Forum on World Literature (IV)

Introduction II: The Institutional Mundane

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory

This multi-part series concerns the problem of how to think about literature in relation to national, transnational, and global frames of reference. The stakes of these questions are simultaneously theoretical, methodological, and practical. They encompass issues about world systems and global flows, about syllabi and research projects, and about mundane, seemingly extra-literary institutional structures. Here I want to pose a few questions about the institutional mundane and about the medium of literary study that I hope others will want to take up in the comments section. Although my formulations grow in part out of the “geography” of the Illinois campus, I’m curious to hear how these issues translate to other terrain.

History, habit, and bureaucratic logic have conspired to divide the field of literary study at the University of Illinois into two “worlds”: on one side of the Arts Quad, the so-called Foreign Languages Building (FLB), now the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, and on the other side, the English Building. What are the effects of this institutional structure, some version of which is probably common across US universities? How does the opposition between “English” and “Foreign Languages” structure research programs and pedagogical opportunities? It’s no secret that resources and prestige are allocated unevenly across departments and schools. Do administrative units in the American academy obey the same competitive, hierarchical logic that nations do in Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters”? Is there an “Illinois Republic of Letters” that mimics Casanova’s “World Republic,” but with the location of Greenwich Mean Time shifted from “Paris” to Wright St.? If so, how can we realign the relations between center and margin on a local basis?

Another set of questions concerns the medium of our discipline: language. Our campus—and, of course, the larger world we live in—is markedly multilingual. Yet, the organization of literary study remains trapped in what Yasemin Yildiz, following the linguist Ingrid Gogolin, calls a “monolingual habitus.” A product of nation-state formation, our too frequently monolingual habits impose unconscious limits on our approach to far more heterogeneous texts, intellectual traditions, and student bodies. How can national literature departments—especially, but not only, the hegemonic English Department—multilingualize themselves? What should be the roles of translation and basic language study in breaking the monolingual habitus and promoting transnational literacy? What are the possibilities for collaboration instead of rivalry in this area?

One of my secret hopes for this pair of panels has been that it might produce conversation about and across the “Foreign languages”/”English” divide. That may seem like an unnecessary task given the extent of cross-border traffic—after all, many of us regularly traverse these boundaries for all sorts of reasons, personal and professional. Yet it still seems to me, following Franco Moretti, that the Illinois literary system is “one, and unequal” (“Conjectures” 56): a gulf exists that divides our Republic of Letters—and probably the literary republics of many other institutions of higher learning as well. This forum is meant to prompt critical reflection that is simultaneously local and global, theoretical and practical.


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