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School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

The George Steiner Lecture in Comparative Literature

George Steiner Lecture 2023 Register here. Friday 3rd March, 6.30pm, QMUL Mile End.

Professor Martin Puchner will speak on 'The Interruptions of Culture'

Inspired by George Steiner's Grammars of Creation, Professor Puchner will ponder the origins of culture and how it is passed from one generation to the next. Culture is transmitted through institutions of storage such as caves, collections, and libraries. But since these institutions are always prone to failure, cultural history is marked by different types of interruption and corresponding attempts at recovery. The result is a history of breaks and mistranslations, which in turn give rise to new forms of creation. What implications does this broad view of culture have for current debates such as the restitution of cultural objects or education? Register here (free, via Eventbrite).

Professor Wiebke Denecke
"World Literature, Premodern Comparisons and Global Cultural Memory in Action"

As our world is getting more globally interconnected by the day, models for studying cultural phenomena in various places and periods on a global scale have rapidly multiplied and have over the past decade resulted in a wealth of new scholarship of ambitious scope. Yet, many of our global paradigms are still overwhelmingly parochial in disciplinary terms, off-shoots of particular disciplines such as "literature," "history," or "religious studies," with largely streamlined research communities, audiences and institutional infrastructure that make ground-breaking interdisciplinarity challenging. The "world literature" paradigm has over the past decade opened an academic field to new players, new audiences, new questions, and new—literatures. This lecture situates world literature studies within the most recent global paradigms in various fields of the humanities, in particular the emerging movement of "comparative studies of the premodern world" (preceding the pervasive impact of Western colonisation and modernisation). What kind of new methodologies and concepts does this comparative approach to the premodern world inspire; what ultimate purposes does it serve? This lecture demonstrates how the emerging field of comparative premodern studies can benefit from embracing the study of global human memory to help protect and utilise the historical experience of humanity in ethically responsible ways to face the challenges of today's world, in particular those of inequality and fundamentalist nationalisms.

Wiebke Denecke is Professor of East Asian Literatures & Comparative Literature at Boston University. Her research encompasses the literary and intellectual history of premodern China, Japan and Korea, comparative studies of East Asia and the premodern world, and world literature. She is the author of The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han Feizi (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), Classical World Literatures: Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman Comparisons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature (2012, 2018), The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and a three-volume literary history of Japan from an East Asian perspective (Nihon "bun" gakushi. A New History of Japanese "Letterature") (2015-). With Zhang Longxi she co-edits the book series East Asian Comparative Literature and Culture (Brill). She currently works on projects situating early Japanese literature in relationship to Korea, on theoretical comparative approaches to East Asia's Sinographic Sphere, and on a book project on the global, comparative study of human memory. 

Professor Aamir A. Mufti
"Strangers in Europa: Migrant, Terrorist, Refugee"

Europe's present structural crisis is simultaneously economic and cultural, highlighting the failure of both financial and multicultural integration, which are aspects of the same historical process. Mufti argued that this crisis must be approached through the perspectives offered by a critical examination of the colonial and imperial origins of the European idea and the present trace of that past in the experience of postcolonial migrancy. Furthermore, the most notorious figures of migrancy in Europe today, the most hyper-visible variants of the figure of the migrant, are the terrorist and the refugee, and equally evident is that they have legible "Islamic" markings. The inter-war sense that the presence of relatively small "alien" populations constitutes a threat to the integrity of society has reappeared now with a vengeance. And while the minorities that produced such anxieties then were disproportionately Jewish, now they are disproportionately "Muslim". No appeal on the left to a broadly conceived European dēmos as the claimant to a common life on the continent can bypass this necessity of confronting these imperial origins. In the absence of such a self-critique of the European idea, the dēmos is threatened with reverting to ethnos, a political-progressive concept of the European people to a reactionary "cultural" or "civilizational" one.

Born and raised in Karachi, Aamir R. Mufti is Professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA. He pursued his doctorate in literature at Columbia under the supervision of Edward Said. He was also trained in anthropology at Columbia and the LSE. A student of the imperial process in the emergence of modern culture and society, he has examined it in a number of domains, including secularism and secularization, minority social formations, nationalisms and statelessness, language conflicts, comparative and world literature, and the globalization of English. Among his books, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, 2007) reconsiders the secularization thesis in a comparative perspective, with a special interest in Islam and modernity in India and the cultural politics of Jewish identity in Western Europe. Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (Harvard, 2016) is the first systematic critique of the concept of world literature from the perspective of non-Western languages. Among current projects are books concerning exile and criticism, the colonial reinvention of Islamic orthodoxy, and the migration crisis of the European project. He is also co-convener of a collaborative project called Rethinking Bandung Humanisms.

Professor Emily Apter
"Untranslatability and the World Literature Debates"

Following the publication of my book Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability in 2013, diverse responses emerged to the book's critique of the political stakes of institutionalized World Literature or Weltliteratur refurbished for a globalized literary studies. Many agreed that World Literature bolsters a neoliberal pluralism in the humanities curriculum (as well as international publishing), and questioned World Literature's endorsement of translatability as a sign of global currency. But some were skeptical towards the idea that untranslatability or "non-translation studies" could provide a political counter-force. In this talk Bassnett clarified how she defines untranslatability and argued that untranslatables can do political work: 1) addressing the ambitions, limitations, and compromise-formations of World Literature; 2) activating terms through a kind of political philology; 3) taking stock of the heteronomy and non-belongingness of language within languages;  4) situating non-translation, non-equivalence, and incommensurability against economies of general equivalence; 5) generating new principles of a cosmopolitan right to untranslatability in situations of checkpointing and mass migration.

