LITERATURE DIED in the past 30 years, partly by its own hand, partly by attacks from outside, partly from the extensive social and technological changes known as postmodernism. The authority of a high-culture literature erected on the works of Dante and Shakespeare, Voltaire and Swift, Wordsworth and Goethe, Valery and Joyce that flourished in capitalistic Western society in the high age of print, between the mid-18th century and the mid-20th, is now gone.

This was literature in the grand sense: Shelley's unacknowledged legislation of the world; Arnold's timeless best that has been thought and written; Eliot's monuments of the European mind extending from the rock drawings in Lascaux to his own epic of the disintegration of Western society after the Great War, "The Waste Land." It was an art in the service of its world. Dickens's novels, for example, gave themselves and literature substantial value by doing the important work of making sense of the difficulty of living in the strange new surroundings of the impersonal 19th-century city. In a time of radical change, Shakespeare organized and made less confusing the transition from medieval to modern society, while establishing what was possible on the stage and in the English language. A great literature in the native language was believed to be a matter of pride for national states, and a knowledge of literature a mark of polite culture.

The most obvious break in this tradition has been the disappearance of novels like Hemingway's, poetry like Frost's, plays like O'Neill's that were read and understood by at least the educated and spoke to the serious issues of the '20s and '30s. Writings such as these legitimated literature and its authors, giving them a place of dignity in the culture, a branch in the knowledge tree and a place in the school curriculum.

But they, almost mysteriously, disappeared into tormented poetry like Robert Lowell's and John Ashberry's, novels like Norman Mailer's "factions" -- part fiction, part reporting -- Saul Bellow's black-humor tales of culture under siege, and plays of meaninglessness and exhaustion like Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" or Pinter's "The Birthday Party." Even these voices of the old literature trailing off are gone now, and in their place we have the turgid black art associated with names like Tobias Wolff, Andrea Dworkin, William Burroughs and Ann Beattie. There remain honorable workers, particularly in the novel, but it doesn't matter much anymore. The brightest and the most imaginative thinkers don't any longer find poetry, fiction or drama the best ways to work out their ideas or to influence the public view on important questions.

Meanwhile, within the academy -- instead of defending literature, as might have been expected -- a group of radical university critics practicing what has been aptly called "the hermeneutics of suspicion," has actively sought the destruction of the old literary order. Known in the broadest sense as structuralism and deconstruction, these have been a poetics militant, attacking all authority, including all literary authority, as illegitimate and repressive, showing the meaninglessness of the language and the emptiness of the "truths" in literary works. Originally employed as a tool for ferreting out the unspoken presuppositions of philosophical texts by "deconstructing" language choices to reveal the presumed prejudices of the author, deconstruction's effect on literature has been to make even the most harmless texts seem tendentious, full of hidden political agenda. Political Masquerades

Radical politics has played a similarly demeaning role. Feminists and gays have denounced literature as an instrument of straight male domination. From that perspective, "Moby Dick" is transformed from an epic of American mercantilism and transcendental quest into a portrayal of masculine individualism gone mad, despoiling nature and seeking death. Various kinds of neo-Marxists, protesting what they call "the nightstick of verification and the handcuffs of validity," have attacked literature as a capitalist institution and a disguised instrument of establishment propaganda used to perpetuate authority of class, race and gender. Shakespeare, in this view, champions the dominance of the state over the needs of personal life. To the latest kind of Freudian literary critics, literature like the stories of Kafka, rather than opening up the recesses of the mind, is only another form of the repression of instinct and revolutionary impulses. To various proponents of black, ethnic and Third World literatures, books like Conrad's tales of the sea and the exotic East are only cultural imperialism masquerading as art.

So strident has the conflict become that well educated people have actually made such statements as "To write well is counter-revolutionary" and "The idea that the Truth is One -- unambiguous, self-consistent and knowable {is one of} the murderous fictions of our history."

Within the literary establishment, literature has encountered practical as well as theoretical difficulties. As literacy rates decrease, courses in composition are increasingly replacing courses in literature in colleges and universities. As students read less, verbal scores on the SAT exams continue to drop, as do enrollments and majors in literature. The students are not voting only with their feet. In 1988, Stanford University students demanded that a required course in great books drop some of the classics written by "dead white males" to make room for books by women, blacks and Third World writers. Under pressure, the faculty and administration caved in, replacing some classics with books like Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex." At Yale at the present time, students are protesting strongly an attempt by the dean of the college, Donald Kagan, to install a core curriculum of great books which they consider an attempt to impose the dead hand of authority on openness and freedom.

What goes on in the universities is closely linked to events in the larger world, where what was once called "serious literature" has by now only a coterie audience, thanks to radical attacks on authority, extreme relativism and other revolutionary forces undermining literary traditions as they have so many social traditions.

