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"New Europe": Peripheral Modernity and the Literary World System


There is an emerging consensus that literary study will need to reinvent itself in the years just ahead, and that ‘world literature’ is the site where this reinvention will take place. Central to these discussions is the status of Europe. Since it has become clear that any tacit derivation of ‘world literature’ from a ‘core European’ tradition requires theoretical overhaul, our project seeks to redraw the literary map of core-periphery relations: not only between Europe and the rest of the world, but within Europe, as well as between ‘peripheral’ regions within Europe and those elsewhere. We argue that ‘world literature’ must be seen as the product of a singular logic transforming all areas of the globe: one that yields important insight into the dynamics of modernity taking place on the semi-peripheries of the world-literary system. The implications of this intervention are, we believe, far-reaching, affecting not simply theoretical paradigms but also the way that literary and cultural studies are taught at every educational level.

The context of our project is twofold: first, the instability of disciplinary literary studies has become ever more pronounced, in the wake of the ‘culture wars’, the arguments over canonicity, literary value and Eurocentrism; and second, the ongoing subordination of culture to the laws of the market has had decisive effects on literary form – while profoundly altering, also, the modes of production, circulation and reception of literature. Thus in American Studies, such ideas as ‘transatlanticism’ and the ‘Asian-American Pacific’ have been pressed into service by way of combatting the isolationism of the field, reconfiguring it along the lines of globally comparative rather than exceptionalist viewpoints. In Comparative Literature, similarly, there has been a looming recognition that it is necessary now to overcome the narrow theoreticism of the field and its effective limitation to the literatures and languages of ‘core Europe’ (Kerneuropa). Meanwhile, in their debates over such concepts as ‘globalisation’, ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘contrapuntalism’, scholars in Postcolonial Studies have been seeking to contest the marginalisation of ‘non-Western’ cultures that still lingers as an unreconstructed residue of Cold War protocols. Bracketing all these developments is the continued and contested rise of ‘global English’ as the language not just of world commerce but of worldwide cultural exchange, the equivalent of a global literary sat-nav system.

Important work has pointed the way toward a productive reconstruction of literary studies. Jameson, Harvey and Harootunian have recently reconsidered the notion of ‘modernity’, separating it from the civilisational term, ‘the West’ and linking it instead to the capitalist world system. In contrast to the facile recording of ‘alternative modernities’, this move has helped focus critical gaze onto the production of a singular modernity that is none the less experienced in fragmented and diverse ways across wide geographical and historical spaces. The ‘uneven’ forms of development caused by the global spread of capitalism is a key term here. Such a theory of modernity resonates powerfully with Moretti’s indispensable renewal of the idea of ‘world literature’ as a system – ‘one, and unequal’. Moretti, Casanova, and Prendergast have sounded a call for an inclusive comparativism, situating all literatures within a global paradigm that is not abstractly universalising but sensitive to the concrete, uneven distributions of cultural and symbolic capital. Boldrini, Hutcheon and Valdés, in calling for a focus on ‘nodal points, where different cultures come into contact, and from which different historical, artistic, cultural forces irradiate’, have suggested some of the ways in which this new work might help scholars to rethink the relationships between metropolitan, peripheral and semi-peripheral formations.

Research Aims/Questions

We aim to intervene in the space created by the above debates to produce a new model of literary comparativism. The Warwick Research Collective (WreC) has been working since 2007 on a project designed to explore the suggestion that ‘world literature’ be understood as the literature that registers and encodes the social logic of modernity. WreC has focused particularly on what have been called ‘peripheral modernities’, that is, the forms assumed by modernity in situations of supposed historical backwardness and under-development. The aim has been to develop a theory of ‘peripheral modernism’, understood as the critical aesthetic generated within these kinds of situation. 

Literary modernism has traditionally been understood as originating in the metropolises of the economically and politically dominant nations of ‘core’ Europe and radiating outward from these. But as Casanova and others have pointed out, such an understanding fails to account for the origin and movement of modernist forms in any number of semi-peripheral European zones which, far from being culturally ‘backward’, were indeed the setting of extraordinary literary advances. (To take the European sites suggested by Boldrini as ‘nodes’ for research, for instance, we arrive at a very different understanding of the history of modernism: ‘Sicily, Istanbul, Prague, Cordoba, Lisbon, Trieste, Kiev, Rome,’ to which could be added Dublin, Bucharest, Krakow, Stockholm and Glasgow, among others). As importantly, the received understanding of modernism fails to provide a framework for the detection and comparison of structural homologies and processes of co-determination between the formal innovations of peripheral literatures within Europe and those without (since these cannot be conceptualised within the framework of ‘third-worldism’ or formal colonialism).

‘Peripheral modernity’ in this context refers not to the colonised ‘non-West’ alone, but also to zones of ‘backwardness’ within wider regions that are themselves relatively ‘advanced’ or highly modernised, including social formations within southern, eastern, and central Europe whose modern history has been marked by ‘peripheralisation’ and under-development. Following Jameson’s lead, we have sought to emphasise the ‘comparison, not of … individual texts, which are formally and culturally very different from each other, but of the concrete situations from which such texts spring and to which they constitute distinct responses’. In April 2008, WReC staged a highly successful international symposium, ‘Combined and Uneven Modernisms’, to advance consideration of these issues, funded by seed-money (£17,000) from the Warwick Research Development Fund. 

Our project will thus investigate the hypothesis that the ‘modernisms of underdevelopment’ (Berman) share elements of a common aesthetic. We seek to make possible comparison of literatures from marginalised areas of what might now be called ‘New Europe’ (Eastern Europe, the devolved British Isles, Scandinavia)—which have been excluded from traditional hegemonic conceptions of comparative literature (as France, Germany, Italy)—with literatures of the wider world-system. We will examine a broad range of writings for their modular unevenness, with a special focus on the ‘semi-peripheral’ European modernisms represented by authors such as MacDiarmid, Kadare, Laxness, Grassic Gibbon, Ungar, Hamsun, Björling and Kemal alongside the more canonical Kafka and Joyce, as well as the connections between these writers and literatures of the Americas from Faulkner and Machado de Assis to Caribbean writing under the signs of surrealism and ‘créolité’, Latin American fictions implicated by ‘magical realism’, and the varied literatures of African and Asian modernism. We will consider the degree to which this heterogeneous body of work might be systematised through a theoretical intervention focusing on contextual comparison, analyzing its patterns as the correlates of an equally systematic ‘aesthetics of peripheral modernity’.