World literatures - first blogpost

The same January week as Donald Trump first tried to impose islamophobic restrictions on travel to the United States, I prepared for an unremarkable trip from Stockholm to Cologne. This stretch belongs to a shrinking “open Europe” and upholds the illusion that travel can be effortless and hassle-free. But it all depends, of course, on being on the right side of increasingly rigid physical and virtual borders.


What brought me to Cologne was the symposium “Re-mapping World Literature” (30 January-1 February 2017), organised by the ERC-funded project “Reading Global”. Focusing on the wider literary and cultural connections between Latin America and other parts of the world besides the United States and Europe, this research group is trying to reassess the importance and texture of Latin America’s position in the world. Scholars from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Spain, USA, South Africa and Germany addressed a range of interconnected issues – from the conceptual implications of the words “globe”, “earth” and “world”, the reception of African literature in Mexico, to the resonances between Latin American and Indian magical realism.

All told, the symposium provided strong examples of world literary methodologies in the making. This is also how I prefer to think of the contested term “world literature”: not as a concept set in stone, but as a continuing challenge to reconsider the epistemological frameworks of literary studies. A lot of reconsideration has been going on in recent years, also after the seminal interventions by Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch and Franco Moretti. Consider just the following volumes that have been on my reading list recently:

Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature (2015)

Pheng Cheah, What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (2016)

Ottmar Ette, TransArea: A Literary History of Globalization (2016)

Aamir Mufti, Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (2016)

Warwick Research Collective (WReC), Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-literature (2015)

There is clearly a scramble for world literature going on – still – and it has acquired a new poignancy in view of the worldwide surge in identitarian, nationalist and racist politics, of which Donald Trump is just the most publicised example. As many critics of world literature studies have pointed out (such as Emily Apter and Peter Hitchcock), it is a serious error to project the illusion that the world is a level playing field in which literary texts circulate effortlessly – as effortlessly as I travelled from Stockholm to Cologne.

But that’s not where world literature studies are today, at least if the above-mentioned volumes or the Cologne symposium are anything to go by, or if we look at the concerns of researchers tied to the research programme here on this website. While it is crucial, in my view, to remain attentive to reading practices and aesthetic forms generated by literary traditions themselves – and that are not simply reducible to neat political categories – the transgressive potential of literature to imagine the world differently, and to enable connections across communities, languages, continents and epochs, carries with it a political force both in view of the costs of globalisation and the populist backlashes against globalisation. Does this mean that literature is “good” by default? Heaven forbid. It does mean, however, that it contributes significantly to making the world imaginable, to begin with.

The research programme presented on this website – “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures” – has been running now for little more than a year. We have another five years to go, and our contribution to the world literature conversation is still being determined. Besides the conviction that this conversation requires a great amount of continued methodological input – of the kind I found in Cologne – this programme takes the multifarious and even contradictory nature of world literary connections as its point of departure. Hence cosmopolitan and vernacular. Our wager is that the literary is always connected, in some way, but sometimes these connections serve to reinforce the strictly local, the linguistically specific, rather than the world “out there”. And vice versa. Whatever the mode of connection, one thing is certain: it is no longer possible to conceive of literature only through a national or monolingual paradigm.

In our pipeline: next week already we have “Cultural Solidarities”, a workshop in Johannesburg co-organised with WISER and the ERC project “Apartheid – the Global Itinerary”; a number of contributions to the ACLA in Leiden in July; our conference “Loose Tongues: World Literature and the Vernacular” in August. Keep an eye on this space. More updates and blog-posts to come.

written by Stefan Helgesson
31 March, 2017