Source: Literature and Mass Culture. Communication in Society, Volume 1. Leo Lowenthal, published by Transaction Books, 1984.
Leo Löwenthal (1900-1993) was a sociologist associated with the Frankfurt School. He began his career by joining the Institute for Social Research in 1927 and became managing editor of its journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Soon thereafter he migrated to the United States where he held various positions, including research director for Voice of America, the Stanford Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavior Sciences, and finally settled in the department of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His books (which were published in German and English) include Literature and Mass Culture, Prophets of Deceit, and Literature and the Image of Man.
- On Sociology of Literature.
- AREAS OF ANALYSIS
- SOME CHALLENGING TASKS
On Sociology of Literature.
The sociological interpretation of literature is not a favorite son of organized social science. Since the emancipation of the study of literature from the rigid research dicta and historically cogent laws of philology, almost everybody with a fair access to reading and writing feels entitled to offer historical, aesthetic, and sociological criticism and generalization. The academic disciplines which have been traditionally charged with the history and analysis of literature have been caught unaware by the impact of mass literature, the best seller, the popular magazine, the comics and the like, and they have maintained an attitude of haughty indifference to the lower depths of imagination in print. A field and a challenge have thus been left open and the sociologist will have to do something about them.
The following remarks, making no claim to systematization or comprehensiveness, are intended as an attempt to survey work done and to be done.
AREAS OF ANALYSIS
Literature and the Social System
The problems envisaged under this heading are twofold. The primary aspect is to place literature in a functional frame within each society and again within the various levels of stratification of that society. In certain primitive as well as in some culturally highly developed societies, literature is integrated into other social manifestations and is not clearly differentiated as an independent entity apart from ceremonials of cult and religion. It is rather an outlet of these institutions as, for example, tribal chants, early Greek tragedy, or the medieval passion play. In contradistinction, literature in the middle-class world leads an existence clearly separated from other cultural activities, with many functional differentiations. It may become the escapist refuge of politically frustrated groups, as in early romanticism, or of social frustration on a mass scale, as in the current phenomenon of literary mass entertainment. Then again, literature may function as an ideological instrument in the proper sense of that word, by exalting a specific system of domination and contributing to its educational goals, as was the case with the Spanish and French dramatists in the era of absolutism.
A secondary aspect, perhaps less fertile in terms of research materials but no less rewarding in social perspectives, lies in the study of literary forms. The epic as well as lyric poetry, the drama like the novel, have affinities of their own to a particular social destiny. The solitude of the individual or the feeling of collective security, social optimism or despair, interest of psychological self-reflection or adherence to an objective scale of values, may be mentioned as starting points of associations that lend themselves to a reexamination of literary forms in terms of social situations.
An example for studies in this area is taken from the field of mass communication. It deals with the role of the popular biographies that have become prominent features in magazines intended for large-scale consumption. In comparing the different “heroes” of biographies during the last forty years it could be ascertained that in the first fifteen years of the present century about 75 percent of the subjects were taken from political life, business and the professions, whereas in 1941 73 percent of the “heroes” come from the “spheres of consumption,” that is to say, from the entertainment, sports and communication fields. It seems that this change of literary taste is closely connected with a change in the social situation of the reading public. Whereas forty years ago they bought information about the agents and methods of social production, today they buy information about the agents and methods of individual consumption. This change is reinforced by a parallel change in topical material. A generation ago the reader was told about the special political, business or professional activities of his heroes; today he is held spellbound by their private lives, their hobbies and food preferences, their friends and acquaintances, and so on.
The major sociological conclusion to be drawn from this change is that the little man, who has been expelled from the Horatio Alger dream, who despairs of penetrating the thicket of grand strategy in politics and business, finds comfort in seeing his heroes as “a lot of guys” who like or dislike highballs, cigarettes, tomato juice, golf and social gatherings just like himself He knows how to converse in the sphere of consumption and here he can make no mistakes. By narrowing his focus of attention, he can experience the gratification of being confirmed in his own pleasures and discomforts by participating in the pleasures and discomforts of the great. The large confusing issues in the political and economic realm and the antagonisms and controversies in the social realm are submerged in the experience of being at one with the powerful and great in the sphere of consumption.
