Misleading, Misinforming, Misguiding: The Flip Side of Literature

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Misleading, Misinforming, Misguiding: The Flip Side of Literature

From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction:

"Literature would rehearse the masses in the habits of pluralistic thought and feeling, persuading them to acknowledge that more than one viewpoint than theirs existed—namely, that of their masters.  I would communicate to them the moral riches of bourgeois civilization, impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and, since reading is an essentially solitary, contemplative activity, curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action.  It would give them a pride in their nation language and literature…" (22). 

The invention of the printing press had a most sweeping effect on all aspects of society.  Before the invention of the printing press, knowledge and literacy were still a weapon which could easily be wielded against the lower classes which did not have access to books.  Many people were forced to rely on others to interpret the Bible for them and many other texts.  Even if one did manage to learn how to read and write, books were still so scarce and expensive that access to them was highly guarded.  However, according to my western civilization textbook with the invention of the printing press and thus the advent of affordable books, “ordinary men and women became less credulous and docile than their ancestors” (Kagan 251).*

I would have thought this revolutionized the lower classes into a less easily manipulated body.  I would never have guessed that instead, the upper classes would have further encouraged the spread of literacy in order to oppress the middle class.  I always saw language and literature as tools to liberate people, but it would seem that they can work both ways.  Books also gave the ruling class a powerful tool to misled, misinform, and misguide the people.  It really makes me consider how I’ve been being affected by the things I read… 

As for their intentions of controlling the masses with literature, I find it rather ironic that at the same time that they would not even view literature as a real field of study, they recognized its power and were using it to keep the status quo.  If it was only suitable for poor men and women to study it, then why was it such a powerful force of manipulation?

See what others have to say about Eagleton.

*Kagan, Donald, Steven Ozment, and Frank Turner. The Western Heritage. 5th ed. Vol. One. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007.

5 Comments

Erica Geahart said:

Greta, I really like everything you have to say about Eagleton’s comments, about what and how you have read before, and about the history of literature. I had many similar reactions as I read this text. I had always been told by teachers and professors that the invention of the printing press allowed the lower and middle classes to have access to printed materials, and thus caused more widespread literacy among these classes, so I never considered that this invention would be used to manipulate publications received by these populations. However, when considered, it makes complete sense. It is done today in commercials, infomercials and magazine advertisements: people, now most often educated and literate, at least throughout most of the United States, still fall for the “guaranteed to lose 20 pounds in a week” weight-loss ads and the “$300 less than the original price for the next twelve minutes” infomercials.

I also think that there was a huge difference between literature then and now. Their “literature” consisted of books on manners, letters, sermons—most of which are infrequently read, if not extinct in the world of literature, today. Educated persons would study these as well, but they would also study law, science, rhetoric, and history. It is in these subjects that the ruling class placed true value, instead of in the works that were less academic and read more often by the working and middle classes. Still, it is, as you say, ironic that something so undervalued could also have so much power.

Kayley Dardano said:

I am a big fan of literature but I am not blind to the fact that it is not always true, in fact more often than not it is an unreliable source of information yet more reliable then most other sources of information besides your own self. Even your own self can give you false information because of your perception of the world.

Greta Carroll said:

Erica, I really like your examples about us being manipulated in the present day by the media, just as the middle class was with books long ago. And it really does make sense that literature and the media can work as double-edged swords. But why do you think it is that we were both thrown aback by the second ability that literature gives to people, the ability to control? Do you think we were not taught about this other side so that we could be more easily manipulated? It seems like an obvious side of words, yet I never really thought of it till now.

As for your comments Kayley, I think you have a good attitude and are quite perceptive. Nothing is always true, I suppose in a lot of ways it goes back to what Eagleton was saying in the introduction about all “facts” being influenced by “value-judgments.” And each of us can give slightly distorted interpretations based on our perspective as you mention. I wonder though, do the people that are in control (i.e. the people that give us access to these books, the news media, even the authors of books) intend to influence our thoughts or are they trying to be objective and it’s just impossible to not be so? To what extent are they trying to control us and does it matter if they are? Can a work still be valuable even though it was written in order to brainwash its readers? In other words, I guess what I’m wondering about is whether the author’s intention matters or not.

Bethany Bouchard said:

What an insightful posting, Greta. I never really thought so much about the contradictory position literature held during that time! On one hand it was a powerful weapon against the illiterate, but then people who were literate saw it as an unimportant skill or way to make a living. Very interesting, and also mind-boggling.

Erica Gearhart said:

I think it might have been because our teachers were so focused on teaching us about the text, rather than the text's effects on us, that we could easily have missed this idea until now. Acutally, I have just recently realized exactly how much I am influenced by other's works and opinions. I think that this is just something that each person has to figure out on his or her own.

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