World Literature: Postcolonial Perspectives

15–17 March, 2018, University of Delhi

The idea of world literature has seen an unparalleled resurgence in the last two decades. Through large-scale research grants, publishing programmes, and curricula development it is threatening to become the new critical common sense across the humanities, and particularly in literature departments. However, both in the nineteenth-century idea of Weltliteratur (Goethe, Marx-Engels) and in its more recent revival as the new comparative literature, world literature has many and important genealogical entanglements with colonial/postcolonial histories, and only recently have we begun to explore these links critically. Unlike the paradigm of comparative literature, for instance, world literature relies on what Emily Apter calls a ‘translatability assumption’. Not only is translation here thought to be of value in itself, the prime metaphor of translation as “border crossing”, to signify the general equivalence and ready meaning exchange between languages, also appears to presume that translation is an unproblematic exercise. Furthermore, the view that translation is ‘a form of authorized plagiarism’ signifying creative property that exceeds individual possession renders the translational author a natural complement to World Literature understood as collective property rather than belonging to this or that nation. (Apter) This understanding of translation – and all that it entails in terms of the diminishing significance of national borders – would seem to make world literature a natural replacement for the category of postcolonial literature. Such triumphalist accounts of world literature have been rightly critiqued, especially in the works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Emily Apter, Aamir Mufti, Pheng Cheah, Debjani Ganguly, and others, for their tendency to elide the politics of actual borders that divide the world, their lack of concern with the material conditions of translation and circulation of texts, and their uncritical celebration of the world as a putatively knowable object of enquiry. The proposed conference hopes to sharpen existing critiques of world literature as well as address new questions that arise in the wake of this critique:

Why translate?
Can we really be as sanguine about what is lost in translation, when it is clear that such losses are overwhelmingly incurred by already subordinate non-European modes of knowing, conceptualization and representation? How far do critical concepts of “decolonial cosmopolitanism” and “border thinking” go towards addressing the failures of translation? On the other hand, how useful is the idea of “unstranslatability” in a multilingual society like India where many of the writers are bilingual if not trilingual, and where ‘horizontal’ translational practices between indigenous Indian languages bring into play ‘influences and cross-pollinations’ that make a comparative approach not optional but imperative? (Orsini and Srivastava)

What is a world?
What is the precise relationship between the world of world literature and the globe of globalisation? Is this world a competitive literary space with Paris as its Greenwich meridian (Pascale Casanova), or is it an unmarked space of circulation and reception (David Damrosch), or indeed a structure analogous to the global reach of capitalism (Franco Moretti)? Has globalization rendered obsolete the older paradigm of national literatures and the notion of the postcolonial? What do the world literature and post-colonial theoretical debates tell us about broader historical sociological issues of civilizational divides and multiple modernities that call into question the world nation-state system?

Thinking through literature

Recent scholarship on world literature has complicated the commonplace understanding of literature as a timeless, seamless entity. The presumed naturalness of literature, which much of the scholarship on world literature appears to take for granted, is starting to give way to a recognition of the contingencies that mark what counts as literary, including not just the complex interplay of historical events and forces but also the actors and the sensibilities that they bring to bear on the act of reading. What then might be some of the newer vantage points from which we can begin to understand literature and reading practices not as frozen ground of essences but an amalgam of dynamic shifts and movements?

This conference hopes to address some of the above questions. Interested participants may send their proposals of no more than 400 words to <>, by 15 November 2017. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

• Colonial histories and world literature
• World literature and globalization
• World literature and border crossing
• Translation as a political act
• The “Greenwich meridian” of world literature and its peripheries
• Angloglobalism and generic monocultures

Keynote Speakers
Arjun Appadurai, Formerly Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago.
Emily Apter, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, NYU.
Alexander Beecroft, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, University of South Carolina.

Conference Center, Main Campus, Chattra Marg, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India, 110007.

Attendance Free 

Conference Organizing Committee

Christel Devadawson (Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Delhi)
Shaswati Mazumdar (Professor and Head, Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Delhi)
Dirk Wiemann (Professor, Department of English and American Studies, Potsdam University)
Judith Coffey (RTG coordinator, Minor Cosmopolitanisms, Potsdam University)
Baidik Bhattacharya (Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi)
Ira Raja (Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi)                 Haris Qadeer (Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi)

Student Support
Himani Kapoor, Sachita Kaushal, Anugya Soni, Musab Abdul Salam, & Neha Tyagi

This conference is part of a four year project, ‘Writing the cosmopolitan imagination: Genre transactions in world literary space’, involving the participation of the departments of English and German at the University of Delhi, India, and Potsdam University, Germany, co-funded by the UGC and the DAAD. It has been made possible through the goodwill and support of many friends and colleagues from India around the world, notably the journal Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology. The conference would not have been possible without financial support from Taylor and Francis Publishers, India



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