There are compelling reasons for developing a new approach to the study of social trust. While it has long been recognized that trust involves the faculty of imagination, almost no attention has been paid by social scientists to the evidence and insights of imaginative literature. What makes trust difficult to study through social science methods is that when it functions well it does so invisibly and unconsciously. Social trust provides “the ethical substance of everyday life” (Bernstein 2015) and becomes most evident only in its absence, when everyday life is thrown into crisis. Social science approaches also tend to privilege either an interpersonal or an institutional perspective on trust, whereas imaginative literature brings these two levels into dialogue. TRUST therefore argues that social trust is best approached through the lens of literature, where its operations and crises can be studied in an imaginative space and on a range of representational, formal, and hermeneutic levels.
From Social Sciences to Literary Studies
Social trust is certainly real, but it is also imaginary. It does not exist outside of human practice, yet its reality depends on how humans comprehend their practice. It is meaningless to speak of trust that is never acted upon, as if trust were an inner state that requires no outward expression in behavior. Conversely, to see any act as an expression of trust means exploring its connection to the imaginative lives of individuals, the way they rationalize their relationships with the people, institutions, and technologies that surround them.
We can therefore say that social trust inheres as much in consciousness and self-understanding as in practice and behavior. Yet the relationship between the two sides of this dichotomy is not always clear. People often behave in ways that contradict their self-conception; their consciousness does not always align with their practice. This has been the case in all societies, where rituals and habits shape lives in ways that often go beyond individual awareness (Geertz 1973, Durkheim 1995). But contradictions between behavior and self-understanding are most striking in modern societies, since a key premise of post-Enlightenment modernity is a commitment to the conscious understanding and rational validation of human behavior (Hegel 1991, Kant 2015). As modern subjects, when we trust we should have reasons for doing so, and we should be able to explain our behavior in privately and publicly intelligible ways.
It has been the role of imaginative literature, and particularly the modern novel that emerged in tandem with Enlightenment thought, to explore the ironies of this often-contradictory relationship between practice and consciousness, behavior and self-understanding. A classic example is Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, in which the plot turns on the heroine’s misunderstanding of her situation and consequent betrayal of the trust of her best friend. At the conclusion, the bonds of social trust are symbolically reconstituted through the two women’s marriages, while throughout the novel Austen’s ironic tone invites and plays with the reader’s own trust.
Emma thus shows us how literature can model the phenomenon of social trust in a multilayered manner that resembles the social sciences but differs from them in crucial respects. Like philosophy, imaginative literature is interested in norms, reasons, and explanations, but it is rarely driven to abstract those elements away from the representation of a lived practice that expresses and often contravenes them. Like psychology, literature explores the intricate workings of the human mind, but unlike psychology it does so in thick social contexts where multiple viewpoints mediate the representation of mind. Like anthropology, literature examines patterns of behavior in societies and groups, but unlike anthropology it asks how those societies and groups came about and speculates on where they are going. Literature thus resembles history, but is not tied to verifiable facts and can unearth important truths without need of empirical backing. It also resembles sociology, while retaining an interest in individuals that sociology by definition abjures. Literature has much to tell us about economics and politics – through its formal choices as much as the stories it tells – but is reducible to neither. Most of all, literature explores the role of language in imagining the world while itself taking on linguistic form, meaning that it can be studied on a range of levels and provide multiple insights into how social trust is created, expressed, contravened, and repaired.
For all these reasons, imaginative literature is uniquely positioned to give a deep and rich account of the problem of social trust. By looking to contemporary literature to shape our understanding of social trust in the period since 1990, we stand to gain new and profound insights into how trust thrives and how it fails, what the impacts of different modes of trust might be, and how social trust is changing to meet the demands of the present moment.
TRUST sets out from the claim that literary studies should be oriented in significant part by its primary object, the individual work of literature. Regardless of the research approach, literary works must retain their capacity to surprise, to produce unexpected insights that can lead a larger project in new directions. While significant recent advances have been made in practices of digital literary scholarship and “distant reading” (Siemens/Schreibman 2007, Moretti 2013, Underwood 2019), literary studies remains foremost an inductive discipline. Findings on the granular level – through close reading and inventive contextualization – drive the development of broader claims. Reading contemporary novels for their lessons on social trust thus means being attentive to a range of representational and formal dimensions of individual texts, keeping in mind the project’s objectives while allowing variation across texts in how those objectives are pursued and achieved.
Along with being inductive in method, literary studies proceeds through synecdoche and exemplarity. Analytical focus is usually placed on a relatively small body of texts, and broader claims are extrapolated on the basis of these analyses. With this in mind, a crucial moment in any project’s critical method is the selection of primary texts to be studied. The complication of this selection process in the case of TRUST – the vast number of novels published across these three nations in recent decades – renders the judicious choice of exemplary material important.
TRUST’s selection of national case studies is informed by the PI’s nationality (Irish) and primary research expertise (American literature), but also – in the case of Russia – by social and literary histories in which questions of trust loom large. While these three nations have seen significant changes in the post-1990 period that bear upon social trust, they also possess rich literary histories with interlocking dimensions that comparative literature scholars have only recently begun to explore in earnest. TRUST continues this work and seeks to transform our understanding of social trust by developing a dialogue among contemporary novelists who have addressed economic, political, moral, and technological developments in important but thus far underappreciated ways.
The project’s first strand, Trust and Method, aims to construct a framework to read imaginative literature – specifically, the contemporary novel – as a site for the exploration and modelling of social trust. Combining and advancing the insights of prominent contemporary methodologies of reading – literary hermeneutics, deconstruction, affect theory, and the “new” world literature – this strand, which runs throughout the whole project, elaborates a multifaceted approach to the literary study of social trust, leading to a new understanding of the evolving relationship between the national and the global across three domains: digital communication, the economy, and literary culture.
The three subsequent strands of TRUST examine each of these domains in turn. Trusting and Distrusting the Digital World addresses the rise of the internet after 1990 and social media after the mid-2000s, considering how contemporary literature has explored the new kinds of distributed trust networks that digital interaction requires, and comparing these to the modes of trust and distrust that literary texts have traditionally represented and imagined. Attending to the growing phenomena of misinformation, fake news, and cultural polarization, this strand considers what we can learn about these phenomena from the way they are handled through literary techniques and tropes including fictionality, meta-reflexivity, unreliable narration, and metaphor.
Trusting and Distrusting the Global Economy takes the other key transnational development of the post-1990 period, the global “free market,” and asks how literature has represented new modes of trust and distrust – in global supply chains, cashless credit, the transnational euro currency, or labor market migration, for instance – while simultaneously articulating the uneven impact of global economic relations on embedded forms of trust. This strand builds upon substantial extant scholarship on the relationships among fictionality, finance, and literary form from the 18th to the 20th century, updating these arguments for the contemporary period and extending them to countries – Russia and Ireland – that were relative newcomers to global market society during this period.
The final strand, Trusting and Distrusting the Work of Literature, complements a focus on the content and form of literary texts with questions about the circulation of imaginative literature in the period since 1990. Proceeding from the insight that literature not only helps us to understand social trust but also models it through its institutional forms, this strand addresses elements of literary culture including translation, publishing, pedagogy, and public readings. Taking into account the role that literature has historically played across these three nations – the cultural work it has been understood to do – this strand asks how contemporary developments in literature and its institutions reflect, construct, and transform relations of social trust.