About the Mellon Sawyer Seminar 2014-16:
Bibliomigrancy: World Literature in the Public Sphere

Seminar Theme

The UW-Madison Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Bibliomigrancy seeks to explore multiple meanings of world literature: as a philosophical ideal, as a mode of reading, a process of exchange, and a pedagogical strategy. The seminar aims to emphasize the dual role of books and libraries—as material and intellectual artifacts—and their relationship with oral and performative traditions in the creation of a world literary readership.

Throughout the course of human history, interactions between civilizations, empires, nations, and communities have initiated cultural changes and exchanges. Literature—in the form of oral, written, visual, or performance “texts” has been at the heart of human interactions. In the moments of “globalization” of the world through violent conquests, imperialism, mercantilism, and colonialism, all the way to modern day interaction between nation-states through multinational commerce, the “worlding” of the world has initiated and facilitated the “worlding” of literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2200 BCE) from Mesopotamia, the Ramayana (c. 500 BCE) from the Indian subcontinent, The Epic of Sunjata (c. 1200 CE) from West Africa, and Brothers Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (collected and published 1812-15) are just a few examples of narratives traveling from one part of the world to another, acquiring new forms, transforming themselves as they transform their new cultural and linguistic homes.

As scholars and non-professional readers, we are living at a time when the “book” and the “library”—as institutions of literacy—are rapidly changing and exerting hitherto unforeseen influence on the field of literary studies. In addition, an increasingly globalized economy, technological advancements, mass migration of people, and the unevenness of literary playfield are calling upon us to rethink our understanding of world literature. By suturing historical and contemporary theories of world literature with oral, performance, and print-cultural histories, the proposed seminar seeks to follow the dissemination of world literature in the public sphere.

Central to the seminar is the argument that the proliferation of world literature in a society is a function of a nation’s relationship with print culture: its pact with books. Such a pact with books emerges as a symbiosis between oral, performative, and print-cultures. A range of socio-economic, political, and historical factors condition the distribution, circulation, and reception of a literary work as a world literary artifact beyond the point of its national origin. The project underscores that beyond the author and the academic critic, a plethora of actors and institutions play a crucial role in the construction of world literature and its readers. To this end, we want to explore the role played by performers, translators, editors, librarians, publishers, organizers of book fairs, literary prize committees, government censors and promoters, as well as technological innovations such as electronic reading devices and digital libraries. By focusing on the materiality of literary circulation, our seminar seeks to investigate the circulation of world literature in conjunction with print-cultural artifacts—manuscripts, codices, and e-books—and disseminations not in print, such as oral transmission and performance. The seminar aims to scrutinize transformations in the dissemination of literature over the past two centuries and to measure their impact on the creation of world literature as an idea and a reality.

While world literature has been multiply defined in various historical and linguistic contexts, the general understanding of world literature in our seminar is one of dispersed texts: texts that migrate and become part of what we call here Bibliomigrancy. Bibliomigrancy denotes the movement of books from oral traditions to script, from one part of the world to the other, or from physical into a digital space, as with the current phase of digital production and conversion of books. Thinking through bibliomigrancy, we propose, might assist in conceptualizing world literature as an interactive—as opposed to a receptive—space where authors, translators, readers, publishers, and librarians borrow privileges beyond their national and linguistic origins to unfold new significations of literature.

And yet, if the world circulation of books has sometimes seemed a utopian and liberatory project, freeing us from provincial attachments, this seminar will ask how world literature and the pact with books can also perpetuate structures of inequality. One of the most unevenly distributed of the world’s resources is literacy itself, the skills essential to the creation and consumption of literature in the first place. UNESCO estimates that about ten percent of the world could read or write a short statement in the middle of the nineteenth century. Whether impeded or imposed, then, literacy has long acted as a technique for the creation and perpetuation of inequalities. It therefore seems urgent for politically minded world literature scholars to take into account the history of the book and print culture in conjunction with the dramatically uneven and political distribution of world literacy. Performative and oral culture of many kinds—narrative, religious wisdom, song, poetry—have reached nearly every human, while literacy has remained restricted to a small sliver of the world’ population. How should we think of the place of the book, print culture, and the library as a politically charged element in world cultural production? How have oral cultures, such as the stories and songs carried by slaves in the African diaspora, nourished world literature without the book?