The Position of the Writer in Society
The creative writer is the intellectual per se, for whom objective source materials are merely an arbitrary arsenal of reference of which he makes use, if at all, according to his specifically aesthetic aims. He thus represents the prototype of intellectual behavior and the lively discussion among sociologists about the role of the intelligentsia could perhaps be extended to a more concrete level if it were supported by a historically documented analysis of both the socially relevant self-portrait and the specific functions of one of the oldest groups among the intellectual professions.
It must suffice here to enumerate a few points of departure and to mention under the heading of subjectivity the phenomena of the prophetic, the missionary, the entertaining, the strictly handicraft and professional, the political or money-making self-conceptions of literary producers. On the objective level we shall have to inquire into the sources of prestige and income, the pressure of institutionalized agencies of social control, visible or anonymous, the influence of technology and the market mechanisms, all with regard to the stimulation and dissemination of artistic writing and to the social, economic and cultural situation within which writers find themselves at various historical stages. The relationships of the princely courts, the academies and salons, the book clubs and the movie industry to the literary craft exemplify the relevant topics for systematic discussion. Then there are problems which cross the subjective and objective aspects, such as, whether under conditions of modern book and magazine production the writer is still an independent entrepreneur or in fact an employee of his publisher and advertiser.
Society and Social Problems as Literary Materials
Here we enter the traditional area of sociological research in literature. There are innumerable books and papers on the treatment of the state or society or the economy or this and the other articulate social phenomenon by any number of writers in any, number of countries and languages. These more or less reliable repositories of factual information, though written for the most part by literary people and therefore more or less haphazardous in matters of social theory, cannot be dismissed lightly. They evaluate literature as secondary source material for historical analysis and become all the more valuable the scarcer the primary sources for any specific period. Furthermore, they contribute to our knowledge of the kind of perception which a specific social group — writers — has of specific social phenomena, and they belong therefore to propaedeutic studies of a history and sociology of social consciousness.
Nevertheless, a sociologist with literary interest and analytical experience in the field of belles-lettres must not be satisfied merely to interpret literary materials which are sociological by definition; his task is also to study the social implications of literary themes and motives which are remote from public or publicly relevant affairs. The specific treatment which a creative writer gives to nature or to love, to gestures and moods, to situations of gregariousness or solitude, the weight given to reflections, descriptions or conversations, are all phenomena which on first sight may seem sterile from a sociological point of view but which are in fact genuinely primary sources for a study of the penetration of the most private and intimate spheres of individual life by the social climate, on which, in the last analysis, this life thrives. For times that have passed, literature often becomes the only available source of information about private modes and mores.
The shortcoming of fashionable biographies of today stem in part from their increasing attempt to explain literary figures (and for good measure the entire social situation in which they were created) by short-circuited conclusions made up of analogies with the psychology of present-day man. But women like Faust’s Gretchen, Madame Bovary, or Anna Karenina cannot be interpreted by mere analogy: their problems simply cannot be experienced today because the atmosphere out of which their conflicts grew has passed. The social data of the period in which they were created and the social analysis of the characters themselves are the very material from which the meaning and the function of the works of art can be understood. If our would-be psychologists in the literary field were to be completely sincere, they would have to confess that every one of these women, if alive today, would be considered stupid, frustrated neurotics who ought to take a job or undergo psychiatric treatment to rid themselves of their obsessions and inhibitions.
It is the task of the sociologist of literature to relate the experience of the imaginary characters to the specific historical climate from which they stem and, thus, to make literary hermeneutics a part of the sociology of knowledge. That sociologist has to transform the private equation of themes and stylistic means into social equations.
Some fifteen years ago, I made a study of Knut Hamsun which incidentally turned out to be a case of successful sociological prediction in the field of literature. The particular task consisted of analyzing themes and motives having no direct connection with public issues, for they were domiciled in the private sphere. The study showed that Hamsun was intrinsically a Fascist. Events have proved that, this once at least, prediction is possible for a sociologist of literature. To the surprise of most of our contemporaries, Hamsun turned out to be a close collaborator of the Nazis.
