Limits, Tensions and Challenges for Literary Theory and Comparative Literature in the 21st Century

 

With this its 20th issue, 452ºF. Revista de Teoría de la Literatura y Literatura Comparada is celebrating its first decade of existence, a decade determined by the firm desire to serve as a platform for the analysis of and reflection on the most pressing problematics in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature (LTCL), as the monographs that have been produced testify. While we have undertaken this task with an increasing recognition and reach, we have also done so in a global academic context in which the very idea of the disciplinary framework which gives the journal its raison d’etre, that is, LTCL, has undergone a variety of transformations (expansions, shifts, transfigurations) such that today we feel it is necessary to rethink the field. For this reason, and because 452ºF is one of the spaces placed in tension by these transformations and, thus, is a privileged vantage point from which to spot them, we propose a monograph in which the field of LTCL itself is the object of study and reflection. The goal, then, is to open channels for discussion that enable us to understand the intellectual and institutional processes, with their local peculiarities, that are simultaneously occurring in the field of thought and in the criticism emerging from various points within our globalized world.

 

It is worth keeping in mind that the institutional birth of Literary Theory is indebted to the period of theoretical effervescence and the renovation of critical paradigms that emerged in the 1960s and 70s, especially in France. It was precisely the French publishing industry that exported to the rest of the world the theoretical novelties, among which French thought, as well as Heideggerian philosophy, Russian formalism and Prague structuralism – to give just a few examples – stand out. These all enabled the renovation of literary studies from which we have inherited our current understanding of literature. Each country, in fact, incorporated this legacy in a different way. For example, in the Spanish academy, one of the consequences of this history was that in 1984 Literary Theory became a discipline (which emerged from the split between the previous disciplines General Grammar and Literary Criticism), which would later become the discipline of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature.

 

In turn, today as in recent decades, Comparative Literature is undergoing a critical situation which requires it to constantly redefine itself. Abandoning its initial nucleus, centred on literary texts and their transnational interrelationships, in order to take on a wider spectrum of theories, objects, and methodologies, Comparative Literature – or perhaps more correctly Comparative or Comparatist Studies – must defend their placement in the face of Cultural Studies, Area Studies or even Literary Theory. Furthermore, another problem faced by Comparative Literature is the management of the multiple literary traditions around the world that have reclaimed their place in the discipline. This phenomenon has emerged parallel to the questioning of its model from Postcolonial Studies and studies in the Global South, which have denounced, in turn, the Eurocentric foundation. When faced with this situation, the question of the necessity or function of the study of the context of a work in a comparative analysis emerges.

 

With this in mind, we propose paying special attention to the friction produced by two paradoxical tendencies in recent decades. On the one hand, there has been an academic institutionalisation of LTCL in most Western countries: on the other, the limits and borders have been blurred, and with them its specificity as a field of knowledge. The first of these tendencies is reflected in theoretical incursions in almost all critical fields and in artistic and literary studies. The second can be considered as a double phenomenon, to some extents the result of the former: a) the loss of the centrality of the literary in cultural reflection and b) the partial proliferation of new areas and fields of knowledge that, without sharing the same method of interpellating themselves in literary phenomena that are found in LTCL, are equally occupied by cultural objects and the existence of socio-political discourse that competes and overlaps with it – such as Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Identity Politics, Critical Theory or even certain branches of Political Philosophy.

 

Along with all of this, another trend has also emerged in recent years, the tendency that could be called the banalisation of theory and that begins with the decontextualization of literary theory from debates and tensions from which it emerged, from the states of the question to which it attempts to give an answer. One of the first consequences has been the thingification of theory in some sectors of academia, converting it into a repertoire of available methods to be used on any object of study, reducing thus the problematic of the praxis of interpretation through theory to a merely mechanical application of the method. A second consequence, derived from the first, has been the isolation or abstraction of certain central concepts from the methods of study, leaving them open to discursive usage, without the need to engage in theoretical reflection. Increasingly, terms such as “literary field”, “deconstruction”, “rhizome”, “biopower”, “subalterity”, “decolonisation”, “ideology”, “hegemony”, and many others, are cited without the incorporation of the interpretive dynamics that these terms offer when part of a method, leaving them thus reduced to mere codes, recognisable within an academic community, when not simply interchangeable synonyms for habitual terms in a given language that offer a patina of modernity and a distinction to the discourse.

 

Within the framework of these processes, we invite collaborators to explore the limits, tensions, and challenges of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, through the formulation of questions and approaches that interrogate its singularity and potential for the contemporary moment: Should we continue to speak of LTCL as a specific disciplinary framework? How is it characterised and what does it offer? What challenges and tensions mark it? How has thinking changed about literary and cultural phenomena? What paradigms rival or overlap with those of LTCL? What are the consequences of this overlapping for thinking and research? What dialogues exist between LTCL, Area Studies, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, etc.? To what extent has the crisis in the Humanities had an effect on the displacement of LTCL? How are LTCL thought of in contexts outside of Europe? How and to what extent can the analysis of specific cultural works or products serve to respond to these general theoretical questions? How can theory become an interpretative praxis without running the risk of banalisation?

 

The following is a non-exhaustive list of possible topics:

 

a) Contributions and transformations in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature.

b) Trajectory(ies) of Literary Theory: limits and potentials.

c) The specificity of Comparative Literature as an academic discipline: what and how does it compare?

d) From the local to the global: Comparative Literature in dialogue (or contrast) with Postcolonial Studies and World Literature.

e) Frictions and overlaps between literary disciplines: paradigms and tensions.

f) Signs and discourses: concepts and variations in the distinct critical literary paradigms.

g) Theory and Philology: ruptures, renovations, continuities.

h) Local uses of Literary Theory, Gender Studies, Identity Politics: differences and frictions.

i) Specificity in LTCL and banalising tendencies in Literary Theory in the 21st

j) LTCL and university praxis: trends, and (un)fortunate academic uses of theory.

k) Discipline(ary) problems: codification and simplification of theoretical concepts.

 

Editorial Team 452ºF

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