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Reading Global: Constructions of World Literature and Latin America

Project duration: 1 September 2015-1 September 2020

Project funding: Consolidator Grant of the European Research Council (ERC)

Project description:

In observing the highly productive and heterogeneous fields of research into World Literature over the past 15 years, one element stands out, which is that almost all relevant contributions to current theorizing have built their respective approaches around two fundamental problems of global literary phenomena. On the one hand World Literature is no longer viewed as a static canon, a series of distinguished and authoritative works, but as a complex and dynamic process involving historically varying mechanisms of global reception (see for example the work of Damrosch 2003, Ette 2012 or the studies edited in Küpper 2013). On the other hand, most of current research work shares an awareness of an irresolvable problem with which every current investigation is ultimately confronted, that of the sheer volume of material and attendant difficulties in operationalizing the object of study; as Moretti puts it: “[W]e are talking of hundreds of languages and literatures here. Reading ‘more’ seems hardly to be the solution” (2000, 55).

The answers that current theory formation has so far attempted to provide for these two core problems in the debate on World Literature must be viewed both as critical and as insufficient inasmuch as they are incapable of implementing, on the specific level of analysis, the knowledge that they have themselves formulated with regard to the significance of circulation in global literary fields and the sheer quantity of material. The principal problem of these studies lies in their disciplinary limitations of an analysis informed solely by literary studies, which are incapable of engaging the material and economic factors involved in the global circulation of literatures—factors that these studies themselves identify as being fundamental for the “functioning” of World Literature.

The  innovative potential of Reading Global consists in opening up an original research area with three primary starting points that follow from the aforementioned deficits in current theories of World Literature:

1. Interdisciplinarity

For the first time in World Literature scholarship, the significance and complexity of selection and circulation processes will be accounted for, because literary studies methodologies are synchronized with models from cultural studies, visual studies, and economics. Instead of simply referencing the importance of material, economic, and visual aspects within global literary fields, as previous theories of World Literature have done, these aspects will be the focus of the different project sections of Reading Global. In this way, for the first time, concrete knowledge can be  gained with regard to the complex interrelations between literature, the market, and collective cultural imaginaries in the global circulation of literature.

2. Materiality

While existing theories of World Literature have concentrated almost exclusively on literary or literary historical and philosophical texts in formulating their hypotheses, Reading Global aims to focus on the material aspects of literary circulation, which can shed light on the specific factors involved in the selection and reception of globally disseminated literatures. Particular emphasis will be put on materials that promise to deliver key information about the circulation of specific literary works above and beyond their text-immanent features, such as correspondence between authors, publishers, and translators; marketing materials for promoting books; sales figures; etc. The strength of the six-person interdisciplinary research team of Reading Global, in contrast with studies produced by individual scholars, will consist in its methodological architecture. By means of comparative research in publishing archives, which are largely new territory for the field, the project aims to explore this little-researched but crucial material aspect of literary selection and circulation and to introduce its findings into the theoretical debate, thus extending the abovementioned contributions to World Literature scholarship and testing the claims that these processes are significant by means of empirically reliable data.

3. Specificity Regardless of whether existing scholarship on World Literature is produced under the premises of close reading (Damrosch, Casanova) or of distant reading (Moretti), the selection of texts tends to be somewhat arbitrary. While these comparative readings of more or less well-known works through the prism of World Literature are fully in the position to create new and meaningful constellations of texts (see for example Rosendahl 2008), they nevertheless end up ignoring or, due to the heterogeneity of the geographic and historical provenance of the texts under consideration, precluding the analysis of factors operative within a specific global literary field at a given time. In consideration of these shortcomings, Reading Global will combine for the first time the interdisciplinary perspective mentioned earlier with an analysis of the global circulation of a particular literary and cultural world region in a clearly defined period: Latin American literatures between 1959 and the present. By analyzing a region of World Literature that is relatively self-contained culturally and historically, the specificity of the object of study should make it possible to do three things: overcome the arbitrariness of earlier approaches; aid the operationalization of the analysis; and, as a result of the relative stability and homogeneity of the research object, arrive at conclusions that can be tested empirically about the concrete modes of operation immanent to world literary fields.