To assess the validity of this statement, it is important to define first the concept of “practical use”. Things that possess instrumental value and serve a real end are considered to have practical use. In considering whether literature falls into this category, one needs to explore the essence of literature itself. This essay argues that though literature differs from practical language, it is not merely another name for a language with no practical use. On the other hand, we should define literature’s use beyond the confines of pragmatism by examining how it coordinates the interaction between the text and the reader and reflects societal or historical conditions. To substantiate this claim, the essay will explore the nature of literature, examine the scope of “practical use,” and evaluate whether literature falls within this scope. Finally, this essay will present two illustrative examples of how a reader can “use” a text to understand various historical, cultural, and social issues.
We evaluate an object’s use by attributing intrinsic or instrumental value to it. When we say an object has “practical use”, it means we can use it to solve real-life problems. Languages with practical use are crafted to serve specific and tangible purposes. For instance, instructional language tells individuals how to perform a task. Similarly, the informative language used in analytical reports or everyday speech aims to relay information clearly to the audience. In both cases, these languages strive to eliminate any case of ambiguity and prioritize clarity. Their worth lies in their instrumental value—the general usefulness in real-life situations—rather than inherent value. Therefore, for a language to be defined as having practical use, it must 1) possess instrumental value instead of intrinsic value, and 2) be utilized as a means to achieve a practical purpose.
Literary language diverges from the practical language mentioned earlier, as it problematizes the practicality of language itself. Johnathon Culler points out that literature, by nature, constitutes an “aesthetic object.” Literary aesthetics is produced by engaging in the process of signification. As Derrida suggests, language consists of a system of signs and symbols, and words are a form of sign. There is no constant match between a signifier (a sign) and the signified (what the sign means); the meaning of a word is more dependent on the context of interpretation. Literature, in itself, constructs a system of signifiers, giving birth to literary elements that become legible only within a literary context. According to Viktor Shlovsky, literature’s most important technique is defamiliarization. Authors deliberately deviate from ordinary language to create a sense of unfamiliarity, challenging what is otherwise considered familiar. Unlike practical language, which serves specific ends such as transmitting information, literature draws the readers’ attention to the language itself through this process of defamiliarization.
Literary aesthetics resides outside the realm of “communication” or “information”. This perspective, as argued by S. H. Olsen is not motivated by practical considerations but rather by a focus on “style, content, and structure.” In this vein, I argue that literature has an intrinsic aesthetic value. G.E. Moore, in his classification of value, identifies entities with intrinsic values as those that we still “judge their existence to be good” when “they existed by themselves in absolute isolation.” His argument aligns with Kant’s conceptualization of aesthetics as a beauty that “pleases without any interest” and in itself generates universal and lasting pleasure in isolation. This notion of intrinsic value stands in contrast to instrumental value, where an item’s value is contingent on whether it serves as a means to an end. Both Moore and Kant seem to reinforce that literature is inherently defined by its intrinsic value, transcending the role of language as a mere tool for communication or information.
However, while literature is an aesthetic object imbued with intrinsic value, it does not imply that literature is fundamentally “useless.” Scholars have sought to define literature’s usefulness by highlighting its social, historical, and cultural dimensions. As Kenneth Rexroth argues, literature is more than an arrangement of words that produces aesthetic pleasure. It transcends not only our interactions with the text but also our perception and experience with the world, offering a medium for us to critique or affirm common cultural values. Similarly, in Terry Eagleton’s words, “[Literature] leaves the definition of literature up to how somebody decides to read, not to the nature of what is written.” If a text is “alive” and open to various possible interpretations, readers can choose for themselves what non-pragmatic purpose literature brings to their lives.
Literary and cultural critics have long used literature to discuss various structural issues. They view literature as a repository of cultural, social, and psychological insights, examining how it reflects an author’s engagement with the world around them. Echoing Foucault’s idea, they recognize that since literature is intricately embedded in power relationships, it provides a means to understand how language has served to legitimize or challenge personal biases and institutional structures. Ultimately, literature acts as a mirror that reflects both the general human condition and specific socio historical issues and complexities. I’ll provide two examples to illustrate how literature has been used to discuss problems beyond the realm of aesthetics.
Beloved is a classic novel by Toni Morrison that explores the enduring impact of slavery on individuals and communities. Set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, the narrative revolves around Sethe, a former female slave haunted by the ghost of her daughter. Through the figure of the ghost, Morrison materializes the traumatic legacy of slavery. Thus, a critic who employs trauma theory and psychoanalysis as an interpretive lens can use the novel to discuss the lasting effects of institutionalized violence and oppression on individuals and the community. Moreover, Morrison also delves into the intimate experiences of female slaves, drawing attention to issues like sexual violence. Thus, a feminist literary critic can use the novel to explore the intersectionality of gender and race, unraveling how the collective identity of “woman” is shaped by the experience of sexual trauma. Finally, the novel also highlights connections between the institution of slavery and the use of dehumanizing language, as it depicts how slave owners from generation to generation invented derogatory terms to refer to enslaved people. A Foucauldian critic can use this detail to analyze how language is used to dehumanize racialized subjects and validate historical violence. Despite immense critical interest in the novel, the impact of Beloved transcends the realm of literature and theory. The novel has played a crucial role in advancing discussions around civil rights and racial justice. By providing an intimate account of slavery, Morrison uses the novel to expose a sealed history relevant to the whole country.
Moreover, Literature does not merely reflect but actively mediate social realities. It can serve as a diagnostic tool for understanding the common symptoms and material conditions of specific historical periods. Literature can introduce a new approach to historical periodization. Franco Moretti, for example, proposes a cyclical nature to literary-historical time, where texts and ages change, yet manifest recursivities and repetitions. In “Allegories of Contemporary”, Nathan Hensley explores the figural recurrence and stylistic commonalities of three works from three different cultures in the late empire dynamic (Strange Case by Stevenson, Homo Sacer by Agamben, and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen), and concludes the implication of literary-historical time as a cycle. A model of discontinuous and cycling historicism in literature aids historians in comparing cultural forms across different places.
By examining world-historical situations recursively and layering structurally comparable moments on top of one another, we can generate new questions for literary history, allowing us to identify discrete but rhyming historical conjectures. Hensley’s work, for instance, outlines the imperial cycle in literary history, where four works from various cultures depicting the late-imperial era used allegories, provided truisms, and employed similar figural language. This figural recurrence across different periods and stylistic commonalities suggest a new approach to periodization: cycling. When using such periodization with a purpose, scholars can analyze the literature of a specific historical period, then find similarities in the time before it, determining which part of the cycle the era belongs to. This cyclic model encourages scholars to look beyond linear historical narratives, recognizing the recurrence of certain themes. Not only does this approach enrich our understanding of the past, but it also establishes a foundation for predicting and identifying potential patterns in future historical developments. It offers a practical tool for researchers to anticipate, analyze, and explore societal trends and shifts based on the cyclical nature of historical and literary patterns revealed by literary criticism.
In conclusion, assessing literature’s use requires a nuanced understanding of these concepts. While literature is different from languages with practical uses, it is far from a mere linguistic form devoid of utility. Literature, with its unique capacity to initiate interaction between the text and the reader, derives its use beyond pragmatism. The definition of “practical use” concerns an object’s instrumental value, a category that literature does not fit neatly into. However, as readers engage with the text in different ways, they can determine what literature’s use is for themselves. The two examples have illustrated how critics can use literature to advance social progress or refine the concept of historical periodization. With or without practical value, we should always value the essence of literature to communicate the intricacies of human experience.
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