Here only a few rather disjointed examples of this type of analysis can be given. Of special interest seems to be Hamsun’s treatment of nature. In the authoritarian state, the individual is taught to seek the meaning of his life in “natural” factors like race and soil. Over and over again he is told that he is nothing more than nature, specifically, than race and “natural” community. The pantheistic infatuation with nature which Hamsun demonstrates and accepts leads to this dictated identity between the individual and “natural” forces. The route is circuitous in appearance only.
The shift from the dream world of naturalness to the social reality of Fascism is inherent in the forms in which the uproar of the elements, brutal nature, is experienced. Hamsun writes (and the following is merely a sample repeated in endless variations):
A wind comes up, and suddenly it rumbles far and wide…. Then lightning flashes, and … the thunder rolls like a dreadful avalanche far beyond, between the mountains…. Lightning again, and the thunder is closer at hand; it also begins to rain, a driving rain, the echo is very powerful, all nature is in an uproar…. More lightning, and thunder and more driving rain.
Immanuel Kant had defined his conception of the sublimity of nature in a storm in such a way that man, in experiencing his own helplessness (as a being of nature) in the face of the superior might of natural phenomena, simultaneously experiences the inferiority of the latter in the face of his own humanity, which is greater than nature. Man can indeed succumb to nature, but that is only incidental and external to the power of his soul and mind.
Kant’s social consciousness bids nature be silent, as it were, about what it experiences from man and what it can do for man. But for Hamsun the storm can hardly shout loudly enough to drown out individual and social impotence. The storm is the occasion for experiencing and formulating the insignificance of the individual — the exact opposite of Kant’s conception:
When a moment of sadness and realization of my own worthlessness in the face of all the surrounding powers comes over me, I lament and think: Which man am 1, or am I perhaps lost, am I perhaps no longer existent! And I speak aloud and call my name, in order to hear whether he is still present.
Anxiety appears to be a sort of secret emotion bound up with this late pantheism. Kant’s pride in human autonomy has no place for the sentimental uneasiness which is announced in every fear of a thunderstorm and which appears in Hamsun as a promiscuous jumble of mawkish sympathies for both natural objects and spiritual difficulties. Hamsun’s storm world foreshadows the affinity between the elements of brutality and sentimentality, which are united in Fascist behavior.
The law of rhythm is of particular significance for Hamsun’s concept of nature. The rhythmic cycle of the seasons is noted in the novels incessantly, as if in imitation of the phenomenon itself “Then came the autumn, then came the winter.” “… but the road leads on, summer follows spring in the world.” In the end, the rhythmic principle takes on a normative character. What is wrong with certain people is that “they won’t keep pace with life … but there’s none should rage against life.”” Even sexual relationships are oriented to the regularity of nature. The shepherdess will walk past the hunter’s cabin in the autumn just as infallibly as she comes to him in the spring. “The autumn, the winter, had laid hold of her too; her senses drowsed.”
We have attained the extreme opposite of human self-consciousness before nature if man can and must never disturb the natural cycle at any point. In this new ideology, which seeks to transfigure helplessness and subjection, the individual lays down his arms before a higher power in seemingly free volition. Man must expect the terrors of a meaningless life unless he obediently accepts as his own what may be called the alien law of nature. The social solution to the puzzle of natural rhythm is blind discipline, the rhythm of marches and parades.
Concerning love and womanhood one might say of Hamsun’s attitude that woman attains her proper character and happiness when she unites the home with the naturalness of true existence in her functions as housewife and mother. We find in Hamsun unmistakable traces of the tendency to reduce the role of woman to merely biological functions, the duty to bear many children. This trend is part of his ideal counterpart to liberal society — the Fascist reality. “A real girl will marry, shall become the wife of a man, shall become a mother, shall become fertility itself”” The apotheosis of biological functions inevitably leads to bitter hatred of all reforms, emancipation, or spirituality which woman might desire, to contempt for “the modern woman.” Real individual satisfaction seems possible only in the sexual sphere, but not because sensual pleasure has a specific connection with the development of the personality. It is rather hatred and malice, associated with great disdain for woman, which are operative in this relationship.
