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Friday, July 10, 2009

Emergence of English as a Subject of Study

(Mr. Pinto’s Class Note – 8th July ‘09)
(Notes contributed by Panom and Divya)
The 3 reasons for English becoming a subject of study were: to consolidate declining feudal power; Imperialism; Military/ totalitarian purposes.

Before examining the above mentioned areas, let’s address the interesting question of When Did Literature Emerge?

Invention of the printing press (1453) by John (Johannes) Gutenberg coincided with the gradual removal of the monopoly that the clergy held over literacy. This shift in monopoly was made possible largely due to urbanization and industrialization. We saw that the onus on the primary sector (agriculture) was slowly diminishing and secondary sector (Industries) took off. What has to be noted is that this industrialization became possible due to colonization.

With the advent of industrialization, there was a need for more clerks and book keepers etc. who naturally needed to be taught and educated in order to increase their efficiency. Earlier, the tradition of education was mainly a seminary one (Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats etc.) and was limited to the age old institutions of Oxford and Cambridge. With the concept of division of labor and regulated work hours, it allowed for a certain novelty called ‘free time’ which was not seen before. Until then there weren’t any regulated work hours like the 8 hour concept we see in the 20th century. In fact, there was a large percentage of children being employed as workers as well and exploited for their ability to work long hours. (References were made by Mr. Pinto to William Blake’s THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER) In this new found free time people naturally turned to reading. Free grammar schools with scholarships began to appear; a lot many workers pooled their resources and hired teachers to teach their children in evening schools. They started reading and studying Romances (full of wars, heroes, knights etc.)

There became an increasing need to ‘know’ more and learn more, even if they happened to be practical pieces of information such as instances of the happenings around them. They started ‘telling stories’ to know more which gave birth to two things – Journalism; Literature.

The ‘Novel’ took off as it was a way of telling “something new”, like a new story that converted incidents into a narrative. The colonials contributed to this ‘novel’ or storytelling. (Mr. Pinto made references to the chapter ‘Defoe’s England’ in G. M. Trevelyan’s ENGLISH SOCIAL HISTORY) Defoe himself had perfected the art of the reporter; even his novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are imaginary ‘reports’ of daily life. For Defoe was one of the first who saw the old world through a pair of sharp modern eyes.

(Note: By the 19th Century, all experiments regarding the novel had already been exhausted – with perhaps the exception of the Stream Of Consciousness which came about in the 20th Century.) (FYI: Observers would notice that the 19th Century wrote and read far more number of novels than the 20th Century ever saw.)
So many forces played a role in what we today call “reading habits or reading culture”. All this and also the theories of evolution (those existing even before Darwin’s conception) created a huge change in social structure which saw the rise and seemingly inevitable decline in feudal power.

Consolidation of this power in the 19th Century was done in the form of literature. It was used as a political tool and also a source. Literature in a sense addresses all structures of society; the working class, the middle class and the elite. This therefore explains its success as a tool. From Eagleton’s essay The Rise of English, we see how Literature was first introduced as a subject of study to mechanical engineers to bring about ‘morality’. Later, it was studied extensively by women at Oxford, perhaps because they were discouraged from studying the sciences. It was a social construct of expectation and opportunity allotting.

Imperialism being the second reason for English becoming a subject of study saw its works being implemented wherever the English went when they had to consolidate their power. “Flag follows the trade” – the classic imperialistic principle. Literature was introduced to the middle classes and texts were carefully selected and doled out, ensuring that the English stamped their power and superiority over the colonies. On retrospect, it seems like such an obvious design. We saw it happen in Africa by the English, French and Germans. We also saw it in Latin countries as well as India by the British.

Military purposes and totalitarian control were the third reason for English becoming a subject of study. Cleary a strategic move and language typically was introduced to consolidate power and subdue confusion. We saw it happen with India as well where Hindi was introduced after independence in an attempt to unify the nation. Similarly, Britain introduced English Literature to do the same.

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