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date: 19 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Since around the turn of the millennium, Anglo-American literary scholarship has been marked by a remarkable shift in its attention to and its attitude toward institutions. Within this shift or “institutional turn,” two interrelated movements can be detected: 1) a departure from thinking about literature as a social institution, toward a sociological approach that examines the many and varied organizations and institutions in and through which literature and its value are produced, distributed, and consumed; and 2) a tendency to revise earlier critiques of institutions, which were often indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, and which emphasized their regulating and disciplinary power, in favor of a more balanced view of institutions as enabling as well as constraining, and in some cases, an outright advocacy for their value and the need to conserve them. Both of these movements stem from scholars’ recognition of the heterogeneity of actual institutions. Rather than understanding literature as something constituted by monolithic, homogenizing forces, early 21st-century literary scholars tend to emphasize the way it is generated and sustained by a wide range of practices occurring in an equally disparate set of institutional locations. Since the early 2000s, scholars have undertaken to analyze the workings of these institutions as the more immediate context in which literary production occurs and is disseminated—a middle range of actors and organizations situated between broader social and historical currents and literary texts. The more charitable attitude toward institutions also recognizes the crucial roles institutions play in the teaching and study of literature. Scholars have thus begun defending the work of institutions, in response to early 21st-century conditions of neoliberalism, under which governments have withdrawn state support for public institutions, including institutions of higher education. A neoliberal ideology that reduces all value to market value presents a threat to institutions that are not primarily dedicated to the generation of economic profit. Thus both of the movements toward institutional study are necessarily bound up with a tradition of scholars who have produced “institutional histories” of literature departments and of the discipline of literary studies. Under neoliberal conditions, such histories have gained urgency, giving rise to a renewed call to account for the value of literary study and of educational institutions in terms that do not reduce this value to service to the economy.

Keywords: institution, literary studies, literary sociology, Bourdieu, Foucault, Latour, history of English, neoliberalism

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