Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Art and Propaganda

By Luis Feliz

The following quote is from the essay “Why I Write” by George Orwell:

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

Is the function of literature “to get a hearing?”

Please share your thoughts by posting your comments below and don't forget to write your name when you posts your response.


  1. Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Monique and I was introduced to your blog by Prof. Koh and Luis Feliz. I’m looking forward to engaging in conversation with many of you and reading your writings.

    Today, I found myself in Long Island City waiting in line for nearly 3 hours to vote. I found myself among a diverse demographic of people who, like me, were spending most of their morning waiting in line to cast their vote for one of the most, if not, historic and important elections of our time. It was exciting, nerve-wracking, and for me, a bit of a patience test since I had never waited for anything this long before. I reminded myself that others had waited for freedom, for equal rights, and for their voices to be heard for much longer than what I have had to measly endure and I had nothing really to complain about. I’m really proud and glad that I waited.

    In regards to this post, I cannot speak for Orwell, but I think that literature in general has been a median for many to be heard in different voices behind different faces. Like art, literature can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the audience, and one’s personal reference. However, I think in terms of politics, where Orwell wrote most of his books based on themes of political and government ideologies he used his writings as a soapbox to publish his political views. In Animal Farm he satirically used animal characters to play the Bolsheviks to overthrow the human farm owners. His characters had parallels to real world concepts and the story allowed people to interpret it on many levels.

  2. Is the function of literature "to get a hearing"

    That's a hard one. For many writers, specially, writers of color in the United States literature has been a tool to voice grievances. Toni Morrison comes to mind when I think of political literature. In her first book, "The Bluest Eye" Morrison tackles the issue of self-loathing and the effects of a white ideal collectively forced upon African Americans. Although the work has many aesthetic qualities, at its core it is a work of protest. Hence, I believe Morrison in writing the work was trying to get a hearing. Put simply, she was trying to disrupt a historical narrative of self-hate in the African American community. For example, Malcolm X comes to mind when he relates in his autobigraphy that some blacks in Harlem used a chemical to straightened their hair in order to have a semblance of whiteness. Although the chemical burned the scalp of its users, it was very popular among African Americans in Harlem.

    On the other hand, I think that other works that may not seem overly political at first glance in a deeper consideration can be interpreted as political texts. Of course, the purists would hate to admit that these texts have a political grounding. The reason why I believe this is because all texts arise in society. Therefore, a text's writer includes in his text societal mores that illustrate the status quo. Marxist or Feminist writing of Dickens can yield an interesting interpretation of England society in the 19 century. However, a text should not be placed in a straightjacket of interpretation. "All interpretation is misinterpretation." We can all find different things in a text. We just have to consider what we read more deeply and seriously.

  3. I believe that through literature we open up a forum for diverse conversations. This in itself is where the controversy will come from, no one person can assume how there work will be interpreted by another person, but through the use of books,poems and pamphlets we are allowed the chance to read someone elses views and/or opinion withouting interrupting their thoughts at the moment, but after taking it in, we can then critically think about what we have just read.

  4. "All interpretation is misinterpretation."

    Just to acquire clarification,
    ----All interpretation cannot be considered misinterpretation in the world of literature. If there's no one interpretation, then there cant be a misintepretation unless the interpretation comes off as totally unreasonable.

    **unless you have an underlying reason for making the quote?

    Oluwabunmi Akinseye(bunmi)

  5. I find myself drawn to the different ways the commentators describe "to get a hearing." Certainly, a distinction can be made between getting a hearing--telling those stories which ask to be told--and, as Aoyak points out, the work (indeed, art) of interpretation.

    How much should an author's identity and intentions be taken into account when interpreting a text? What informs our many interpretations of a text? How much of "us" informs the "hearing" of a text?

    It has been said that a literary work reads us as much as we read the text. Or, as Foucault has asked, "'What matter who's speaking [in the text]?'" I am curious as to people's responses to Foucault's claim in relation to Orwell's.

  6. I would posit what matters is who is not speaking in the text. For instance, who is the "other," the oriental, who is in a position of subordination. Of course, I am leaning towards a postcolonial approach that acknowledges Foucault's formulation of discourse as a "discursive practice." Therefore, it is not what the person says but rather from the position that he or she makes the statement. For instance, in Orientalism Said uses Foucault's conception of discourse to argue how the West created Orientalism through practice. That is, how the West treated the East created a knowledge of the Oriental based on a set of "practices." Therefore, Foucault's claim in relation to Orwell's is that it depends on the position of the person. Where is he or she situated? Now, the question is the relationship between the writer and the reader or is it between the defendant and the judge. In short, who is getting a hearing?

  7. In response to Umberto's comments: very much appreciated! Perhaps the "subaltern" more than the oriental though I know where you are coming from (referencing Said).

    It is indeed vital to understand "discourse" in terms of discursive practices. Which leads us to the series of very very fine questions you list, ending with "who is getting a hearing?" I want to think about this. Thoughts, anyone else?

