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Critical Humanism and Speculative Literary Totalities

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The consideration of the totality of verbal arts (“world literature”) risks being separated into brute data and incommensurable particulars. To understand the unity which recent developments have rent apart this paper will revisit the tradition of critical humanist scholarship dedicated to thinking literary totality. First, it will briefly gloss three critical humanist keywords that have afforded speculative means for conceiving of literary totality through philology and interpretation: “historical poetics,” “Ansatzpunkt,” and “contrapuntal reading.” (The discussion of the latter term will draw on research undertaken in the Edward W. Said archive.) Each of these reading practices arose from particular historical exigencies and were distinct responses to different phases of global imperialism. The second part will offer a contribution to this store of keywords by developing the notion of the “literary meridian,” a term adapted from Paul Celan, to think about the ways in which lines of connection pass through otherwise unconnected and localised literary practices. The final part will speculate on meridian lines connecting the storytelling practices of three writers working within the current imperial conjuncture: Alexis Wright, Alai, and Patrick Chamoiseau. The paper will claim that in our day world literature is necessarily localist and localizing: “a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars” (Aimé Césaire).

Ben Etherington is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and a member of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. His monograph, Literary Primitivism (Stanford University Press, 2018) argues for a global conception of primitivism as a utopian reaction to the apotheosis of European imperialism. He is currently a Chief Investigator on the three-year Australian Research Council project Other Worlds, for which he is working with eminent Australian writers, including Alexis Wright and J. M. Coetzee, to explore the idiosyncratic ways in which writers create literary worlds. His current project traces the emergence of a creole poetics in the Caribbean in the period between the end of slavery and its flourishing at the time of political independence.

Participants
  • Chair Bruce Robbins Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities Columbia University