CEI Round Table: “Literature that Changes the World that Changes Literature”
Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman spoke of literature as a secondary modelling system. This is understandable: language held a privileged position in his research and, according to his primary modelling system, it was our means of forming, perceiving and reflecting on the world we inhabit. For him, literature as a world woven exclusively from language was a self-understood choice in the search for a freer relationship between language and the subject. Today the position of literature has been destabilized. This destabilization, however, is due not so much to the pluralization (and the primacy) of visual media as it is due, at least to some extent, to the fact that the mechanisms of structuring literary texts have transformed themselves and taken up residence in the extra-literary world.
Indeed, it seems that the most important word in recent years is “storytelling” – a word from the world of the literary theory that has, in capitalism, transformed itself into the ultimate marketing strategy: it does not matter what you are selling, what matters is how you are selling it. The media and opinion-manipulators have been quick to seize upon this word: facts have rarely been as insignificant as they are today, triviality and bombast at any price deflect attention from what should really matter – and here it is reasonable to ask whether we are still capable of discerning what that something might be. The decentralization and horizontalisation of transmitters of knowledge have shaken confidence in the “reality” of journalism as a profession; today news travels via Facebook, twitter and other platforms, with no one checking whether that news is from a reliable source or whether it is merely a simple, albeit but well-told, tale.
Reality does not have a language of its own; reality, like Foucault’s madness, can only be written about descriptively, as if the writer were skimming along the object’s surface without capturing its essence. The online world peddles each titbit, each fragment, as a reflection of some “reality,” but – as became evident in the recent American election – even virtual (“false”) news can have real consequences. In a world in which the rules of play have been adopted from a literary world (the aforementioned “storytelling”), how can literature articulate that world?
In her New Yorker article “Now Is the Time to Talk About What Are We Actually Talking About,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it. Now is the time to forge new words.