Professor Shane Weller, University of Kent: “Comparative Literature and the Concept of World Literature”
On 21st March 2017, Complab@Leeds hosted Shane Weller, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. Professor Weller gave a presentation entitled “Comparative Literature and the Concept of World Literature”, in which he gave a brief overview of the history of the field of Comparative Literature, highlighted both the potential advantages and pitfalls of such a discipline, and finished by arguing that the work of Samuel Beckett is an exemplary instance of the tensions within the Comparative Literature field as we understand it.
Professor Weller opened with a series of questions, with which he intended to stimulate debate following his talk. He spoke of Comparative Literature as an ‘(in)discipline”, whose ability to bring scholars working in different fields together is both its strength and its potential curse. The benefits of an interdisciplinary field are of course apparent, however in such a situation how do we speak to all interests without losing ‘the concrete’?
Further points for discussion opened by Professor Weller included:
- The terminology: ‘Comparative’ vs ‘World’ vs ‘Planetary’? What are the advantages and pitfalls of each term; what does each term imply?
- Which literatures should be compared in comparative endeavours? How can we ever go about comparing all the world’s literatures?
- Methodology: Comparative literature must obviously contain some element of the comparative, but it does not have a clearly defined object of study – what are the advantages and pitfalls of this?
Professor Weller then took us on a brief historical tour of the disciplines of Comparative and World Literature, which he argues dates back to the 2nd half of the 19 Century in the period after the Franco-Prussian War. Its aim, he argued, was to work through the antagonisms that led to nationalist tensions. From today’s perspective, in which we have not yet left the shadows of the 20th Century behind, can we say that this aim has ever been fulfilled by literature?
A brief history of the field of World Literature was given, starting with Goethe’s conception of the term in 1827 as the sum of all national literatures, but based ultimately on the ancient Greek literary tradition. In this conception, World Literature was a universal possession, taking the best elements of each respective national literature to create exemplary works that still bore resemblance to the Greek tradition. Moving through Marx and Engel’s focus on World Literature as that which circulates as common property between individual nations, Professor Weller showed how over time the conception of World Literature as that which has some element of the universal or the human (spirit) of mankind was challenged by conceptions of World Literature which focused on nominalist ideas of untranslatability, difference and alterity. This ‘nominalist turn’ is characterised by the work of scholars such as Pascale Casanova and, more recently, Emily Apter in her 2014 Against World Literature. Apter thus argued that the discipline evidenced a “curiously impassive treatment of ‘world’ and anemic planetary politics” in its promotion of identifying over differing.
Professor Weller finished by arguing that the work of Samuel Beckett is a good example of all the tensions held within the concept of ‘World Literature’: his works has ‘universal’ themes and is accessible through the abstractedness of his imaginary worlds; at the same time, there exists within his work cultural and linguistic tensions, the thematization of difference and elements of non-communication. In other words, his work is always somehow ‘foreign’, both to the so-called “foreign” and “source” culture. In conclusion, Professor Weller advanced a notion of World Literature as literature that is always ‘unrooted’, always mobile and always inherently ‘double’: it is foreign yet speaks to us; translatable and untranslatable; adaptable and not adaptable.
Complab@Leeds thanks Professor Weller for his fascinating talk, and the ensuing lively discussion. Their next event will be held on 25th April at 3pm in the School of English Alumni Room, the University of Leeds. The event is entitled ‘Uncertain Borders’ and will include a presentation by Anna Bernard from Kings College London.