“Come and show me where there’s cloudberries,” said Gustaf . . . And how could a woman say no? . . . Who would not have done the same? Oh, woman cannot tell one man from another; not always — not often.
Hamsun dresses the role of promiscuous sexuality in all kinds of natural myths. There is a complete lack of interest in one’s partner’s happiness. Sexual relations are ruled by complete passivity, a sort of service which man obeys:
He broke through all rules of propriety and was very friendly, picked the hay from her bosom, brushed it from her knees, stroked, petted, threw his arms around her. Some call it free will.
Even when man is occupied with love, Hamsun maliciously reminds him of his mere naturalness, a true disciple of Fascism’s moral relativism.
When we turn to his treatment of marginal figures, we soon discover that, next to the peasant, Hamsun has particular sympathy for the vagabond. In the prehistory of Fascism in Germany, yeoman work was one by a conceited, individualistic group of uprooted literati who played with the cult of the hero. In the anticipation of Fascism which we find in Hamsun’s novels, the vagabond is a forerunner of the brutal man who weeps over a dry twig and bares his fist to his wife. Flirtation with the anarchistic vagabond is a coquettish and spiritualized expression of the veneration of heroic forces. There is abundant evidence from every period of Hamsun’s career, as in a late novel in which the vagabond August longs “to shoot the knife out of the hand of a man who was trying to make off with his wallet” because that would be a thrill for the “children of the age” in their dreary existence; or in his prewar writings where he plays the same romantic game without introducing heroic crime, and where he ridicules the notion of bourgeois efficiency as poverty-stricken (“no thunderbolt ever falls”);” or even in his earliest work, where he cries for “gigantic demi-gods” and blunders into a political program for which the way has been cleared by this very heroic ideology: “The great terrorist is greatest, the dimension, the immense lever which can raise worlds.” It is but a short step from here to the glorification of the leader.
Finally a word about Hamsun’s relationship to mankind as a whole. It is most ironic that the biological comparison with the anthill, so popular in liberal reformist literature as a symbol of higher social aims and organization, is completely reversed by Hamsun and made into the image of the planlessness of all human existence:
Oh, that little anthill! All its inhabitants are occupied with their own affairs, they cross each other’s paths, push each other aside, sometimes they trample each other under feet. It cannot be otherwise, sometimes they trample each other under feet.
This picture of life and of man’s aimless crawling closes the ring of antiliberal ideology. We have returned to the starting point, the myth of nature.
Social Determinants of Success
By and large the legitimate business which the sociologist of literature may have in the field of communications research consists in formulating hypotheses for research on “what reading does to people.” But he cannot simply pass the buck to his colleague, the empirical researcher, after having done his historical, biographical and analytical work. There are certain factors of social relevance which, though very decisive for the measurement of effects, will have to undergo sociological exploration on the level of theory and documentary study.
There is, first of all, the problem of finding out what we know about the influence of all-embracing social constellations on writing and the reading public. Are times of war or peace, of economic boom or depression more or less conducive to literary production? Are specific types of the literary level, literary form, and subject matter more or less preponderant? What about the outlets of distribution, the publishing house, the circulation figures, the competition between books and magazines in these various periods? What do we know about readership figures in public and university libraries, in the army and the hospitals — again broken down according to changing social conditions? What do we know, qualitatively and quantitatively, about the ratio between literature distributed and consumed and other media of mass communication, or even nonverbalized forms of organized entertainment?
