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Consumerism and Prestige: The Materiality of Literature in the Postindustrial Age

Date: 30th June & 1st July 2016
Place: FU Berlin, Room JK 33/121
Conception: Dr. Bernhard Metz

This workshop will explore the relationship between consumerism and prestige by examining how the material properties of books (such as the cover, binding, typography, and paper stock) reflect and perhaps even influence their cultural status. Beginning in the nineteenth century, printing and binding became cheaper, faster, and more easily accessible than ever before, which increased the demand for new content and lowered the cultural entrance level, resulting in the expansion of popular or trivial literature as well as a wide range of new formats, such as dime novels, pulp magazines, and paperbacks. On the other hand, publishers also sought to mimic the conventions of exclusiveness through deluxe editions, which attempt to preserve the highbrow status of literature as a marker of class distinctions. This same process also informs contemporary debates concerning digital media, as cultural distinctions are now being reconfigured through new forms of electronic display in the postprint era.

The relationship between consumerism and prestige thus reflects fundamental historical changes with regard to the development of technology, literacy, and social power. While the industrialization of print resulted in a sudden explosion of print material, that democratized literature by making books available to a mass reading public, these developments were
perceived as a potential threat to the literary elite, who relied on material distinctions as a way of securing their cultural authority. As the divide between highbrow and lowbrow taste widened, the material properties of the text became the primary site where the cultural status of literature was constructed and contested. In many cases, the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow texts had little to do with the content of the texts themselves, given that books more often functioned as markers of socioeconomic status, like clothing or home décor. At the risk of being provocative, one might even go so far as to say that since the eighteenth century the concept of literary taste has been more closely related to fashion sense than critical judgment, although this claim clearly challenges the hermeneutic and philosophical traditions upon which these cultural distinctions rely for their continued relevance.

The workshop will address this provocative claim by examining the tensions between consumerism and prestige in the history of book production, consumption, and reception over the last two centuries. Participants will explore how the cultural status of literary texts can be understood as an inherent consequence of the industrialization of print since the nineteenth century and how the material form of a book often changes the value of texts otherwise experienced as less prestigious. Contributions are particularly invited on the following topics:

  • The impact of printing technologies on the production and distribution of literary texts.
  • The relationship between the material properties of literary texts and their cultural prestige.
  • The production and reception of popular literary formats, including dime novels, pulp magazines, paperbacks, etc.
  • The relationship between new forms of electronic display and the cultural status of digital texts, including e-books, e-readers, cell phone novels, etc.
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Dahlem Research School
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