Literature, Community and its Limits: Romanticism to Today
Institute of English Studies, University of London, 15-16 July 2013
“The gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer (by virtue of some unknown degree or necessity, for we bear witness also to the exhaustion of thinking through History), is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of the community.”
It is almost 30 years since Jean-Luc Nancy published La communauté désoeuvrée in 1983 and over 20 since it was translated as The Inoperable Community (1991). Starting from an acknowledgement of the decay of communism as an ideal and Marxism as a viable politics and way of understanding history, Nancy went on to ponder how a community might be defined and disrupted by a relationship with death, with literature, with myth and with the individual, in ways that were neither traditionally left nor right.
In the same year of 1983, Benedict Anderson, in a very different philosophical tradition but likewise disillusioned by Marxism, conservatism and liberalism, wrote of “imagined communities” generated by print (and later by other media) that served the concepts of nation and empire. Both thinkers affirmed the continuing political power of community through shared myth, yet it is Nancy who has most actively sought to conceive of alternative notions of community that resist the binary of totalitarianism and individualism. Literature for Nancy is a key disruptor of these political binaries, while for Anderson, perhaps because he includes not only the traditional dramatic, poetic and prose genres under the rubric “literature”, but also the newspaper and periodical, it remains a propagator of myth and hence sustainer of political conservatism.
On the 30th anniversary of both La communauté désoeuvrée and Imagined Communities, this conference seeks to explore ways that “community” and literature (in its widest acceptation) are and have been conceived over the last 250 years. Through exploration of the past, the conference hopes to begin formulating new ways of thinking about how we do and can live together in an environment mediated by words on a page.
Besides continuing the questions asked by Anderson and Nancy, conference speakers might wish to address the following:
- How has literature been used to promote communities alternative to the hegemonic?
- What are the possibilities and limits of thinking community as a friendship group or coterie that generates literary output available beyond the limits of that group?
- What are the implications for community of human and non-human overlap?
- Is the idea of class as both socially active community and analytic concept really dead? If so – or if not – how far might economics rather than (literary) myth underpin concepts of community?
- To what extent are readers of a printed (or print-simulating) text really members of a community? How have such communities been imagined – and recorded?
- What alternative ways of conceiving community beyond Nancy and Anderson might be mobilised to help us understand literature (e.g. Wenger and Lave’s “communities of practice”)?
- How might the marginal be and have been conceived? What advantages, if any, accrue from this position vis-à-vis the community, to whom and in what circumstances?