the two is crucial. (Instruction begins with the train conductor’s advice: mind the gap.) Poems, novels and plays are not vehicles of moral content the lecturer extracts for the benefit of students. The lecture is not a sermon. Rather, it is the interpretive act that discloses the bounds of experience, which is not some moral residing outside it in the floating space of the ‘timeless’ classic. In fact, what interpretation discloses is the fundamental negativity of experience – the insecurity of all plans and the fragility of the human estate. Disillusionment is integral to the disclosure. The discovery that we are creatures of history and not timelords is a painful one, but it leads not to resignation or despair but greater openness to (and understanding of) experience. Don Quixote fails in his quest for immortal fame when Alonso Quijano drops the charade and dies alone, but Sancho Panza continues the quest started by his beloved master.

As any actor knows, the play is not complete in the text but in the performance. Similarly, the meaning of the work only takes shape in interpretation, the first stage of which is not explanation but enunciation: that is, reading the poem in class. The essentially reconstructive process of understanding literary works reminds us that we are responsible for the interpretations we find in them. Reading literature would never tax the sympathies or exercise the imagination if all it ever discovered was the identical terms of the already experienced, what Rebecca Mead calls ‘the scourge of relatability’. Difficulty is part of the process, as the alien parts of the literary text are never fully mastered. It was not all that long ago that the study of Greek and Latin was recommended as preparation for the study of law. An old saying had it that if you can ‘get’ Greek and Latin, you’ll get the law at a pinch. I say something of the like to my students: if you can get your head around Kafka, you can get it around anything. Lawyers are a necessary evil, as any lawyer will tell you. Whether a more literary understanding of the law produces better lawyers is a moot point. US supreme court judge Benjamin Cardoza felt it did, crediting literature with the growth of his imaginative sympathies and the refinement of his legal insight as a writer of legal judgments. In the age of AI, reading literature might yet save the lawyer.

Defending the uses of uselessness expresses another Wildean paradox, that nothing worth knowing can be taught (Wilde 349). Literature’s value might not bend to instruction, but it can be learnt: traditionally, in the coordinated encounters with the work in the tutorial. In the second iteration of our course in 2021, Ryckmans defence’ of the humanist heritage was replaced by more contemporary voices from the Sydney Review of Books, which had just commissioned a series of essays from writers and scholars addressing the question of literary value. In her article ‘How Poems Make Things Happen’, poet Jessica Wilkinson encounters the same difficulty Ryckmans did in her bid to define the value of literature. Like Ryckmans, she resorts to testimony: in her case, the value of learning literature at the feet of the poet Marion May Campbell. Wilkinson emphasises a dimension of literary value that Ryckmans tends to overlook: the value of literature as performance and event. Wilkinson encountered Adrienne Rich’s poem on Madame Curie (‘Power’) not as words on the page but words in action, on the lips, voice and body of Campbell, whose performance of the poem revealed its authentic truth. Wilkinson’s experience of Rich’s poem was inseparable from the moment Campbell shared it with her in a university office. Campbell’s recitation was not the work of a good actor but an authentic interpreter, ‘a person [who] had lived with, around and through poetry for a considerable time, and could call upon its powers at will’. The experience did more than stimulate Wilkinson’s interest in feminist poetry; it ‘awakened’ in her ‘poetry’s deeper value’, a ‘corporeal vitality’ she could feel ‘working its way through [her] body and firmly into memory’. Rich’s poem is itself about reading: reading about the great scientist and feminist icon Madame Curie. Campbell’s performative reading of the poem is responsible to the experience of Adrienne Rich, and Rich’s poem is responsible to the life of Madame Curie. For Rich’s poem is also about the power of the word to embody the temporal core of experience. Wilkinson writes that Campbell held out a hand while reading ‘as if testifying to the wounds on Curie’s hands’.

