Editors' Introduction: Mirrors, Frames, and Demons: Reflections on the Sociology of Literature

Critical Inquiry 14 (3):421-430 (1988)

The sociology of literature, in the first of many paradoxes, elicits negations before assertions. It is not an established field or academic discipline. The concept as such lacks both intellectual and institutional clarity. Yet none of these limitations affects the vitality and rigor of the larger enterprise. We use the sociology of literature here to refer to the cluster of intellectual ventures that originate in one overriding conviction: the conviction that literature and society necessarily explain each other. Scholars and critics of all kinds congregate under this outsize umbrella only to differ greatly in their sense of what they do and what sociology of literature does. They subscribe to a wide range of theories and methods. Many would not accept the sociology of literature as an appropriate label for their own work; other would refuse it to their colleagues. Nevertheless, every advocate agrees that a sociological practice is essential to literature. For the sociology of literature does not constitute just one more approach to literature. Because it insists upon a sociology of literary knowledge and literary practice within the study of literature, the sociology of literature raises questions basic to all intellectual inquiry.The sociology of literature begins in diversity. The way that is combines the ancient traditions of art with the modern practices of social science makes the very term something of an oxymoron. There is not one sociology of literature, there are many sociological practices of literature, each of which operates within a particular intellectual tradition and specific institutional context. These practices cross basic divisions within the contemporary intellectual field, especially within the university. Inherently interdisciplinary, the sociology of literature is subject to constant reformulation as scholars re-evaluate their disciplines. In consequence, disciplinary boundaries seem less rigid, less logical, and, hence, less authoritative than ever before. Even so—and this is another paradox of the sociology of literature—any sociological conception of literature is best situated in terms of an original discipline and its institutional setting. However frequently individual scholars cross over disciplinary lines, the fundamental divisions retain their force. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson is professor of French at the University of Illinois at Chicago; she is author of Literary France: The Making of a Culture. Philippe Desan, whose Naissance de la method: Machiavelle, la Ramée, Bodin, Montaigne, Descartes was published in 1987, is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Wendy Griswold, associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, recently published Renaissance Revivals: City Comedy and Revenge Tragedy in the London Theatre, 1576-1980
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DOI 10.1086/448448
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