Some notes from the Conference Writing Literary History, September 14–16 2015

Skärmavbild 2015-09-16 kl. 16.58.03

The conference Writing Literary History was organized by the MDRN research lab at the University of Leuven, studying modernist literature during the period 1900–1950. However somewhat outside the historical scope of our project, the conference included many interesting contributions, and the conference call was more broadly directed towards questions of historiography and literary theory. From our research group Jenny Bergenmar participated with the paper “Methods, Material, Models. Digital Humanities and the Problem of Untranslatability”.

In her impressive keynote, “The Geography of Modernism. Redrawing the Map”, Marjorie Perloff gave a brief history of the writing of literary history, from the founding of the journal New Literary History to the global perspectives of today, as manifested for example in Susan Stanford Friedman’s concept “Planetary modernism”. Perloff criticised the idea of ”Eurocentism” often present in the discussions about world literature. The knowledge of European literature is in fact usually limited to French and English modernism (during the modernist period), at least in the American context. Historical knowledge about the multilingual cultural contexts of central Europe and the changing national borders is insufficient, Perloff underlined, and she used the literature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an example. She also offered the advise not to be afraid to try and read foreign languages, which was encouraging for a multilingual project like ours.

In his keynote, ”Towards a Longue Durée for Literary History”, Ted Underwood discussed how computational methods can prove wrong hypotheses about developments in literary history. We tend to construct literary history in terms of change and we strive to identify conflicts and shifts enabling an effective periodization. However, if we use the data available in digital libraries and archives in a more empirical approach, a literary history emerges which has little to do with the theories. Underwood argues for example that Andreas Huyssen’s location of the great divide between the “high” literary market and the mass reading audience around 1900 is proved wrong if a large-scale statistical analysis is employed. But to be able to draw valid conclusions, it is necessary to coordinate coordinating large-scale textual analysis with social evidence about production and reception (metadata).

Gisèle Sapiro remarked in her keynote, “Towards a Transnational Structural History of Literature” that the study of cultural transfer has developed within literary studies in small language areas or in language departments rather than in comparative literature departments. She stressed that comparatism must be combined with a study of cultural transfer and an analysis of the unequal power relations across cultures/languages/countries. An ”Entangled literary history” can be performed in three different temporalities: long term of institutions and categories, the mid-term of social configurations, and the short term of strategies and interactions. I am unable to summarize her extremely rich presentation her, let’s just say it was essential for anyone interested in transculturality from a sociological and structural point of view.

Besides the keynotes, there were many interesting paper presentations, including Jan Lohfert Jørgensens paper, “Contextualism and Literature’s Historical Strangeness” about the new scepticism towards contextualism, and how the fundamental value of context might not be to make a literary work more familiar to us, but to make it more strange. There was one contribution with a clear connection to the questions central to our project, Diana Sanz Roig’s paper “Transnational Networks, Transnational Actors: New Forms of Mapping Literary Writing (1914–1945)”. The paper focused on cultural mediators and networked groups as a key both to renew our commonly held assumptions about modernism and to give new insights on the role of the “peripheral” sites of modernism. She reminded us to trace the alternative routes, from periphery, to periphery and to acknowledge the cosmopolitan groups beyond European borders. Her presentation implicitly connected to Perloffs critique of ”Eurocentrism” and explicitly to Sapiro’s transnational structural history of literature.

Below Gisèle Sapiro with a chart showing translation percentages.

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