The importance of putting bodies in a room – lecturers and tutors in the physical presence of students – is arguably greatest in the humanities, where teachers do far more (immeasurably more) than dispense content. They ‘presence’ the work, as Wilkinson, who witnessed Campbell’s performance in the fast-disappearing academic office, was at pains to point out. The irony of teaching the performative value of literature in lockdown was not lost on any of us in the spring semesters of 2020–2022, when the only stage available for literature’s event was a cloud-based video conferencing platform that eviscerated the spoken word. Reviving a culture of book reading amid the omnipresence of screens faced tall enough obstacles before the debacle of the Zoom tutorial. Typically, it took a pandemic for university heads (currently scrambling to lure students back to campus) to wake up to the lethal effects of online learning. Teaching students to have ears for the work will never succeed in the bizarre voyeurism of the Zoom university. Lockdown nonetheless suggested creative solutions to the isolation of online learning, including several skits by a pair of stir-crazy coordinators leading an exploration of the expressive dimension of interpretation. In our poetry and poetics module, led by my inspirational colleague, Ben Etherington, the performative dimension of literature was encountered in a study of the revitalisation of oral literature in slam poetry, which requires expressive and not merely explanatory criteria of literary value. A planned visit to the Bankstown Poetry Slam was put on ice, but recorded slam performances by Omar Musa and former law graduates Sara Mansour and Yasmine Lewis were well received. The module began with a powerful reminder of the centrality of the word in oral cultures. Lockdown robbed students of the chance to witness firsthand the depth of Ben’s knowledge of poetry and poetics; undeterred, he cycled his way to a deserted Parramatta campus to film his daily stroll to the office on his iPhone, illustrating the embeddedness of the word in Country by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land he walked on, the Barramattagal People of the Dharug nation. Lecture pods followed on the value of literature in oral cultures and the foreshortened view of it in print-centric culture, followed by the song spirals of the Gay’Wu Women of Arnhem land. We then leapt forward to the divided reception of Les Murray’s fusional poetics and read ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ alongside Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics, as competing responses to Australia’s postcolonial situation and guided by the question: What can poetics do in the current political situation?

The Sydney Review of Books itself provided us with an example of the dissemination of literary value in the public sphere, where cultural issues of concern to the Western Sydney region are regularly discussed in the form of aesthetic judgements. The focus on the reception of the literary text in the public sphere was carried over to the study of core texts. Each poem or story was studied in terms of its reception in the public sphere and as an intervention in it. In simple terms, we urged students to think of their efforts to articulate the value of their reading experiences as a way of articulating the value of literature. More generally, we sketched a short history of the origins of the modern public sphere in the French salons and English coffee houses of eighteenth-century Europe, where the exercise of aesthetic judgement evolved into the spaces of public communication we know today. The alteration or evolution of a work’s meaning in the hands of succeeding interpretive communities further helped to release the grip of naive realism and its mistaken view of the work as a concept or atemporal essence.

Tracking the life of literature in the public sphere was one way of showing students how literature was already at work in their lives. Rather than steer students away from social media and the Twittersphere, we gave them the tools to conduct a history of their own sensibility: namely, the technology of the poem, novel and play. A quick study of the normative idea of the democratic public sphere reveals the corporate interests colonising their (and our) screen habits. Showing how good literature drives out bad undoes the binary of literature and the arts as high culture and everything else as low. In our first module, we turned to satire to illustrate the impacts of literature in the public sphere in the discursive clashes it unleashes. James Caron’s recent book on satire in the digital public sphere, which examines the ability of TV shows like The Colbert Report to repair the public sphere by cultivating an informed citizenry through comedy, was on the radar when assembling course materials; in the end, we threw in our lot with literary satire. Dorothy Parker’s ‘Arrangement in Black and White’ (New Yorker, 1927) and Langton Hughes’ ‘Slave on the Block’ (Scribner's Magazine, 1933) were studied as examples of antiracism by satirists who experienced the effects of racism from different sides of the race line. To read these works in the context of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign then at its height meant taking note of the different points of access to the public sphere enjoyed by a white female writer like Parker at the Atheneum club and a black male writer like Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance.