The death of literature, and the parallel severe disturbances in all the arts -- witness the recent questioning of "what is art?" and "who decides?" in the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity case -- are a part, minor but very interesting, of a much larger social change that began in the 1960s and is putting severe pressure on all our traditional values and major institutions. There is as yet no satisfactory name for this extensive social shift. "Postindustrialism" and "postmodernism" record only our sense that older ways of life have passed without specifying what has replaced them. Still, we know the symptoms: a shift to a service from a manufacturing economy, from a print to an electronic mode of information storage and retrieval, from an economics of scarcity and saving to the "affluent society" of consumers, from a politics of representation to one of individual and group social activism, from a positivist conception of fact to a relativist conception of "image," from an acceptance of authority to individual freedom of choice, and from disciplined self-denial to hedonism, permissiveness and self-indulgence -- the cult of narcissism. The Gutenberg Devolution

The breakdown of literature is a small matter alongside major social catastrophes such as the ruin of the nuclear family. But the death of literature, and the events that have accompanied it, such as deconstruction, can only be understood in the larger context of this social revolution. Literature is book-centered, and it began to lose its authority -- and consequently its reality -- at a time that electronics began replacing print as the most efficient and attractive source of entertainment and information. Where the printed work of literature was stable and durable, available in fixed form for rereading, the electronic image floats, transitory and infinitely recombinable in new configurations. (This in turn confounds traditional concepts of plagiarism and intellectual property -- see box below.) Where the dense literary verbal text, gone over again and again, encouraged complex readings, the TV image is direct and literally superficial -- i.e., what it is on the surface.

The fate of literature is closely keyed to the state of the printed book. Literature, we might say, institutionalizes the best that can be said of the power of print. But as electronics takes over, the book suffers some heavy blows, and literature feels them as well. Publishers' inventories are now heavily taxed by the federal government, making it difficult to keep classics in print. Copyright, which makes it possible for authors to make a living, is under challenge. Books printed on acid paper are disintegrating on the shelves of libraries at a rapid rate. This last makes us feel that literature is disappearing before our eyes, even as the ideas with which it has been closely associated such as creativity and literary property are losing sharp definition in the culture at large.

No wonder, then, that there are many and ominous signs of the end of the Gutenberg era, such as Columbia University's recent decision to close its prestigious library school on the grounds that the professional study of books and their management no longer has a place in a research university. Nor is Columbia alone; 14 prestigious library schools have closed in recent years, including those at the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California and Vanderbilt University.

Under these kinds of social and academic pressures it is by no means certain that some modified form of literature, by whatever name, will continue to exist in the postindustrial, post-Gutenberg future. There is always the possibility that literature was so much a product of print culture and industrial capitalism, as bardic poetry and heroic epic like Homer were of tribal oral society, that, like chivalry in the age of gunpowder, it will simply disappear in the electronic age, when people get their information from television and databases. Or it may dwindle to a ceremonial role, something like Peking opera. Literature considered as universal imaginative writing, to be found in all times and all cultures, was, after all, a historical event, appearing as a cultural concept only in the late 18th century, and then only in the West, where it replaced an aristocratic poetry. There is no reason why it should not join many other past cultural institutions in history's dream-dump when people get their amusement and information elsewhere.

Radical literary people have revised literature in ways they believe will allow it to survive by thoroughly politicizing old works such as Shakespeare's (was he a secret revolutionary?) or fostering polemical novels such as Andrea Dworkin's violent attacks on men. Where the old literature was authoritarian and repressive, their new literature, these critics feel, will be the voice of freedom, encouraging readers to interpret the text in any way that seems most useful to them, preaching relativism in all areas and concentrating on issues of gender, class and race. The point of all this will no longer be literature itself -- art for art's sake -- or what kind of statement it makes about human experience -- humanism -- but a social purpose outside literature, the transformation of a social order that exploits society's marginal victims, women, non-whites, homosexuals and the poor. Books as Weapons To those raised in the cultural ancien regime, this already looks like the death of literature disguised as its renewal. But the real problem for this new conception of literature is its unquestioned assumption of the continued authority of the book and the ability to read with the precision and intensity that the printed page insists upon. Whatever literature is going to be in the future, it will still inescapably depend on reading and talking about books. There is, however, no guarantee whatsoever that very many people are going to find that activity important. It is not that the book will disappear -- over 50,000 titles are printed in the United States annually -- nor that literacy will break down altogether. But in the electronic age, books, words and reading are not likely to remain sufficiently authoritative and central to knowledge to justify literature.

At times it looks as if the radical literary critics, rather than constructing a new kind of literature, were the unwitting instruments of social forces destroying the book. Deconstructionists tell us that the literary text has no meaning, or, what comes to the same thing, it has as many and whatever meanings anyone wants to find in it. Marxists declare that the printed word has lied in numerous ways to serve the interests of the ruling class and the state. Intellectual freedom-fighters speak of literature as an instrument of oppression, furthering imperialism and colonialism. Feminists tell us that literature has excluded women and served the cause of male dominance. It is difficult to see how in the long run literature that has been stripped in this way of any positive value can be considered worth reading and interpreting. Why bother to study books that have been so harmful to the cause of human freedom and understanding? The past is gone, and so is the old literature with its authors of imaginative genius and crystalline works of perfect art and unchanging truth, the great march of words down the centuries -- Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac. But if literature is to survive in some diminished form, positive ways to speak of it must be found again.

Alvin Kernan, Avalon professor of humanities emeritus at Princeton, is the author most recently of "The Death of Literature," published this fall by Yale University Press.