A second auxiliary source lies in the area of social controls. What do we know about the influence of formal controls of production and reading? We must deal with the worldwide phenomenon of the use of tax money for public libraries, with the European practice of governmental subventions for theaters, with the American experience of supporting creative writers out of public funds during the New Deal administration, to cite a few examples. We have to study the impact of selective and cherished symbols of public rewards, from the Nobel Prize for literature to the contests arranged by publishing houses, from the Pulitzer Prize to the honors bestowed by local or regional communities on successful authors whose cradles were fortunately situated in particular localities. We should study “manipulated controls”: publishers’ advertising campaigns, the expectations of profit tied up with book clubs and film production, the far-flung market of magazine serializations, the reprint houses and so on. We must not forget the area of censorship, of institutionalized restrictions from the index of the Catholic Church to local ordinances prohibiting the sale of certain books and periodicals. And, finally, we would have to analyze and systematize what we know about the impact of informal controls, of book reviews and broadcasts, of popular writeups of authors, of opinion leadership, of literary gossip and private conversations.
A third, and certainly not the least, social determinant of success is connected with technological change and its economic and social consequences. The phenomenal development of the publishing business, putting out literary products on all levels in the low price field is surpassed only by the still more spectacular modes of production in other media of mass communication. Thus, it would be worth studying whether the financial returns received by writers in the last few decades can be attributed in large measure to improved technical facilities, including the author’s working instruments, and whether this change in technique has changed the social status of writers as a group. Relatively little is known about the cumulative effects of technological improvements from one medium to the other. Do more people read more books because they see more pictures or listen to more broadcasts or is it the other way around? Or is there no such interdependence? Is there a relationship between the high degree of accessibility of printed material and the methods by which educational institutions avail themselves of this material at all age levels?
As an illustration for social determinants of success the broad, diversified and articulated response in Germany to Dostoevski may be cited. An examination of available material in books, magazines and newspapers showed that certain psychological patterns in the German middle classes were apparently highly gratified in reading Dostoevski. Unlike the study of Hamsun, here we are not concerned with the work of the writer, but with the social character of his reception.
The peculiar fate of the German middle classes, which had never experienced any sustained periods of liberal political and cultural life, kept them wavering between the mechanisms of identification with an aggressive, imperialistic, domineering set of ruling groups and a mechanism of defeatism and passivity, which, despite all the traditions of philosophical idealism, constantly induced them to attitudes of willing submission to what they sensed to be superior leadership. The ensuing sadomasochistic reactions found pliable material for acts of identification in the self-torturing and torturing protagonists of Dostoevski’s novels.
The active life process of human society, all its progressive forces, indeed, the whole compass of the productive forces in general, hit a blind spot in the vision of these German masses. This is apparent, for example, in their failure to notice a gap in Dostoevski’s themes, namely, earthly happiness. Happiness, measured socially, presupposes an active transformation of reality, that is to say, the removal of its gross contradictions. That would require not only a complete transformation of existing power relations but also a reconstruction of social consciousness. Really to direct one’s impulses toward the realization of social happiness is to enter sometimes into direct opposition to the existing power apparatus. The insignificant role which the category of happiness played in the social consciousness of the German middle classes can be understood only from the totality of their social relationships. A satisfying social organization was closed to them as a declining class and, therefore, it must also be shut out from consciousness in its true meaning as happiness.
It might be argued against this conception, which uses Dostoevski as evidence of a nonactivist ideology devoid of moral deed and social solidarity, that one must not expect such an approach from him, the apostle of love and compassion for mankind. Nearly all the literary critiques of Dostoevski do, in fact, revolve around the theme of love and compassion, whether in elegant formulations, like the “surpassing calm, through which only a sort of deeply secret sorrow vibrates, an endless compassion …” or in painfully popular statements, like his “heart trembles with sympathy, compassion.” A very naive passage will serve to indicate the social significance:
His predilection for the oppressed and the depraved gradually assumes the morbid form of. .. “Russian compassion,” that compassion which excludes all upright, honest working men, and extends only to prostitutes, murderers, drunkards, and similar blossoms on the tree of mankind.
This statement may be crude, but it points to something very true. The reception of Dostoevski was not bothered by the fact that in his works love remains a weak disposition of the soul, which can be understood only by presupposing a frantic defense against all social change and a fundamental passivity in the face of every truly moral act. The demand for love and compassion could mean a realization of the existence of social contradictions and the need for change; it could be the effective approach to the activity of men in their thoughts and actions. Instead, it remains a matter of mere sentiment, a permission, not a demand. That is perhaps the clearest sign of the ideological role of such a concept of love. Demand and the power to act cannot enter into the social consciousness of relatively impotent social strata any more than they can accept a principle of justice which must destroy their solidarity with the rulers and point to their common interests with the ruled.