The module took a turn to Menippean satire and allegory with Franz Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’ (1917) and Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979). As colonial era monuments topple – like the Kimberley’s King Leopold Ranges, since renamed in honour of its Aboriginal heritage – how do we read a monument like Kafka? Does his story of the talking ape conceal colonial assumptions about race or provide strategies for decolonising colonial culture? The cultural revaluation prompted by the BLM movement provided a dramatic context for fresh insight into Kafka’s contemporary relevance (see Frydman). The global #MeToo movement did the same for Carter’s repurposing of the Gothic tale as a parable of patriarchy. Carter’s postmodern aesthetics and feminist politics offered students another line of inquiry into literature’s encoding of experience. The Gothic tale, which makes no attempt to present everyday life in realistic terms, uses the symbolic language of the Unconscious behind ordinary experience to interpret everyday life (Carter, ‘Notes’). The story of her nameless heroine’s entrapment in Bluebeard’s castle narrates the female journey to sexual maturity as an overcoming of the social fiction of femininity. As the nameless heroine learns to navigate her exit from the ‘dungeon of patriarchy’ through the literary agency of self-invention, the strategy for decolonising female sexuality emerges in a process of detection characteristic of female Gothic. The path to emancipation, Carter makes clear, lies in new readings of old books (‘Notes’ 36).

Literature as Survival

The truth about stories is, that’s all we are. (Thomas King, The Truth About Stories)

Literature talks to us in the most personal of ways and we talk back in our various responses. The rise of Indigenous literary fiction provides a dramatic recent instance of talking back to the dominant texts of mainstream Australian culture. Murri lawyer and writer Nicole Watson has shown how the emergence of the Indigenous detective in television series like Mystery Road – and in novels like Julie Jansen’s recent Madukka the River Serpent or Watson’s own The Boundary – talks back to the Aboriginalism that served to bury questions of national legitimacy and dispossession in colonial era detective fiction.3 Dystopian novels like Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius have disinterred these questions through other means, attracting tag names like ‘Indigenous futurism’ or ‘Aboriginal realism’. The political content of all these novels and their character as literary activism is better grasped with Geoff Rodoreda’s term: the sovereignty novel. The chief concern of sovereignty novels ‘is to articulate a sovereign space and place for Indigenous Australian communities on the Australian continent’ (161). Rather than try to accommodate an Aboriginal identity within the confines of settler sovereignty, Indigenous writers search for expressions of Aboriginal sovereignty. The sovereignty denied legally is practised as a kind of mentality or relation to Country, with the emphasis falling on the performance of a mentality that asserts a sovereignty – denied in Australian law – in terms of a way of life.

Indigenous ontology and epistemology and its ancient ethos of caring for Country only grows in credibility as the reality of the climate crisis sets in, for at stake is not just the survival of a minority group. The literary activism implied by expressing a sovereign mentality was explored in our poetics module in terms of cultural memory. In our final module on literature of the Anthropocene, then, we turned to the book widely regarded as the template of Anthropocene fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. More generally, the value of teaching the novel as epic (that is, as the genre most appropriate to modernity) is an argument worth having with students born in the screen age. The ability of the novel to articulate and in some cases anticipate contemporary developments raises literature’s claim to truth. The novel narrates the individual’s life project, a project unsupported by the grand narratives that have receded into history. The social anxiety exacerbated by the pandemic brought to light an acute version of this narrative crisis among the young, whose transition to adulthood has lengthened amid the growing sense that the future has been ‘cancelled’ by the multidimensional effects of the climate crisis. The novel raises its claim to grasp the totality of the modern epoch by virtue of its nonconceptual or affective power. The affective power of McCarthy’s prose in The Road, an unpunctuated blend of modernist experimentation and popular horror, grasps the totality of the Anthropocene age, linking up with our course theme on the survival value of literature. The narrative action is marked by the dystopian turn taken with the Global War on Terror and the second wave of neoliberalism. Civilisation has collapsed after an unspecified ecological catastrophe and reverted to the Hobbesian nightmare of a war of all against all. The guest–host relations at the basis of culture have broken down; everyone becomes a stranger to everyone else, and all become refugees on the road. While not displaced by a sovereign government, the stateless victims of McCarthy’s dystopia are forced onto the road by the collapse of governments and perhaps the earth itself. The cannibals and road agents of the novel are the products of a world that has reduced them to subhuman drones who live out a short and brutal existence in a meaningless universe. For all the scenes of Anthropocene horror, the appropriate response to the apocalyptic devastation of The Road is Anthropocene hope. It is precisely because McCarthy dramatises the vanishing possibility of human life on earth that the positive or utopian idea of the earth-as-home flickers uncertainly in the darkness.