  8. Another thought: who is getting a hearing in the text is the one who is not speaking, who has been excluded from discourse? Is this the work of literature then?

    The trouble then, is when we stabilize the identity of the "who," a problem that can be witnessed in much criticism on ethnic/minority literature (which often then becomes a new form of Orientalism).

  9. thehoodscholar.blogspot.com

    Hey, Fellow PTk'er's.

    I'm in partial agreement about literature as a hearing; in that, it takes a certain level of experience with literature or body of knowledge, usually within or related to the genre, to judge or hold a hearing about the particular text. Before one is able to judge a body of literature, he (or she) must be able to use their knowledge - shelved in the stacks of their minds - to judge the author's stance, position, or idea.

    For example, I am writing a paper for practice for an African Civilization course. The topic is in evaluation of Hegel's stance on sub-saharan Africa (black Africa); as Hegel is basically the creator of European identification of the black person as savage and sub-human, as lacking cultural refinement, nor enhancing [euro-centric] society in no way, shape, or form. He also creates an ideological separation between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa placing emphasis, in text, on the geographic and trade influences of the Arab world over Egypt. I will be using my knowledge of Bilal, the Ethiopian Moslem, to demonstrate a Sub-Saharan African's influence over the Arab world. I feel Hegel's stance can be debunked using statistical data on Egypt's religious populations and Bilal's impact on the Moslem community. The knowledge of which I received from different courses and different vaguely related texts.

    Anyways. Literature is to be tried in the court of mind; only if the mind is of intellectual strength to assess the validity of the text.

    -Don Duval Patterson

  10. Mr.Patterson,

    What do you mean by the validity of the text?

  11. Excuse me for not clarifying. In history / 'civ' courses, with an emphasis on analysis of text through the lens of a historiographer, checking the validity of text can vary.

    The text could be a book or individual chapter.

    Validity of text could be to understand the motive of the work (or lack of motive). Is it the author objective, subjective? Is the author from a certain place, speak a certain language? Can what the author say be taken at face value, or should there be a hearing?

    How much truth is in the body of work?

  12. In class we read the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson. The play was set in a recording studio and revolved around the band and their views on several different topics. One of major concepts that suck out in my mind was “Stepping on a man shoes.” Even in today’s society we have individuals who value material things over the value of life. Whether it be future related or taking someone else’s. However in the book it gave the reader another view of looking at this paradox. The character Levee had many goals for himself. However, in the environment that he worked in this was looked down upon. The other individuals just told him to go along with the flow. Nevertheless, he did not do this, he wanted to rock the boat and began to make enemies within the band. This was another dynamic that was rich as well. The other members Toledo, Culter and Slow Drag would gang up on him and call him a loser and other such names. I believe all these together, was enough to make him explode. Verbally they would step on his pride, financially he was dominated by Sturydvent and Ma, and physically his shoes were being stepped on. The one thing that was tangible for him. To him this was living the dream he was getting the things, he thought spelled success. But it never happened. I believe Levee story is the blues and that is why the stories underlining theme is “the crossing over of such a sad story”. To brighten up the facts, takes away from the foundation and you lose the soul of the piece.


  13. Is the function of literature "to get a hearing" ?

    I believe that there are many functions of literature and "to get a hearing" is definitely one of them. By exposing corruption or bringing forth new ideas through literature or to inform are a few of the components which keep readers engaged. Now I will agree that a piece of literature as Orwell describes can be interpreted differently whether it was intended to cause chaos/ rebellion or just to stimulate the mind. Literature that "exposes" are very enticing and I enjoy reading them because it can be informative, enlightening, and makes me anticipate about what other skeletons will be yanked out the closet in future readings.

  14. Referring to Midnight's comment:

    I enjoyed reading Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson. The character's personalities were well depicted throughout the play and I wish that there was a sequel. I would like to know what the following events after Levee stabbed Toledo, what were the repercussions (if any) and how it would affect the relationships between the band mates...

    When Toledo stepped on Levee's shoe, I wonder if he truly did it out of spite or not. This incident also reminded me of how even today why young Black men are so obsessive compulsive when it comes to their shoes/ sneakers? If someone accidentally step on a young Black man's brand new sneakers, it triggers off a feeling of rage and he is ready to take your head off! I just think it is ludicrous that many fights between the youth are caused a sneaker getting stepped on. Why do they take so much pride in a pair of footwear that's bound to get dirty?
    In Levee's case, I know it was more about the shoes because he was bummed out about not getting to record the music he wrote, the band mates mocking him, and getting his shoe stepped on was just an insult to injury. However, I think that a brand new pair of sneakers to a young Black man represents what he couldn't have as child and now that he has it, he wants to preserve it as long as possible. Who knows what he had to go through to get it? Perhaps the new shoes as it did for Levee, symbolizes a desire for materialistic things that comes with riches and fame. To step on it would be like attempting to crush a young Black man's dream to have a lot of possessions, but until then he has to hold onto the little he has now...


What do you think?