SOME CHALLENGING TASKS
If a sociologist of literature wants to hold his claim to be heard in the field of modern communications research, the least he can do is to discuss a program of research that can be located within the areas proper to his field and at the same time joins up with the scientific experiences already accumulated for the other mass media. Four possible fields of research paralleling the four areas of analysis will be outlined here.
Obvious as it may be, the point must be made that the basic requirement for finding out what kind of gratification people expect from mass literature in a given social framework, or better, at a specific historical moment, is to have exact knowledge of the content of these works. What we need are qualitative and quantitative inventories of the contents of popular works on a comparative scale, beginning not later than the early nineteenth century. Studies made so far are scanty,” though speculative ideas about the assumed content are overabundant.
Take the commonly accepted notion that the main function of mass literature is to provide an outlet for the escapist drives of frustrated people. How do we know that this was ever true or is still true today? Perhaps the functional content of the novel today is much less escapist than informative: literature has become a cheap and easily accessible tool for orientation in a bewildering outside and inside world. The reader is looking for prescriptions for inner manipulation, an abridged and understandable psychoanalytical cure, as it were, which will permit him by way of identification and imitation to grope his way out of his bewilderment. Escape involves an attitude of self-reliance and is much more likely to be found in times of individual stability than in our present period, characterized by ego-weakness needing alien crutches for survival. Whether this hypothesis is justified or not, it might fruitfully be pursued in studying the patterns of identification and imitation offered by mass literature. One might find that, in contrast to earlier literary products, the contemporary novel has a much higher density and velocity of action and an accelerating recession of reflection and description.
It would be interesting, for example, to compare the popular historical novel of today and a generation ago. We would perhaps discover that the older works tried to transmit a panorama-like picture of a period in which the reader could sit restfully next to the historical protagonist around whom the panorama developed. Today, however, this picture dissolves into a multitude of figures, situations, and actions which leave the reader without the enjoyment of sitting invisibly with one selected protagonist, who used to be the measure and yardstick for the literary materials that a writer conjured up. The pressure of modern life, which produces the very weak egos who are in turn exposed to the pressure, makes it necessary to forego identification with just one figure, or with the inner processes of the soul, or with theoretical ideas and values. Thus the classical situation of literary consumption, in which the reader shares the solitude of choice or fate with the solitude and uniqueness of the one and unrepeatable work of art, may be replaced by collective experience of well-organized activity in the direction of adaptation and the acquisition of the tricks of self-manipulation. More and more studies are making source materials available, but their systematic sociological exploration remains to be done.
The Writer’s Attitude
What the reader is looking for in literary communication is one thing; what the author delivers beyond the conscious awareness of the reader is something else again. The case of Knut Hamsun illustrates this kind of problem.
Whether and to what extent opinions and attitudes are influenced by the literary avalanche depends not only on its manifest content but also on its latent implications. It is true, to lift them from their formulated content is a task to be undertaken with untried tools. Nevertheless, an extremely inexpensive social laboratory might be suggested where no living beings need be interviewed with all the paraphernalia of money-and-time-outlay. More or less consciously, usually less, the author is a manipulator who tries to get over certain messages that reflect his own personality and personality problems. To find out where he stands, it might be worthwhile reviving him and the figures of his imagination with artificial respiration and subjecting them to questions and psychological experiments on the most advanced level.
With the help of standardized ideological questionnaires, for example, we might scan through a well-chosen sample of mass literature and find out about the author’s attitudes, about his points of view on human nature, on group tensions, on historical and natural catastrophes, on sex, on masses versus great individuals, and so forth. We might then, in scoring the answers, get a qualitative and quantitative yardstick with which to locate the social position of the writer and thus be able to make predictions about his behavior as a person and about the kind of production with which he will follow up work previously done. If we enlarge our sample sufficiently we might learn much about the self-identification of these agents of mass communication and of the potential influence of these hidden self-portraits on the readers.