In his recent article, ‘Ecological Grief and Anthropocene Horror’, Timothy Clark refers to the ‘lack of an earth-sense’ in Western culture (63), or to an impoverished sense of the earth as a finite planet. Indigenous fiction and the sovereignty novel illustrate the claim, though we turned to McCarthy’s novel for a powerful demonstration of the catastrophic consequences that have resulted from this deficient sense. McCarthy piles up images of waste, ruin and wreckage – tragic images of shattered coastlines and choked waterways – to reveal the fragility at the base of everything we value: ‘The frailty of everything revealed at last’ (28). The ruined library scene towards the end of the novel is like the memory of the Last Man on earth as he contemplates the prospect of a world without humanity. The memory occurs after a dream in which the ‘the vanished world returns’ to the nameless Man and his dead elders stare at him silently. The dream prompts him to look back on his life before the catastrophe and the taken-for-granted ground upon which all value rests. As he stands in ‘the charred ruins of a library’ and casts an eye over its ‘blackened books’, he feels a quiet rage. What has been destroyed is far greater than books or the ideas represented in them; it is the collective value presupposed by the act of writing and reading: ‘He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come … That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation’ (199). The collective ignorance of that value makes the blackened books look like lies. At the foundation of all acts of valuing is a taken-for-granted assumption: that the human world will go on after my death (on our evaluative dependence on future generations, see Scheffler). Once the prospect of a life-to-come is gone, then the meaning and purpose of all values goes with it. The Road thus offers an emblem of the value of literature, if a dark one; for McCarthy’s poetics of creation and uncreation reaches beyond jeremiad or dystopia to the grandeur of myth. Indeed, in the face of devastation so absolute as the Anthropocene, it demonstrates the need for myth. For if a human world is to rise from the ruins so bleakly documented in The Road, then literature, in the form of the heroic quest narrated in the novel, as well as the rituals its last humans salvage from the rubble, will provide the orientation necessary to rebuild culture from barbarism. The new start begins with a restored sense of awe in the face of the ancient non-human world evoked in the final image of brook trout in a mountain stream, though the Boy’s compassion in the thief scene, or the doubt it casts on the fear driving the deepening partisanship of American life, offers more clues as to how McCarthy’s poetics can be translated into public discourse on climate action.

Thinking about the value of literature in a world on the brink of losing all value was the concluding dramatisation of our course theme. Our somewhat generalist approach was in step with Ottmar Ette’s polylogical philology of world literature. At a time when literature and its cultural role is ‘becoming ever more marginalised’, Ette seeks ‘to define new functions for a philology based on the diversity of individual and collective life’ (TransArea 4). Combining the historical depth of focus typical of literary study with the prospective view, Ette theorises the capacities of literature and literary study to model our future ‘from the traditions of a world consciousness thousands of years old’ (TransArea 6). Over millennia, literature has gathered, he suggests, ‘a knowledge of life, of survival, and of living together that specializes in being neither discursively nor disciplinarily specialized’. And because literature can impart its knowledge as experiential knowledge, or knowledge that can be reconstructed or relived, it can reach people over great spatial and temporal distances. What is so distinctive about literature or literary knowledge is the ‘transareal and transcultural manner of its emergence and impact’, says Ette. With a nod to Mikhail Bakhtin, Ette suggests that the many logics of literature teach us to think polylogically, making literature ‘the experiment of life, and of life in an experimental state’ (TransArea 5). Literature is knowledge in motion, ‘whose polylogical structure is vitally significant to survival for the world of the twenty-first century, the greatest challenge of which may very well be a global coexistence in peace and diversity’ (TransArea 6).

Battle of the Books

No preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same train and turn of thought that older people have tried in vain to put into our heads before. (Jonathan Swift, Battle of the Books)

