World LiteraturesCosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics

Based at Stockholm University, this research programme will run from 2016 until 2021 with the generous support of The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. Its task is 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.

Focusing on such productive tensions between cosmopolitan and vernacular trajectories in the modern period, the 26 sub-projects also investigate how literature can advance the critical understanding of cosmopolitanism – both historically and in our contemporary moment shaped by globalisation, resurgent nationalisms, regionalisms and racisms.

Research questions cluster around translation and circulation, literary history, migration, multilingualism, and the “world-making” capacity of literature. Methodologically, it engages with world literature studies, critical theory, postcolonial studies, book history, translation studies and anthropology. Besides Stockholm University, there are also participants affiliated with the universities of Uppsala, Lund and Göteborg, as well as Södertörn University and Dalarna University.

World literature with a difference

Both world literature and cosmopolitanism have been much debated over the last 20 years. In each case, the grounds for disagreement are surprisingly similar. Cosmopolitanism has been denounced as an expression of elite, mainly western, privilege, while its defenders see it as a fundamentally ethical, but also epistemological and aesthetic, project needed in order to overcome destructive particularisms. A third group have provided alternative accounts that conceive of cosmopolitanism as “discrepant” (Clifford), “vernacular” (Bhabha) or “of the poor” (Santiago), hence retaining its ethical value but without ignoring its association with geopolitical and class interests.

In the case of world literature, much excitement was generated around the turn of the millennium by the new disciplinary vistas opened up by scholars such as Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch and Rebecca Walkowitz. This was motivated by new demands on scholarship in an era of globalisation, and more specifically by a sense of inadequacy in established methodologies of literary studies. “Distant reading” (Moretti), “the world republic of letters” (Casanova), “comparison literature” (Walkowitz) and the capacity for works to “gain in translation” (Damrosch) have become current terms in this critical revival and revision of world literature. Criticism has accumulated over the years, however, mainly from postcolonial and comparative literature scholars. Peter Hitchcock has complained that the “world” in world literature is “studiously neutral”, whereas Gayatri Spivak has criticised world literature for remaining beholden to “Europe as guide to disciplinary objectivity”. Emily Apter, speaking from the disciplinary location of comparative literature, has attacked it for being “oblivious to the Untranslatable”.

What unites these debates is the concern for what cosmopolitanism and world literature leave behind, signalled by words such as “discrepant” or “untranslatability”. It is here, by also revisiting “the vernacular” in African, Asian, American and European contexts, that this research programme aims to advance the debate. So far, the vernacular has largely been a missing, and undertheorised, element in cosmopolitan and world literature studies, even though it enables not just a focus on language as the very material of literature, but also on the relationship between languages, the gender aspect of language and literature, and, not least, the deeper implications of “world” as that which comprises both cosmopolitan and vernacular dimensions. If, as Pheng Cheah puts it, “[t]he connections between world literature and cosmopolitanism have not been sufficiently explored because neither field of study has carefully examined the key concept common to them, the world”, our argument is that by way of the vernacular, “world” can acquire conceptual density, rendering the inevitable partiality of cosmopolitanism visible. 

There are four sub-groups in the programme with the following headings:

  1. Theorising the Vernacular
  2. Locations and Orientations in World Literature
  3. World-Making: Genres, Crafts and Languages
  4. Translation, Circulation and the Semi-periphery


13 March, 2016