DFG Research Training Group Globalization and Literature. Representations, Transformations,  Interventions

Language Selection

Breadcrumb Navigation


Online-Conference "The Political Uses of Literature"

05.02.2021 – 06.02.2021

The Political Uses of Literature: Comparative Approaches, Theoretical Perspectives

The conference has a double focus. First, it will explore the complex relationship between literary production and processes of globalization, paying particular attention to the global and internationalist dimensions of politicized writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Papers will offer a series of site-specific case studies - e.g. about the internationalist horizons of interwar literature; about the emergence and decline of a Moscow-centric literary hemisphere; or about the current position of politicized writing as a "just another appeal to a market niche" (Nicholas Brown) in the literary market-place - but speakers will connect these case studies to broader theoretical questions about the status of politically committed writing in a globalizing world. A second, related focus will be the relation between literary praxis and debates about the political 'uses' of literature. By paying particular attention to (cross-national) critical/theoretical conversations about the political articulacy of literature, the conference will explore attempts to harness literature to social and political purposes and to reimagine its socio-political agency.

In addressing these questions, the conference invites a comparative focus that places historical debates about the international(ist) and global scope of politicized writing and the uses of literature in dialogue with more recent discussions of these topics. It is not our aim to suggest these historical debates, e.g. from the interwar years, can simply be 'updated' for our own contemporary moment, but rather that an attention to these earlier debates can productively defamiliarize contemporary discussions and draw attention to neglected avenues of discussion.

Topics which papers will address:

1. (Post)revolutionary paradigms. Throughout the interwar decades (and after), literary writers developed modes of politicized writing that responded to the shock of the revolution of 1917 and to the demise of Western imperialism. Frequently these modes of writing self-consciously reflected on their own status within a wider field of (global / internationalist) literary production, and they addressed themselves to audiences well beyond the confines of Western nation-states. By contrast, more recent debates about "world literature" or "global literature" tend to arise from a decidedly a-revolutionary setting. Questions that build on these observations include: What might contemporary debates about globalization learn from (or how might these debates be enriched by a consideration of) interwar conversations about literary internationalism? To what extent does the continued interest in revolution and in radical writing in contemporary critical theory remain indebted to earlier theoretical debates? Can certain current conversations about literature's 'uses' be understood as an extension of (or a return to) earlier reflections on the political and socially critical utilization of literature?

2. Debates about realism. The interwar years saw significant debates about the merits of realism as a literary mode capable of engaging the place of literary production in a globalizing literary world system. What can current debates about global literature learn from these debates? Do these historical discussions constitute a neglected prehistory of current conversations in literary theory and cultural historiography? To what extent do contemporary critiques of "realism" (e.g. under the "capitalist realism" label) echo these historical debates? Does realism entail an "ontological commitment to the status quo" (as Fredric Jameson has suggested) that is symptomatic of an a-revolutionary historical conjuncture? What have been some of the most interesting recent attempts to describe and sharpen the subversive or activist potential of mimetic procedures in literature?

3. Educational and ethical functions of literature. Most critics and theorists regard the political and pedagogical instrumentalization of literature - a project frequently associated with the interwar period - with suspicion. At the same time, there seems to be agreement (in some parts of the academy, including recent work in postcolonial theory) that literature can 'teach' us important ethical values. How can this belief in the ethics of reading, and in the value of literature as a form of Bildung, be revised or complicated through recourse to some of the repressed debates from the interwar period? Should we try to make a case for literature's political uses (as opposed to its more narrowly ethical uses)?



The conference will take place online. Please email the organisers, Ivana Perica (ivana.perica@lrz.uni-muenchen.de) and Benjamin Kohlmann (benjamin.kohlmann@ur.de), for the Zoom link and access to the papers. You can also follow the updates on Facebook.