The announcement of the Coalition’s tertiary education policy was preceded by the failed attempts of the conservative Ramsay Foundation to establish a degree in Western Civilisation at a Go8 university. The ensuing controversy exposed old divisions regarding the goals of education and new fears about its future in the runaway world of AI. The suggestion by conservative educators like Kevin Donnelly that humanities students at Australia’s public universities are indoctrinated with the tools of agitprop and cancel culture misjudges – among other things – the influence of pedagogues. Donnelly’s view of the sector as overrun by Marxists is outdone only by his belief that the Morrison Government lost the 2022 election at the hands of an education system ‘infiltrated and dominated by the neo-Marxist inspired cultural-Left’. While I share something of Donnelly’s disquiet over the rise of cancel culture, his solution – the return of education to the wisdom tradition – begs the question concerning the wisdom of aligning the classics with climate denialism and neoliberal nihilism. Donnelly locates the corrupted source of tertiary education in Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the spell it has cast over academics. Friere, Donnelly’s bête noir, did not make it onto our third-year reading list, but his anti-Friere, Pierre Ryckmans, did. Donnelly brandishes the Catholic conservatism of Ryckmans as the antidote to the Catholic radicalism of Friere without inquiring into the possibilities of bringing the two thinkers into dialogue. Friere’s critical pedagogy has had its dogmatists over the years, even as it warns of the sectarian pitfalls of Left and Right and advises teachers on how to avoid falling into them by remaining open to student needs. For all their political differences, the pedagogies of Ryckmans and Friere meet in the attitude of dialogical openness to the text that gives agency to the learner, an agency that today faces greater threats from uncritical attitudes to the imperialism of big data than it does from the heavily monitored hierarchy of the teacher–student relationship. The digital colonisation of the Global South has kept critical pedagogy on the agenda, not the dinosaurs of the New Left.

If Friere overrated the revolutionary potential of the classroom and the charisma of teachers, then Donnelly, taking Friere at his word, overrates the peril Western democracies face from so-called ‘cultural Marxism’ (see Williams). Ramsay Centre advocates like Donnelly see themselves as saving the Western tradition from the cultured despisers on the Left, while the Left see Ramsay advocates as the herald of the brave new world of education in the pockets of private providers. Each side paints a bleak scenario of young minds corrupted by the deadly ideologemes of their opponents, doing disservice to the imaginations of teachers and students in both sectors. To avoid such sectarianism, the literary work must be allowed to speak for itself in forums dedicated to its reception. The conservative poets on our course (Les Murray, James McCauley) were not made to chant verses from the Communist Manifesto or ‘deconstructed’: Donnelly’s term for such ventriloquy. Dostoevsky (another Donnelly favourite) was discussed not due to any concern for ‘balance’ but because of the role his diagnosis of Western decline has in the ongoing dialectic of Enlightenment thought, a discussion triggered by an allusion in McCarthy’s novel. To be sure, critique, in the broadly neo-Marxist sense reviled by Donnelly, is an element of instruction on our literature courses, but this element does not dissolve our programs into Marxist primers, the pretext for the rescue mission launched by the Ramsay Foundation. Our efforts to combine the perspectives of a conservative like Ryckmans and a radical like Friere observed a tension in the discipline that has marked it since its foundation. Since its establishment in the modern university, English and literary studies have been shaped by the contrary pulls of a backward-looking guardianship of tradition and a forward-looking embrace of the circumstances and ideas of the present age, including the specialist skills training needed to meet it. Understanding the institutional history of the discipline we work in helps us avoid the sectarianism of the culture wars and the nostalgia of liberal humanism, allowing us to focus on the common enemy that threatens to eclipse the culture of reading and writing with the culture of distraction. The ecologies of reading smashed by the attention economy and fast disappearing from private life must be recreated in the tutorial room. The goal is, in some sense, anti-digital; for the world of constant connection we have created is one from which we must find a way out.


  1. ‘There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis’, wrote Friere; ‘Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world’ (87). I was alerted to Friere’s educational philosophy by Kevin Donnelly’s denunciation of it, to which I return in my closing remarks.

  2. In July 2020, Chris Fleming gave generously of his time to discuss the value of literature in a recorded Zoom interview for the benefit of our students. His reflections were originally addressed to friends of the Sydney Review of Books at the Fitzroy Hotel in December 2019 under the title ‘Why Literature? Why now?’.

  3. Aboriginalism refers to ‘a system of settler ideas that generated the various “truths” through which settler Australians came to know Aboriginal people’ (Watson 76).

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

Cite as: Conti, Christopher. ‘Teaching the Value of Literature (and Other Paradoxes).’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.457f058588.

  • Christopher Conti — Christopher Conti is Senior Lecturer at Western Sydney University and member of the Writing and Society Research Centre.