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Asian American literary studies, and multi-ethnic literatures more broadly, have maintained a constant faith in the power of literature as a potential tool of anti-racist education. This faith in literature’s potential is not naïve, since it also recognizes how even the most diverse and ideal literary education can be co-opted by the workings of capitalism and neoliberalism. These fields are founded in an enduring and powerful belief that literature affects the social, cultural, and political esteem of a minority group in the United States. Within the field of Asian American studies, academics, activists, and cultural critics have sought to harness the power of various forms of cultural discourse and literature by mediating the stories told about (and at times by) Asian Americans. As Asian American literature has grown in popularity, there has been increasing attention to questions of who is represented within Asian American literature and who is deemed worthy to produce these representations. Such concerns have over time produced an abiding if somewhat tacit interest in questions of literary reception in the field. In fact, although many of the major literary controversies in Asian American studies have circulated around questions of representation and reception and ushered in paradigm shifts in how the field has conceptualized itself, it is an area that remains understudied. Asian American literary reception study and studies of readership are still emerging and crucial areas of analysis that could pose and posit answers to questions of literature’s possibilities and limitations as a tool of anti-racism in 21st-century America.

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Print culture refers to the production, distribution, and reception of printed material. It includes the concepts of authorship, readership, and impact and entails the intersection of technological, political, religious, legal, social, educational, and economic practices, all of which can vary from one cultural context to another. Prior to their arrival in the Americas, Spain and Portugal had their own print culture and, following the conquest, they introduced it into their colonies, first through the importation of books from Europe and later following the establishment of the printing press in Mexico in 1539. Throughout the colonial period, the importation of books from abroad was a constant and lucrative practice. However, print culture was not uniform. As in Europe, print culture in Latin America was largely an urban phenomenon, with restricted readership due to high rates of illiteracy, which stemmed from factors of class, gender, race, and income, among others. Furthermore, the press itself spread slowly and unevenly, according to the circumstances of each region. One thing, however, that these territories had in common was widespread censorship. Reading, writing, and printing were subject to oversight by the Inquisition, whose responsibility was to police the reading habits of the populace and to ensure that no texts were printed that could disrupt the political and religious well-being of the colonies, as they defined it. In spite of Inquisitorial restrictions, print culture flourished and the number and kind of materials available increased dramatically until the early 19th century, when most of the territories under the Iberian monarchies became independent, a phenomenon due in part to the circulation of Enlightenment thought in the region. Following the era of revolutions, newly established republics attempted to implement freedom of the press. While the Inquisition no longer existed, censorship continued to be practiced to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the circumstances and who was in power. This also applies to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Immediately prior to Latin American independence, the United States became a sovereign nation. Commercial and cultural exchanges, including print materials, between the United States and Latin America increased, and many Latin Americans were traveling to and residing in the United States for extended periods. However, it was also in this period that the United States began a campaign of expansionism that did not cease until 1898 and resulted in the acquisition of half of Mexico’s national territory and of Spain’s remaining American colonies, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In addition to the land itself, the United States also “acquired” the people who had been Spanish and Mexican citizens in California, the Southwest, and Puerto Rico. With this change in sovereignty came a change in language, customs, and demographics, which provoked a cultural crisis among these new Latina/o citizens. To defend themselves against the racial persecution from Anglo-Americans and to reverse the impending annihilation of their culture and language, they turned to the press. The press allowed Latinas/os a degree of cultural autonomy, even as their position was slowly eroded by legal and demographic challenges as the 19th century progressed.