This year’s edition of the Harvard-based Institute of World Literature programme took place — for the first time online… OSL PhDs Jesse van Amelsvoort (Groningen – Campus Fryslân) and Ahmed Nuri (Amsterdam) took part in the programme, and shared their impressions with us.
Jesse van Amelsvoort: Studying World Literature Online
The Institute for World Literature (IWL) is a meeting-point for scholars and students from all around the world. In every other year, we would have met in a major city and cultural hub – after Beijing, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Copenhagen, Tokyo, and Boston, this year the IWL was to set up camp in Belgrade. Covid-19 interfered, of course. Instead of the Serbian capital (itself at one point engulfed in protests against the government’s coronavirus policies), the IWL directorship decided that the roughly 130 participants would meet in the virtual world of Zoom.
So, if anything, I’m writing about an IWL session that cannot be compared to previous meetings, nor, hopefully, to its future incarnations. At the same time, a digital IWL made visible the beauty of the global study of world literature: as I would log onto my daily meeting starting at a very reasonable three in the afternoon, I would find there already colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe, one hour ahead of me, from the U.S. and Canadian East Coast, drinking their first (or maybe second) coffee of the day, China (nine in the evening), the U.S. West Coast (six in the morning), and Australia (eleven in the evening). Coming together in this way made the loss of our physical, face-to-face meeting stronger, but also created a sense of community of world literary scholars.
And scholars we were. Critical, engaged, but above all passionate about literature, language, and, really, so much more. Since 2010, David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu have been building the IWL as a broad church, anchored at Harvard University, but open to people and perspectives from all around the globe. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people talk about literature from five continents, at least five centuries, and a multiple of five languages. The world is a pretty rich place.
The question what world literature is, has haunted the discipline from its inception. As we engage its canonical thinkers from Goethe to Erich Auerbach to David Damrosch and beyond, one further question continuously comes to the fore: What is this world you speak of? Answers abound, but being together with people in their own time zones and in the comfort of their own homes made it very clear it for sure exists. We are all so very clearly in place, while also attempting to think and reach beyond that place, every day again. That is an experience no IWL so far had been able to provide.
Ahmed Nuri: Zooming in on World Literature
The Institute for World Literature (IWL), Harvard University actively, ambitiously, and extensively promotes ideas on and works of world literature and connects both scholars and students from around the world. The 10th IWL session was planned to be held in Belgrade until the COVID 19 pandemic hit the world. Subsequently, the whole program was set up online, via Zoom, our new trusty, lifesaving digital friend.
My experiences as a participant in the IWL 2020 program were academically stimulating and challenging, at times entertaining. For the first two weeks of the program, I was in Istanbul and I attended David Damrosch’s “Globalization and Its Discontents” seminar in which the arguments of the participants were fruitful, inspirational, and instructive. There was also a plenary session with Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, which was quite ironic, as I was living in his neighborhood at the time. More interesting was the fact that I could almost touch his marvelous The Museum of Innocence from my French balcony while watching him on Zoom. In the second week, there was the second plenary session, which was presented by Amsterdam-based post-Yugoslavian author Dubravka Ugrešić. These plenary sessions illustrated the different approaches and understandings of two well-regarded authors regarding the role of translation and the function of writing in general. It was useful to compare an academic approach with the authors` personal positions.
On the weekend between seminar one and two, I traveled from Istanbul to Bulgaria to access some archives and I had to stay in obligatory quarantine for two weeks somewhere in southern Bulgaria. The last two weeks of the IWL program, which included the second seminar “Literature in a World Perspective: Undoing the Monoglossic Turn” by Françoise Král, corresponded to the quarantine period exactly. All the discussions, exchanges, and lectures about literature and language were lively, analytical, passionate, and beyond my expectations. Even though the sessions and interactions were limited by the digital mode, the digital space did not prevent academically productive interactions, exchanges with potential future collaborations, or some entertaining conversations. As is common at conferences, apart from the official seminar program, I had opportunities to interact with the other participants, this time at unofficial Zoom coffee meetings, which I found to be a great way of networking.
All in all, David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu along with all the well-regarded seminar leaders and motivated participants, provided a welcoming, nonhierarchical, highly professional, and academically ambitious platform on which everyone was critically engaged with and passionate about literature.