Dissertation Abstracts

The Sociological Truth of Fiction: Towards a Strong Program in the Sociology of Literature

Author: Jan Vana, jan.vana@mail.muni.cz
Department: Sociology
University: Masaryk University, Czech Republic
Supervisor: Werner Binder
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Sociology of Literature , Cultural Sociology , Social Aesthetics , Social Theory
Areas of Research: Communication, Knowledge and Culture , Theory , Arts


The main goal of this thesis is to design a theoretical-epistemological model that will access social knowledge mediated by literary works without translating these works into social scientific discourse. When analyzing literary fiction, most sociologists still accept the well-established boundaries between the literary and the sociological, thus leaving literature stripped of its aesthetic qualities. Instead, I propose a new approach that focuses on the process of meaning-making as it occurs within the aesthetic experience of reading between the reader and the novel in a given socio-historical setting. Following the strong program in cultural sociology, I propose a strong program in the sociology of literature to recognize literary texts “as relatively autonomous cultural entities” with their own agency. Instead of approaching literary fiction as an object of analysis, sociology and literature can contribute to social knowledge in a symmetrical way, where fiction is not devalued vis-à-vis social scientific inquiry. I approach the aesthetic experience of reading through the concept of iconicity, which I discuss in regard to the poetic function of Roman Jakobson. Furthermore, I employ the hermeneutic phenomenology of Paul Ricoeur and the phenomenology of reading of the Constance School of Reception Aesthetics. Following the structural hermeneutics of Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith, I synthesize the hermeneutic and phenomenological approaches with the structural aesthetics of Jan Muka?ovský and the Prague Linguistic Circle and genetic structuralism of Lucien Goldmann. The proposed model unlocks new social knowledge mediated by reading literary fiction, which captures the iconic experience of societies in a given time and space through the “iconic condensation” that is often called Zeitgeist. Then, I demonstrate the model in an analysis of two selected Czech novels: City, Sister, Silver by Jáchym Topol and Bliss was it in Bohemia by Michal Viewegh. Analyzing the aesthetic structures of these novels, I strive to grasp ambiguities and non-discursive aspects of the experience of communism in the 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia and the transformation of 1989. I do not translate the aesthetic qualities of the novels into social scientific discourse but observe them carefully in relation to their socio-historical context. Therefore, I can account for social experiences of historical continuity and discontinuity of late socialism and the Velvet Revolution as inherently existential and subjectively felt and at the same time iconic, i.e., exceeding individual experience. Sociology thus gains access to broad “structures of feelings” (Raymond Williams) that entail aesthetic and emotional delicacy of social experience as well as more stable social patterns.