Such a laboratory experiment could be implemented by analyzing the character structure of the protagonists in the fictional material. Recent work in social psychology has furnished us with a set of structure syndromes to be gathered from responses to ideological and projective interview procedures, by which we can diagnose with a high degree of reliability whether a person is authoritarian or anti-authoritarian in type. These findings have an obvious bearing on prognostications of political, moral and emotional behavior. Surface descriptions are very often misleading and can be corrected by these new methods.”
In studying the direct and indirect social content of popular literature the marginal media deserve far more attention than they have received so far, particularly the comics and perhaps some other products the enjoyment of which is shared by adults and juveniles alike. A thoroughgoing content analysis of these materials should result in a number of valuable hypotheses on the continuing significance of ideas, values and emotions stemming from situations that have become completely obsolete.
It would be necessary to study not only the obviously archaic and infantile motives of the fairy world of subhuman and superhuman serials, but also those materials in which, under the guise of everyday misery or everyday enjoyment, values become visible which were associated with earlier stages of modern society, and especially with the more serene style of life in the nineteenth century. Measuring such material against the ideological and emotional content of traditional and respectable fiction, we might gain added insight into the wavering of modern readers between the necessity of learning the mechanisms of adaptation and conformity and the daydreams of a happier, though unattainable or historically impossible, way of life. Taking “adult” and “preadult” contents together we might be able to develop hypotheses that would open up systematic exploration of likes and dislikes on levels of awareness, as well as of deeper psychological levels.
The Role of Social Environment
In the area description, three aspects of social determinants of success were noted, two of which should be referred to here in order to clarify the type of research envisaged.
There is first of all the problem whether different stages of the economic and political cycle leave distinguishing marks on literary products. The research task would involve a modification of the studies in functional content mapped out earlier in this section. An inventory should be taken of a literary sample in times of depression and boom, of war and peace. This inventory would not be limited to an enumeration of fictional topics, but would be particularly concerned with emotional patterns which may safely be assumed to be closely tied up with the specific gratifications and frustrations of the readers. As a very tentative example, the hypothesis is ventured that the use of happy or not so happy endings is a point of difference. At the height of an economic depression, escapist identifications with lovely daydreams of unchallenged happiness may characterize the literary scenery. Today, however, a pseudo-tragic ending on a note of unsolved problems is by no means rare because the relative prosperity permits fictional experiences with a higher degree of reality and even some insight into our psychological and cultural shortcomings.
Many other situations may have to be selected before one can construct an index of content and motive preference for various overall situations. A study comparing the two postwar booms and the two prewar depressions of the last thirty-five years might actually lead to a point from which future predictions of preferences in fiction would be possible. Educational and professional inferences which could then be drawn are so obvious that they need not be gone into here.
In the field of technological determinants it would be worth studying the reading ability of the average man and the way it has been modified by his experiences with auditory and visual media. We know a lot about clinical reading disabilities but we know relatively little about intellectual selectivity in reading. Similarly it would be interesting to study what is read and remembered and what is more or less slurred over or not read at all. A more precise knowledge about “content-reading” abilities and disabilities could become a labor-saving device for writers; as for sociologists they would gain corroborating evidence to the findings of functional content analysis.
Blueprinting research tasks has all the shortcomings of any set of unfulfilled promises. The expert in communications research might, however, become interested in the troublesome achievements and tasks of a neighboring branch of study and its potential contribution to his own field.
I should like to conclude with a personal experience. A sociologist treating literature in the classroom is bound to encounter a divided reaction: Students will display an eager interest in a new scientific experience, but, as instruction goes on, some of them will protest against the analytical “dismembering” of poetic material. The students are eager for guidance in an uncharted sea since they never have been quite able to find out what is good and what is not so good. Somehow they look forward to getting possession of a foolproof formula that will set them straight once and for all regarding this vague and vast field situated somewhere between education and mere entertainment. What the students do not know is that their initial approach is already a manifestation of the particular stage at which sociological interpretation of literature still finds itself.