This is my postdoctoral project at Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology. This project runs from 2023-26. I look at how literary fiction is an actor in civil society. Literature commonly assumes the role of a moral good; to be a reader appears to be of value; authors of grand fiction or poets are seen as valuable for the civility of society. But how so?
Cultural Intermediation and Civil Society
Literary fiction narrates ethical and moral meaning. It is rich with ethical conceptions of the good life and expressions of moral universalism, and it assumes a meaningful role in civil society through this richness. And yet, existing conceptions of cultural intermediation do not consider this richness; they are reductive in the way they focus on the social-structural space in between author and reader. Cultural intermediation is trimmed down to competition and generalizations of taste and aesthetic acclaim without considering cultural meaningfulness.
In this project, I follow a new conception of cultural intermediation that builds a bridge between understanding the production and reception of literature in social-structural terms and society’s civil discourse. I draw on a diverse set of authors from philosophy and cultural sociology – discourse ethics and civil sphere theory in particular – to form a critique of intermediation.
I conceptualize what it means to claim that literary text is a morally meaningful medium in three different ways: productive intermediation, receptive intermediation and critical intermediation. And I highlight that literary fiction is not culture per se, but that it enables actors to mediate culture. From authors along with agents, publishers, distributors and critics towards readers, literary text is embedded in culture-specific context. This is a hermeneutically strong conception of cultural intermediation that contributes to a meaning-centred sociology of literature.
This project has two key scholarly interests. One is to determine the empirical reality of literary fiction as an actor within civil society. For instance, how and why does an author become a persona that advances a moral agenda, and where is the line between this author and the one that merely provides texts for entertainment. Can such a line be drawn? I also think about how cultural intermediation can be understood in a morally-meaningful way. Agents, publishers, and critics are not only economic actors; they are also enablers of individual reflection and critical discourse in society.
Civil Sphere Theory and Discourse Ethics
The second scholarly interest concerns the social theory behind civil society and morality. Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology builds on its own programme of a hermeneutically-strong conception of culture—the strong programme in cultural sociology, founded by Jeff Alexander and Phil Smith. This is the foundation of civil sphere theory, which provides a valuable approach to understanding democracy and identifying actors in civil society. It is widely-used today in a wealth of empirical studies. I contribute to this scholarship by clarifying its relation to Habermasian discourse ethics. Civil sphere theory critically advances what Habermas spent only little effort elaborating on: civil society is grounded in culture structures; trying to comprehend the former requires having a thorough understanding of the latter. In return, the normatively-strong discourse ethics enables a better understanding of critical issues within civil sphere theory itself; rationalisation, moral universalism, and societal progress cannot be thought of without a strong philosophy as a guiding foundation.
This work is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) with a two-year postdoctoral grant (2023-26), as well as a stipend by the Unibund Würzburg.
Reach out: marcel.knoechelmann[at]yale.edu