Our seminar is based on the premise that the term “world literature” is a dynamic concept; it is historically conditioned, politically charged, and culturally determined. The operative definition of world literature our project consists of five keywords: mode, strategy, process, unit, and system. We present world literature as a mode of transnational arrangement of literature; as a strategy of cosmopolitan affiliation to literature; as a process of interpretation and reception of literatures beyond their linguistic origins; as a unit of comparative evaluation of literature; and finally, as a system of classification of literature that decries its geo-linguistic division. By examining these five keywords in a comparative transnational and transcontinental framework, we want to explore how in different historical moments, the understanding of world literature is modified, renegotiated, reformulated, and even radically altered.

Major Questions

The seminar seeks to raise two sets of questions. The first set pertains to the actors who contribute to the definition of world literature: Who defines world literature? Is it the author of the text, the translator, the publisher, the bookseller, the online vendor, the librarian, the magazine editor, the literary critic, the literary agent, the book-festival organizer, the film-script write, or more recently, the webmaster of “fan-websites” or of Facebook pages of living or dead authors? How is the author-reader relationship transforming through Twitter and Instagram? What role do the selection committees for the literary awards—Nobel Prize, Man Booker Prize, Neustadt Prize, to name just a few—play in defining world literature by directing the spotlight on an author on the world literary stage? What of an influential personality like Oprah Winfrey in the US, with whose blessing Anna Karenina and the author Tolstoy gained an afterlife among her worldwide viewership? How do performers and storytellers mediate world literature in unique ways?

The second set of questions seeks to measure the cultural and political impact of these defining processes: What are the benefits of examining the construction of world literature in the public sphere? How does the uneven global circulation of literature impact our access to literary works, especially in non-European languages, in original, or translation? What role do libraries, print cultural industry, special interest groups play in the institutionalization of world literature? And finally, how does the definition of world literature change as the “pact with books” undergoes renewal?

Comparative Case Research

The aim of the seminar is thus threefold. First, we want to make a case for studying public sphere construction of world literature by drawing attention to modes of literary circulation, including the oral and performative. Second, we want to emphasize how print cultural and political histories together impact the definition and redefinition of world literature. Third, by combining discussions about the most well known voices in world literature with lesser known discussions in newspapers, literary magazines, e-zines, and Facebook portals of authors, we want to investigate how the reading public is created “in translation,” in tandem with a world literary space. The seminar aims to understand public sphere construction of world literature through multiple literary and linguistic traditions through multiple historical moments. Given the vastness of the field of study, limiting our comparative approach to a few centuries or select areas or regions of the world will limit the scale and scope of our conversations. We thus aim for a thematic organization, whereby four keywords will define our comparative approach: Space, Time, Language, and Genre. First, we aim to shift the Euro-American and presentist focus of current discussions to spotlight contemporary and historical moments of world literatures from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Second, we plan to extend conceptual problems within “literature” most often understood under a progression from orality to textuality, to approach the study of literature as fundamentally constituting a negotiation between traditions, cultures, media, and disciplines. Third, we aim to bring to light the multilingual construction of world literature for distinct world literary readership, to challenge the widespread claim that English is the prime language of circulation of world literature. Fourth, we intend to expand the definition of literature to include expressive forms that deploy varied media to challenge and upset traditional definitions of a “text,” by highlighting texts’ oral and performative or visual dimensions of “bibliomigrancy,” especially in the context of epic poetry, fairytales, multi-lingual retellings of texts, all the way to “twitterature.” Central to all of these comparative, multi-lingual and multinational investigations will be the role of trade institutions: publishers, literary and film festivals and prizes, translators, script-writers, and others in the transactional space of world literature. In sum, our seminar seeks to foster examination of the term across historical time periods, geo-cultural spaces, linguistic traditions, and media.

Principal Investigators

Caroline Levine, Professor and Chair, Department of English
B. Venkat Mani, Professor, Department of German

Project Assistant

Anna Muenchrath
PhD Student, Department of English, UW-Madison