Sitting in his quiet, book-lined office, Michel Chaouli, assistant professor of German and of Comparative Literature, doesn't seem like the type to start a fight.
But this mild-mannered scholar has recently entered the forefront of one of academia's most heated and prolonged debates, a debate about the very nature of literature and the reasons for studying it.
"The idea of a crisis in literary studies," Chaouli says, "has been around for at least the last 100 years, since the study of literature became institutionalized."
An Existential Crisis
The current "crisis" concerns literary studies' failure to fit the definition of what constitutes a proper academic discipline.
"In the university system, a field usually becomes a discipline through a process of increased quantification," Chaouli claims.
After significant study, Chaouli continues, certain laws and properties are discovered that can lead to a more advanced understanding of a given field.
When a scholar makes a contribution to a field, others are supposed to be able to use it to progress to still more advanced principles.
Unlike a discipline like physics or even political science, however, there is no steady body of knowledge or constant sense of progress in the study of literature.
"There is no cumulative notion of literary interpretation," Chaouli says. "You don't get closer to a true and final understanding by building on the work of others."
This, of course, leaves literary scholars with some very pressing questions. What should students be learning? What is the role of the academy?
Chaouli has grappled with these problems since coming from his native Iran to study literature as an undergraduate at Yale University. After completing his graduate work in comparative literature at the University of California-Berkeley, he came to Harvard to teach in the departments of Comparative Literature and Germanic Languages and Literatures.
"I wanted to address the puzzle that literature is," he says. "On the one hand, literature seems gratuitous, and yet there isn't a culture in the world that doesn't have a form of literature or storytelling."
It was his interest in the puzzling role of literature in society that led Professor Chaouli to enter the debate over the crisis in literature. In an article he wrote recently for the London Times Literary Supplement, he suggests that this so-called crisis is actually what makes literature worth studying.
"Let's admit to this problem," he says, "and see what consequences it has."
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