Reflections on the Institute for World Literature at Harvard University (20 June – 14 July, 2016)

The Institute for World Literature (IWL) is a month long program of seminars, lectures, colloquiua and panel sessions convened by David Damrosch of Harvard University. It offers a dynamic space for more than a hundred scholars from across the globe to study questions and debates around world and comparative literary disciplines. Now in its sixth year, the institute returned to its spiritual home in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard this summer, after recent sojourns to Lisbon and Hong Kong (the event will be held at Dongguk University in Seoul next year and at the University of Copenhagen the year after).

Having gained a Master’s degree in World Literatures in English from the University of Oxford, I was keen to apply for a place at IWL when BCLT and CHASE advertised the opportunity. I was particularly attracted by the prospect of attending two intensive seminar programs taught by leading academics in the field. While we were able to choose between an array of fascinating seminars, with focuses on diverse topics such as the scale of World Literature, multilingualism, close reading and cosmopolitanism, I plucked for courses which reflected my own broad research interests, selecting Lital Levy’s seminar on “Conflict and Comparison”, and a course led by Gisèle Sapiro titled “How Do Literary Works Cross Borders (or Not)?”

While these seminars approached the idea of World Literature from very different perspectives, they both enriched my theoretical understanding of the subject and compelled me to think about the deeper issues at stake when critics engage in comparison and world literary book history. With these seminar groups I grappled with a number of pressing questions: how can literature and criticism ethically portray and compare experiences of war and violence without reducing embodied suffering to symbolism serving particular ideologies and political powers? How do different media forms and discourses frame wars and render lives grievable or meaningful? What is the impact on literary analysis when a novel written in a particular language and set in a particular context is translated and circulated in the global market: an unbalanced market that is dominated by certain languages and literary metropoles?  Although the seminars did not give me definitive answers to these vital debates, they did compel me to consider how my own research might intervene in the discussion.

Attendees of the institute also had an opportunity to present their own research in subject specific colloquiua. I was part of a colloquium named “Literature and Circulation”, which met once a week in order to showcase and discuss the projects of participants interested in the movement of texts, images and ideas across the literary world system. While the papers explored a panoply of different topics, from the writings of Margaret Cavendish to the reception of the musical The Phantom of the Opera in South Korea, these projects were brought into conversation in productive and provocative ways. Another highlight was Homi Bhabha’s keynote lecture, which considered the place of the humanities during a time of cosmopolitan vulnerability and mass migration, topping off a series of presentations and panel sessions given by the IWL faculty.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank BCLT and CHASE for sponsoring my participation in IWL, and wish to strongly recommend it to other PhD students with interests in the movement and development of literature across time and space. My intellectual horizons have been irrevocably widened by the experience, and my doctoral research advanced as a result.