World LiteraturesCosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics

Based at Stockholm University, this research programme ran from 2016 to 2021, generously supported by The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. Its task was to explore, across numerous languages, how aesthetic values, genres, forms, literary communities and individual authorships are shaped in trade-offs between the local and the global, the national and the transnational, and between hegemonic and dominated languages in Asian, African, European and American contexts.

As is recorded on this website, the research programme resulted in a substantial number of publications by its researchers. The core group consisted of 26 researchers, and a further 15 have, in different capacities, contributed to our work. The central results of the programme are presented in the four volumes published by Bloomsbury as the limited series “Cosmopolitan-vernacular dynamics in world literatures”. They focus, respectively, on the following topics:

  • Claiming space in literature through vernacular and cosmopolitan orientations.
  • Textual, material and social practices of literary world-making.
  • Sweden as a field of translation.
  • The fate of vernaculars in an age of world literature.

Besides these volumes, a considerable amount of articles, several special issues as well as a number of monographs have been published under the auspices of this initiative.

The volumes, and most of our other publications, are freely downloadable under open access licenses. Links can be found under “publications” on this website.

To elaborate briefly on the key ideas motivating our work, here is an excerpt from the general introducation to the four volumes:

“To speak of the cosmopolitan-vernacular dynamic is an open proposition, in the sense that it does not prescribe in advance any particular weighting of cosmopolitan or vernacular tendencies. Although the cosmopolitan-vernacular dynamic is fundamentally a question of how literary values are shaped, just how these values should be understood and assessed can only be discovered by examining the particular case.

In adopting the cosmopolitan-vernacular perspective, we acknowledge our debt to Sheldon Pollock, whose magisterial macro-historical analysis of pre-modern literary cultures in South Asia and Europe in The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006) offered a path-breaking comparison not just of the cosmopolitan literatures of Sanskrit and Latin, but more importantly of the historical constructedness of vernacular literatures. Contra the Romanticist assumption of vernacular authenticity and immediacy, Pollock (and Beecroft after him) argued that a historical approach to vernacular literatures will show how they tend to be elite projects shaped in reaction against a dominant cosmopolitan Other (such as the literate cultures of Latin and Sanskrit). To literize (standardize through writing) and literarize languages coded as vernaculars are to be understood as deliberate, politically motivated actions.

Illuminating though such an explanatory model is, it should not be taken at face value as a transhistorical constant, nor need it be restricted to macro-historical analyses but can be applied equally to closer textual study. Contrary to Pollock’s pre-modern focus, our four volumes engage with literature from the last two hundred years (about half of the primary sources are contemporary), an epoch which marks a radical new departure in literary history. This is when Weltliteratur was conceptualized in the wake of the accelerating commodification of print literature, the emergence of comparative philology and the entrenchment of (and resistance to) European nationalism and imperialism. It is, hence, an era when cosmopolitan and vernacular orientations in literature have been reconfigured drastically in relation not least, if not only, to the cultural authority of ‘the West’. An important aspect of this process has been the accelerating vernacularization of languages and literatures in all parts of the world. This needs to be understood in two ways. First, vernacularization entails the positioning of named languages, registers of language or local knowledges as inferior in the field of power, as for instance Aamir Mufti (2016) discusses in the context of India and Pakistan. But, secondly, vernacularization also involves the deliberate elevation of vernaculars, including what we more broadly call the ‘domain of vernacularity’, as a resource for the construction of national or socially distinct literatures. Given the constitutively relational nature of vernacularization, this process needs to be thought of as unstable: it can change over time (an obvious example being how European vernaculars such as English and French became cosmopolitan, imperial languages), as well as shift momentarily across space (Spanish being transformed into an immigrant vernacular in the United States). Or, as has often been the case in Africa, a literary vernacularity has had to be crafted through adopted, formerly imperial languages.

With its connections to comparative philology and the German romantic aesthetics of Herder, Goethe, Schlegel and Schleiermacher, among others (for more on this see Noyes 2015, Bhattacharya 2016, Mufti 2016, Ahmed 2018), post-eighteenth-century vernacularization is a deeply ambivalent affair: its value-coding can be programmatically positive yet grounded in untenable essentializations of race and ethnicity.”

13 March, 2016