The Function of Literature and the Byeung-ju Lee (이병주) International Literary Festival

Emanuel was invited as a speaker at the Byeung-ju Lee International Literary Festival in Seoul on September 29, 2011. The Festival brings together important writers and literary critics to discuss contemporary literature and its significance. Emanuel was on a panel with the Chinese novelist Dong Xi (東西) and the Japanese horror writer Kishi Yusuke (貴志祐介). We also spent a day in Hadong, at the base of Jili san Mountain. Hadong was the long term resident of Lee Byung-ju, author of many novels on the social conflicts of Korea in the 20th century.  His most famous novel Jili san is the epic of a family torn apart by ideological conflicts.

Emanuel spoke about the function of literature in contemporary society, arguing that literature is the most effective means to address social issues because it is capable of moving people and changing their thinking patterns.


Emanuel talking at the seminar on literature.

Below is the paper that Emanuel delivered.

Emanuel Pastreich

Lee Byungju International Literature Festival


September 29, 2011

“Literature and Humanism in the Current Age”

문학 후ㅠ머니즘

There has been a tremendous swing towards business and technology in our society today, both in East Asia and around the world. We see business schools and business majors emerging everywhere, even at institutions that seemed quite distant from business previously. Moreover, we also see that many jobs advertised take the MBA as a requirement. That shift in how we train our young people is born of a profound insecurity that many of us feel. There is a need to find employment rapidly that will pay us enough to survive in an age of such terrible and brutal competition. It seems as if it is only in business and in the apprehension of specialized skills in computer programming or nanotechnology can we hope to find security.

But we must remember that when Asia previously led the world in economic power and technological advancement, up until the 18th century, it was literature (文) that was the dominant field of discourse and the source of strength. All those engaged in policy, in technology in all aspects of administration were expected to be grounded in the classics and to be prepared to write literary works, to make their correspondence literary. That is the great tradition and we can see that the tradition is awakening from its slumber today.

In the course of modernization, much negative was said about the great literary tradition of East Asia, but in most cases it was a serious misinterpretation of decadence in the late 19th century as an indication of some fatal flaw in Asian culture. Today, at the start of the 21st century, the strength of the Asian literary tradition is visible again.

The great Asian tradition of literature from the age of Confucius was an essential part of society because it made institutions and individuals more human. The great tradition of humanism in Asia that produced such figures as Wang Anshi and Sima Guang in China, Park Jiwon in Korea and Kaibara Ekken in Japan was the source of inspiration for generations and even non-Asians, like me, hold those figures up as heros.

Why is literature so important today? We live in an age in which many schools have cut back on programs in literature and young people see a degree in business as the best route to success. But I want to argue that in fact the future lies with literature and that our future leaders will be those who can express themselves effectively through literature. We can see just beyond the horizon a bright sun rising, a sun indicating an age when literature, the production of literature and the study of literature is again the central concern of intellectuals and the primary theme for Asians.

As literature emerges as the primary tool for creating a brighter and more human future, let us consider three primary problems in today’s society and discuss briefly the critical role of literature that literature will play in each case.

How can we change society?

All of us know that there are unhealthy trends in our society today that cry out to be addressed. We see increased cynicism, disregard for the public sphere, cults of materialism focused on the possession of luxury goods by a wealthy class that no longer feels any responsibility to the rest of society. I don’t think anyone disagrees about the existence of such problems, but we cannot agree on the solutions, and more importantly, we cannot address them through policy and law.

The problem is that we need to change the behavior of people and the values of people on a large scale. Laws, regulations, policies cannot change values and perceptions and we continue to be frustrated by the limited impact of our policies.

There is only one way of changing attitudes and behavior, and that is literature. Literature can change thinking because it does not draw attention to itself, but rather introduces ways of thinking. Let us go back to the late 19th century when China, Korea and Japan suffered also from profound societal and cultural challenges as those nations faced terrible inequality and a resistance to modernization. At that time it was the “New Novel” (新小說) movement that swept Asia, transforming not laws or regulations, but rather the vary manner in which ordinary people saw the world. New concepts about the status of women, the importance of science, sanitation and internationalization were introduced with great impact through these carefully crafted novels. As Liang Qichao noted, there was no better way to change the cultural flow, and by implications, the direction of the nation.

That time has come again for us to embrace the transformative power of literature. Literature can serve to describe effectively the true challenges of our age, but it can also serve to transform the thinking of our citizens.

How do change how people think?

Literature, and by extension art and theatre, seems like a secondary field compared with technology and business for many, but in fact literature has the capacity to transform how the world is perceived—something that business and technology cannot do. Therefore, although we have misunderstood the role of literature, in fact literature is the strongest field of personal expression and the only hope we have for the future.

If we create compelling stories about individuals and the environment, we can change how citizens think about the environment and have the maximum impact on this serious problem. If novels make the environmental crisis visible to readers, they will comprehend it for the first time. If novels suggest a way forward for us, we will be able to find a road where previously there was nothing. So also social and economic inequality. If novels feature heroic figures who struggle to protect the environment and to create a more just society, readers will take those heros as models and alter their vision of themselves. Instead of following self-centered characters in search of material comfort, readers will find bravery and inspiration.

Now, part of this process requires bringing more seriousness to literature in general, and extending literature to include movies, television and games. We have in Asia a tremendous variety of performing arts, from television dramas to movies and on-line games and adventures. Unfortunately, these mediums are not taken up as a medium for serious literary and artistic expression. That should be our next step. Bring a high seriousness and purpose to the immense cultural production already taking place.

How can we make sense of change?

Our world is changing before our very eyes. We see an unprecedented rate of technological change that threatens to make all previous institutions irrelevant. Literature offers us an opportunity to make sense of those changes, to explore their full implications and propose tentative solutions. In a sense literature is the material out of which we can weave a new civilization and it is our most pressing duty to create a new world appropriate to the changes of today.

Without literature, and the power that it offers to transform not objects, but the significance of objects, there is little we can do to improve our situation. But with literature we can work a remarkable magic, changing both how the world is perceived and also what is valued. Literature, in all its forms, can make our society more human and assure that the new technologies, from robots and computers to nano and biotechnology are employed in a humanistic manner. That capacity of literature to set our direction is sorely needed today.

In the future we will need a broader approach to education that takes into account such critical fields as literature, art, philosophy and history. We need a society that values literature because of the deeper spiritual and personal satisfaction that such reading and thinking gives us. Only such a broad education can give us the self-confidence to respond effectively to the challenges of life. After all, if we spend our days trying to fill the emptiness in our lives through vacations, large televisions and expensive homes we will waste much more of our resources than if we learn to seek the depth of meaning to be found in a used book or just watching people pass by on the street, or observing blades of grass.

Literature allows the individual to see society and the world in its full complexity, to understand how value and authority are constructed out of the mixed strands of culture, ideology, economics and technology. Such a perspective allows the individual to formulate his or her specific strategy for survival and legitimacy within a constantly changing environment. It also gives the individual a historical perspective that gives him a better chance of anticipating the social implications of social and economic change. The technical expert may be able to tell us what the next generation of smart phone will look like, but the student with a firm grasp of history, sociology and anthropology will be able to anticipate its implications for how society functions. The business major may understand the importance of blogging, but only the literature major will be able to write blogs that are persuasive to a larger audience.

Let us remember the famous words of Max Weber:

“What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”

Literature offers visions of the impossible and new interpretations of the possible. In our day and our age we need to put forth a dream for what might be and also to suggest new ways of understanding what is. Literature is our best hope.

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