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Eating your words: reception as consumption

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Organizer: Phoebe Lakin

Co-Organizer: Nate Herter

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“The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.” In line with W.H. Auden’s visceral phrasing, our panel encourages participants to think about literary reception as a process of consuming and digesting. At least since Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and more explicitly with Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944 essay “The Culture Industry,” the consumer economy has been a primary structuring metaphor for understanding the act of literary reception in the 20th and 21st centuries. This account of literary reception reduces literature to its economic function, where it is produced by capital-controlled industries and consumed by the reading public as any other commodity.

Though some, such as David Graeber (2011), have urged historians and anthropologists of literature to discard the economic metaphor as reductive and anachronistic, in our seminar we hope to consider this image more deeply. Beyond economics, the verb “to consume” has a wide semantic range. From the Latin consumere, its meanings range from “eat, devour” to “waste, annihilate, or kill.” A consumptor is also a “spendthrift,” while a rarer meaning of the verb, “to weaken, enervate,” produced in English a name for wasting diseases, “consumption,” most commonly applied to tuberculosis. 

What happens when we understand this economic metaphor more broadly in the case of literary reception? Does the consumer’s encounter with the text, the act of reception, in some way destroy it? What happens when we digest what we have consumed – do we eat our words? Are received texts reduced to bare matter for a literary-metabolic reproduction, or does the representation of text in a new context carry some of the original’s ideological power? Or do encounters with literature entail “consumption,” a wasting disease, or a weakening or expenditure of the self (for the consumer or the producer)?

We especially invite submissions that consider the implications of this metaphorization of reading and reception in new or surprising contexts – in particular those that combine the study of literature with plastic arts or other fields. How might ‘consuming’ be viewed through the lens of (new) materialism or resource extraction? What can such a model tell us about conceptions of authorship, agency, and power? How do the economics of consumption square with pre-capitalist conceptions of the practice of reading or artistic production? How do consumption metaphors operate in other linguistic traditions? And could it be the case that theorists’ desire (or hunger) for answers cannot be sated using ‘reception’ as a paradigm at all? 

Questions can be directed to the panel’s organizers, Nate Herter ( and Phoebe Lakin (

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