The capacity of the arts and the humanities to have a meaningful societal impact has, perhaps, traditionally been undervalued. However, a recent book by Michael Mack offers a persuasive argument that emphasises the important role that the arts can play in modern society.
In recent years, public sponsors of the arts, such as Arts Council England, have seen their funding cut. Central teaching grants to support the arts and humanities at universities have been reduced. Although in part a response to widespread economic pressures, the devaluation of the arts and humanities is also part of a pervasive intellectual trend. Humanists and scientists have tended to think of the arts simply as a means to represent the world via the imagination, rather than as a means to enact positive change upon wider society.
However, How Literature Changes the Way We Think asserts that the arts do not merely describe our world. Rather, Mack writes that the arts are a kind of performance that “helps us to change harmful practice within politics, religion, medicine and society at large.”
“Michael Mack supplies an answer to the increased doubts about the role of the humanities. His claim is that literature changes the way we see and act; that it is one of the aspects of our cultural life that shapes who we are on the most elemental level.”
Sander L. Gilman, Emory University
For example, the field of the medical humanities – in which Mack specialises – is a growing interdisciplinary area in which artists, critics and medical practitioners seek to exchange ideas that will help to enhance medical practice by thinking about the ways in which human beings perceive illness, the mind and the body. Such fundamental human experiences are commonly imagined and evaluated in literature and drama and other arts, and to think more deeply about the critical value of the arts also allows us to consider how we might apply its teachings to medical practice, as well as to other ethical forces such as politics or religion.
“This is a subtle, learned, and at the same time radical investigation of the powers of literature. Mack challenges us to think afresh.”
Dame Gillian Beer, FBA
Mack opens his work with a study of the popular television drama, Mad Men, showing the links between advertising culture and death, as embodied by the fetishisation of smoking. He goes on to explore the thought and work of an impressive array of prominent writers and thinkers, including Nietzsche, Foucault, Žižek, Walter Benjamin, Philip Roth, Kazuo Ishiguro and Oscar Wilde, among others.
“According to Mack…art is “disruptive to the degree of interrupting itself” – thus its power to challenge stereotyping and other potentially harmful habitual behaviour.”
The West Australian
Numerous reviews have recognised the power of Mack’s assertion of why literature and the humanities remain as essential as ever in the 21st century. As Mack argues, “Literature’s cognitive dimension helps us cope with the current as well as future challenges by changing the way we think about ourselves, our society and those who are excluded from or marginalized within our society.”
Listen to Michael Mack discuss the themes of this book in this podcast.