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Entangled Literary Histories

Across time, space, and different media – how literature becomes global

Jul 05, 2019

Literature is everywhere – it has never been confined only to books. Today many people first encounter literature through other channels such as poetry slams or podcasts.

Literature is everywhere – it has never been confined only to books. Today many people first encounter literature through other channels such as poetry slams or podcasts.
Image Credit: Matthias Heyde

For a long time literature seemed to be associated exclusively with books. But at the beginning of the 21st century, many people encounter literature in other ways, for example, by binge-watching TV series in streaming portals such as Netflix, through films on the cinema screen, or via audio podcasts on their smartphones. Poets use Twitter as a platform, and in 2016 the Nobel Prize for Literature did not go to awriter, but to a singer-songwriter. Readers choose their reading matter across languages and cultures, they frequent fan forums and identify with communities that form on social media with breathtaking speed.

“Literature has long ceased to be synonymous with canonical texts between two book covers,” says Professor Anita Traninger of the Institute for Romance Languages and Literatures at Freie Universität Berlin. She is one of the two spokespersons for the Temporal Communities Cluster of Excellence, an interdisciplinary research projectwhose goal is to fundamentally rethink the conception of literature from a global perspective and to question traditional cultural and linguistic boundaries.

The researchers of the cluster start from the thesis that in its long, global history literature has been much closer to what we observe today: a practice with links to music and art, to performance, recitation, and ritual, operating between different languages and cultures. “The fact that critics distinguish between different epochs and different disciplines, such as Romance studies, German studies, Chinese Studies, or South Asian Studies, is a product of the 19th and 20th centuries,” says Andrew James Johnston, spokesperson for the Cluster of Excellence and a professor of medieval and early modern English literature at Freie Universität: “In the 19th century, literature was deliberately used in order to strengthen national identities; that is why the study of literature has been conducted within the framework of national borders.”

Scholars have long since recognized that in a globalized world the idea of “national literatures” makes certain disciplinary boundaries appear anachronistic. “Even the term ‘world literature’ is strongly influenced by a Western perspective,” says Anita Traninger. “Most people associate it with literature that is worth reading everywhere, but that view is very much shaped by the ideas of the Western world, which do not do justice to the diversity of literature across the globe.” What is new about the cluster’s research program is that the global is not primarily thought of in terms of space, but in terms of time: literature has always created communities, not only between contemporaries, but above all in time and through time.

”The term ‘world literature’ is strongly influenced by a Western perspective” Anita Traninger

Homer’s Iliad is a typical example of howliterature has forged new relations over centuries. “Virgil adapted Homer’s material in his Aeneid and thus created the founding myth of the Roman Empire,” says Andrew James Johnston. In the Middle Ages the process of adaptation continued: Authors all over Europe embellished the myth of Troy and transferred it to the world of knights and ladies. “Today, Wolfgang Petersen is inspired by Homer and films a modern interpretation of the epic,” says Johnston. These long-term, cross-cultural perspectives on literature are decisive for the cluster’s work. The scholars involved are not concerned with the question of whether the texts were received ‘correctly,’ but rather with examining the relations that literature establishes throughtime. These relations are indicated by the eponymous term ‘temporal communities.’

For all these reasons the researchers of the cluster are pursuing this new approach: literature should be conceived of in global terms, beyond the categories of nation and epoch and in the immense diversity of its possibilities and relations– relations with other arts, with painting and music, with other media such as film, and with other cultural institutions such as schools or universities.

Whenever literature enters into newrelations, theserelations also reach out into time, so that readers of the present can be connected with the theatre audience of ancient Athens.

In the Temporal Communities cluster, scholars from the modern and the ancient philologies, from theatre studies, art, and film studieswork together to describe the global interdependencies of literature. Berlin is an ideal location to promote this new approach, says Anita Traninger. The cluster’s international network of partners will play an important role, as will Berlin’s rich literary and cultural scene.

“Over the seven years of our first funding phase, we will invite more than 100 international visiting scholars to Berlin. And with our local network – including the international literature festival berlin (Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin) and the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, a unique location for lively literary exchange – we will initiate an ongoing dialogue between research and the current literary and cultural scene,” says Traninger. The Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz and the Iberoamerikanisches Institut are also on board: “Such a project can only be tackled together – where else, if not in Berlin.”

Further Information

Temporal Communities

The aim of the literary studies cluster at Freie Universität is to fundamentally rethink the conception of literature from a global perspective. The concept of Temporal Communities describes how literature reaches out across space and time, forming complex networks – sometimes over thousands of years – and how literature is in constant exchange with other arts, media, institutions, and social phenomena. The cluster cooperates with a range of regional and international partners including the University of California, Berkeley, the Jawaharlal-Nehru University in New Delhi, and the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome.