Research Agenda

Research Area 4, “Literary Currencies”, addresses the question of how literature is valued and evaluated, especially as it circulates between cultures, languages, media and markets. RA 4 investigates literature as and within a complex matrix of socio-historical activity. In so doing, our perspective is not oriented toward the evaluative operations of a level “literary field” (Bourdieu 1996) or of a unified “world literary space” (Casanova 2005); we instead turn our attention to the identification of ‘temporal communities’, which are characterised by their relationality and by their shifting entanglements between a broad variety of human and nonhuman players. In so doing, Research Area 4 focusses on four closely interlinked fields of study:

Literary Circulation

Our central questions related to literary circulation address the means, actors and periods of time through which a literary work is shaped and reshaped, evaluated and re-evaluated. Circulation processes play a crucial role in the evolution and allocation of different forms of literary value. In fact, the very term ‘circulation’ already implies a specific figure or movement that distinguishes it from others, such as “distribution”. The circulation of a specific work can be stimulated, impeded or even prevented by several factors that are closely connected and often interdependent: institutional factors (e.g. literature prizes or artists programmes), political factors (e.g. censorship), economic factors (e.g. market strategies), social factors (e.g. access to libraries, the internet, etc.) and cultural factors (e.g. source language, local materials, etc.). In relation to literary circulation, RA 4 also discusses the role and importance of translation and other forms of literary transmission – such as the adaptation of a literary work into other media. RA 4 will further investigate the ways that new publication platforms, such as literary blogs and social media, change and reshape the dynamics of circulation.

Literary Value

The process by which literature is evaluated is a dynamic and transcultural phenomenon entangled in a broad and constantly shifting range of relations between literary and extra-literary actors. Questions of valuation and evaluation are constantly at stake, defying and refuting idealist concepts of literature’s purported universal and timeless value. The value assigned to literature is key to the question of how, within temporal communities, literature is constituted as a cultural phenomenon. Further, the problem of literature’s value provides a fundamental analytical sphere of contact with the social contexts and economic environments that contribute to establishing literature’s temporal communities. It is through answering the closely related questions of why literature matters and of how literature best succeeds in fulfilling the roles assigned to it that the status of literature is established. Consequently, RA 4 places a strong focus on the rise and fall of “literary currencies” and the fluctuating prestige enjoyed by literary texts and genres.

Literary Canons

Though evaluation processes typically crystallise in literary canons, they may also challenge canonisation. Discourses of canonisation frequently deny the conditions by which they come into existence, and claim instead to be assigning a-temporal or universally valid literary merit within a system of enduring cultural values. Debates surrounding canon formation focus primarily on the role of literature to give voice to political identities. This is an undeniably important reason why literature circulates, but it is not the only one. Processes of evaluation and canon formation themselves constitute a central element by which temporal communities are built – as it is through shared values and the conflicts generated by establishing these values that a community recognises itself. Even as social media appear to be effectively dissolving the canon, the global production, circulation and entanglement of literature has spawned a new canon debate. Acknowledging the simple truth that any criticism of the canon still contributes to shaping it, RA 4 will analyse the concrete processes of selection and evaluation taking place. The canonical will be perceived not as resistant to temporality but as a radically synchronic phenomenon within multiple diachronic networks and as a constantly re-constituted presence within particular sets of cultural negotiations.

Authorship

Constructions of authorship will be a main focus of attention in RA 4 because notions of literary value are frequently established through the ways in which the role of the author is perceived and appreciated, especially in conditions of literary modernity. For millennia, authorship has been one of the prime markers by which literary value has been established – both in the most idealistic and in the most mercenary senses. Literary awards, bestseller lists and publishing houses create the auratic figure of ‘the author’ that transforms the literary field. RA 4 studies the following questions in relation to authorship: Based on what models do authors choose to identify themselves as such? What strategies lend social cachet to the poet, novelist or playwright? What crucial challenges are posed to traditional notions of authorship and the literary in general by the new digital forums?

Translation and Adaptation

Given our focus on the dynamics of cultural shifts and transformations, we find it necessary to reframe phenomena traditionally studied as processes of translation across cultural and temporal borders. Translation constitutes a central arena of competition for literary recognition. The issue of literary value affects not merely the question of whether a translation is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the criteria on which such a judgement is based, but also, the moral, political or aesthetic value of translation itself. The very foreignness of a text – or preconceived notions of such alterity – may actually facilitate elevation in status. Similar dynamics occur in another form of transmission, though this time not only across cultural and temporal borders, but also across other arts and media: Adaptation. The adapted literary text often introduces a work to a completely new audience. Therefore, the three components of translation, translatability and adaptation have an important place in RA 4’s research agenda – not least when it comes to literary texts that refuse to obey how literary texts refuse to obey the supposed rules and values of a globalised world market for fiction.