World Literature BEFORE World Literature

David Andrew Porter's picture
Call for Papers
July 15, 2022
Subject Fields: 
Asian History / Studies, Classical Studies, Literature, Medieval and Byzantine History / Studies, World History / Studies

World Literature BEFORE World Literature

Special issue of

Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures

Co-editors: David Andrew Porter and Omid Azadibougar

World literature can be conceived as a total of the world’s national literatures and their circulation across borders. The term “total” can mean “complete” and it can also refer to a “sum.” World literature is not complete in the sense that many important texts, in particular those written in “minority” languages around the world are difficult to obtain, unavailable in translation, and neglected by educational and literary institutions. On the other hand, if world literature is a sum of all literatures, then it is one that for practical purposes quickly reveals the inequalities in its equations: at any given moment in its history, the field is structured via forces that hierarchize it and prioritize certain texts or literary traditions at the detriment of others.

Consequently, even though literary scholars might not openly assert it, Gujarati or Tibetan literatures, for instance, are treated as less valuable than writing in English or French. This is still the case that in most universities (including in India and in China) one is more likely to find academic resources dedicated to the latter languages. At the same time, attempting to rectify comparative literary studies, scholars who otherwise bemoan Eurocentrism still fall back on their Eurocentric educational backgrounds and reproduce the status quo; where non-European literatures enter global canons, if and when they do so, they are still subjected to the hegemony of European literary theories.

In particular, pre-modern world literature is often focused on “masterpieces” based on debatable conventions (for example the centrality of lyric and epic) that contribute further to the neglect of numerous literary contours. A focus on circulation and reception has been proposed for world literature studies, but many important older texts, though “comparable” with canonical works, have limited circulation and influence. Moreover, this focus still ties literature to the nation-state, as literary mobility implies borders despite the fact that for much of human history state boundaries did not exist in any modern conception and cultural limits were unfettered by polities.

Therefore, we can talk about two concepts of World Literature. One is an encyclopedic idea, as that which describes the untheorized (chaotic) reality of the literatures of the world, as well as cultural exchange and literary dissemination from the ancient times to the present moment: acts of translation, adaptation, appropriation, borrowing, plagiarism, etc. have been integral to literary production in all languages. The other World Literature is a knowledge institution, a critical concept often traced back to 19th-century Europe and has been further developed in institutional contexts in the past two decades. It is this latter idea that has been criticized as Eurocentric; recent studies of “significant geographies” in Africa and the Indian Ocean, the Silk Road, and pre-modern literary practice “in the multilingual Islamic world(s)” are examples of studies that have revisited the idea of World Literature as a knowledge institution with the aim of expanding it beyond its present limits.

In order to engage and critique the formation of World Literature in the second sense, this special issue seeks to discuss comparative literary studies, and global literary dissemination, outside the the often strict frames of analysis established by the dominant nation-based ideas of literature, whether national, international, or transnational. This issue, therefore, proposes to look at the circulation of literature before the rise of European modernity in the 17th and 18th centuries when new notions of the “literary” and the categorizations of “knowledge” divided and hierarchized literatures. The aim is to cross disciplinary boundaries set by knowledge structures, and shed light on the dynamics of literary circulation before the rise of capitalism, and market orientation, as the logic of literary diffusion. An outcome of this process will be to challenge inequitable literary frameworks developed by Europocentric knowledge systems, to contribute positively to a world literature that is more representative of human literary cultures in the world.

We take “literature” in its full spectrum of diversity, and not just written materials characterized by “aesthetic” qualities, produced in all languages of the world. We welcome proposals that explore world literature before World Literature, discuss specific texts that either functioned counter-canonically or where marginalized in the process of the creation of national canons, bring attention to lost or fragmented manuscripts, translation cultures, and “literary” cultures broadly conceived. The core themes are formulated as follows but do not limit the scope of analysis:

  • World literature ecologies before the rise of Weltliteratur

  • The dynamics of literary circulation in pre-modern worlds

  • Linguistic, literary or cultural hierarchies that conditioned/determined circulation

  • Dominant non-European genres and their reception other languages

  • Texts marginalized or forgotten due to “modernization”

  • Contemporary texts/situations where literature resists modern logics of circulation

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Abstracts (up to 400 words) should be submitted via email. Papers will be 6000-7000 words in any readable style-sheet; the final version must be adjusted to follow the MLA style-sheet.

Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures is published by Foreign Studies College of Hunan Normal University, and is indexed on Scopus, MLA International Bibliography, ERIH PLUS, and NSSD.


Abstract submission: July 15, 2022

Notification of acceptance: July 30, 2022

Paper submission: December 15, 2022

Revision and submission of final version: March 30, 2023

Publication: June 2023

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