Emily Apter is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University. She is the author, most recently, of Against World Literature: On The Politics of Untranslatability (2013) and The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (2006), and has co-edited, with Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood, the English edition of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles [Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon] (2014). Since 1998 she has edited the book series Translation/Transnation for Princeton University Press.

Professor Haun Saussy 
"The Importance of What Doesn't Translate"

Translators, if they take pride in their work, are scrupulous about the differences between their languages. Notwithstanding a certain academic vogue for "foreignizing" translations, a translation into English is usually judged as a piece of writing in English. But English, with its composite texture of words imported from other languages, is perhaps the language least qualified to defend its borders. All languages borrow from other languages; moreover, they steal, inasmuch as the "borrowed" word is kept and turned into a piece of familiar property. Beyond words, it is conceptual families, narratives, cosmologies that may be imported and made as if at home, with the result that the very idea of a language begins to seem porous and vulnerable. With the so-called creole languages of the Americas as guiding model, and examples drawn from several continents and historical periods, we will make a case for importation, transcription, calque or dubbing, as opposed to translation, as the major agency of cultural and linguistic change.

Haun Saussy is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. He has previously taught at UCLA, Stanford, Yale, the City University of Hong Kong, the Université de Paris-III, and the University of Otago (New Zealand). He was president (2009-2011) of the American Comparative Literature Association. He is the author of The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (Stanford, 1993) and Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2001). His next book, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), discusses the history of the concept of oral literature through its relations to psychology, linguistics, literature and folklore.

Professor Susan Bassnett 
"Translation as a Shaping Force in Literature"

The lecture looked at ways in which translations have played a key role in transforming literary history. Despite the discourse of loss that has bedevilled so much discussion of translation in literary studies, it proposed an alternative view, which is that the gains to writers through translations have been of huge significance. Bassnett argued that translation, as a vehicle for translational literary movement, has been underestimated for far too long, and now, in the globalised twenty-first century it is time for a reassessment.

Susan Bassnett is a writer and academic, who has published widely on aspects of translation, comparative and world literature. Her most recent books are Translation (Routledge 2014) and a 4th edition of her best-selling Translation Studies (Routledge 2013). She translates from several languages, having had a multilingual childhood. She is currently Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, and Honorary Professor of Translation at the University of Birmingham. She has taught and lectured around the world, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Professor David Damrosch 
"Back to Babel: Global English in a Multilingual World"

In After Babel, George Steiner emphasized language communities' desire to preserve their individuality by heightening the "alterities" of their local languages.In the decades since then, the cherished alterities of local and national cultures have come growing under pressure from globalization. Has Steiner's hermeneutic Babylon been swallowed up in a "global babble" increasingly dominated by English? With examples drawn from contemporary Tibetan fiction and from global hip-hop, Damrosch explored a new kind of alterity introduced in uses of global English today. English itself, it turns out, can be warped into a creative mode of counter-communication, at once deprovincializing and reinvigorating "minor" languages and local cultures alike.

David Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature and Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University. His degrees, including his PhD ("Scripture and Fiction: Egypt, the Midrash, Finnegans Wake"), are from Yale University. Damrosch is the founding Director of the Institute of World Literature; in 2001-2003, he was President of the American Comparative Literature Association. He is the author of six books and numerous articles; amongst his many distinctions is an honorary doctorate from the University of Bucharest (2011). His impact on the field of world literature has been significant, especially through his monograph, What Is World Literature? (2003), and his general editorship of the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004; 2nd ed. 2008).

Marina Warner
'Dark Arts: Magic & Strangers After the Arabian Nights'

Enchanters in the Arabian Nights are frequently outsiders, infidels who worship fire and command djinns who disobeyed God; in many of the tales, the magicians come from Persia or Africa, or some other elsewhere depicted as faraway and exotic. Marina Warner will explore how these representations combined with a European desire to distance western culture from its tradition of magical thinking, and - in the writings of Voltaire and William Beckford, for example - offered fertile proxies for conveying the enduring fascination - and uses - of enchantment.


George Steiner Lecture 2019

Professor Rebecca L. Walkowitz
"On Not Knowing: Lahiri, Tawada, Ishiguro."

In this lecture, Walkowitz shows how new works of world literature are testing and altering what it means to “know” a language and what it means to write in a single or distinct language at all. "On Not Knowing" tracks the emergence of authors who are choosing to write in second or third languages “ignorantly,” non-fluently, or imperfectly. Walkowitz argues that writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Yoko Tawada, and Kazuo Ishiguro are breaking with generations of postcolonial and migrant writers who called for expanding and mastering dominant languages. Instead, Lahiri and others write imperfectly and inexpressively on purpose, creating works that resist the monolingual containers of literary history and point towards new models of multilingualism, and even postlingualism. In an era of global languages, these writers suggest, literary cosmopolitanism requires new strategies of provincialism.

Rebecca L. Walkowitz is Professor and Chair in the English Department and Affiliate Faculty in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. She is the author of Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (2006) and Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (2015), which received an Honorable Mention for the first annual Matei Calinescu Prizefrom the MLA and has been translated or is forthcoming in Danish, Polish, Hungarian, and Japanese. She is also the editor or coeditor of 8 books, including A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism (2016). Professor Walkowitz is coeditor and co-founder of the book series “Literature Now” and has served on the executive committees of the American Comparative Literature Association, the Society for Novel Studies, and the Modernist Studies Association, for which she served as President in 2014-15. She has served as Wolfgang Iser Lecturer at the University of Konstanz, Visiting Hurst Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and she will return as a faculty member for the Institute for World Literature in July 2019. Her current book project, “Future Reading,” focuses on the concept of the anglophone and the representation of world languages in contemporary writing. Her web site is here.

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