OSL Seminar Literature & Diversity: New Approaches to the Study of Cultural Representation

Inspired by postcolonial theory and gender criticism, the notions of identity  and  representation have become key concepts in academic and critical approaches to literature. At an early stage, students of literary studies are currently trained to analyse individual cases of othering as symptomatic of  stereotypes or power relations that are exposed, confirmed or contested by literary texts. In addition, the focus on representation has, to a certain extent, helped to improve the position of women, various minorities, and non-Western writers in literary canons and to further the study of their works. By now these critical approaches are supported by a longstanding tradition that has fueled numerous debates on literature and identity both in academia and beyond.

In recent years, the notions of representation and diversity have generated new interest and debates within literary studies and beyond that we want to address in this seminar. On the one hand, new arguments have been formulated by initiatives that tackle questions of diversity, social imbalance and misrepresentation in contemporary and historical cultures through a more quantitative approach. Well-known examples are VIDA (counting ‘women in literary arts’) and the ‘Hollywood Diversity Report’ annually published by UCLA. These large scale empirical projects rely on the assumption that numbers are more persuasive or more fit for the purpose of describing diversity (of a system, a literature) than qualitative or discursive arguments. At the same time, debates about cultural appropriation and imaginative leaps into other identities have questioned the power relations involved in cultural exchange and placed new emphasis on the problem of an unequal access to literary resources, audiences and means of representation.

In this seminar we will study these developments and their methodological implications with a specific focus on the concept of diversity. The use (but also the problematics) of this term for literary studies will be discussed, both theoretically and methodologically. The course offers four different perspectives on the concept of diversity, based on four dimensions of literary communication: (the diversity of) readers, texts, contexts and authors. In each session, an empirical or quantitative approach will be contrasted and/or supplemented with a qualitative perspective through the reading of a literary text. We will address different layers of diversity such as gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality and disability, with a strong emphasis on the intersections between those categories. Central issues will be representation, multiculturalism, canonicity, authorship, autonomy, polyphony, the literary field, and stereotypes. During the fifth and final session, the students will engage in an interview with a specialist from the current (inter)national debate on culture and diversity.