This weekend, I gave a talk at the generous invitation of Dr Magdalena Edwards and Pelin Kivrak, as part of a seminar on the topic of cosmopolitanism, under the auspices of the American Comparative Literature Association, hosted by UCLA.

For three days, with brief presentations delivered early in the morning in a genial interdisciplinary atmosphere, my fellow panelists and I exchanged perspectives on diverse themes related to Cosmopolitanism(s) From Below, a topic that Dr Edwards derived from her translation (with Paulo Lemos Horta) of an essay by Silviano Santiago—“to enrich, complicate and diversify our conversation.”

The talks were as follows:

Dr Magdalena Edwards read from her new translation (with Benjamin Moser) of Clarice Lispector’s novel The Chandelier, and showed a scene from the film Voyage to the Beginning of the World, to illustrate the concept of an art that scrolls away from us even as it is narrated.

Pelin Kivrak traced the the depiction of cosmofeminine space in the films of Fatih Akin, and discussed the Derridaean concept of hospitality in relation to a key scene in The Edge of Heaven.

Dr Ryan Kernan read from his forthcoming book Black Translation: Langston Hughes, Literary Internationalism and the Fomentation of Black Radicalism, describing the process of Hughes’ translations from the work of Nicolas Guillén and analyzing its effect on the elements of song and mythopoeia in his oeuvre.

Alize Arican presented her ongoing field research on the changing social landscape of the Tarlabaşı neighborhood of Istanbul, and sketched the spontaneous and deep connections that people from different worlds form with their neighbors when they live in close quarters among each other.

Kaushik Ramu spoke about the life of G.V. Desani, and interpreted the protagonist of his novel All About H. Hatterr as the figure of an anglophone clown that is of a peculiar poignancy in our moment, as a minimal man who has a spiritual experience in spite of his own assessment of it.

Suzanne Jill Levine presented Untranslatability Goes Global, a new essay collection she edited with Katie Lateef-Jan, and read from her preface for the book, placing literary translation in the context of current issues in the field.

Kun Huang elaborated on the theme of cosmopolitanism from below in an Afro-Chinese context, as seen in the absurd predicament and improvised courage of the central character in Hongqi Li’s film Stranded in Guangzhou as he tries to close a business deal.

Nicole Devarenne spoke about African science fiction, cited Achille Mbembe, and proposed a cosmopolitanism founded upon the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor, as a counterstatement to the Eurocentric and exploitative kind of cosmopolitanism depicted in such texts as The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard.

Marija Tepavac invoked Ivo Andrić and Danilo Kiš, and sketched the intellectual climate of the former Yugoslav nations as an atmosphere of paradox and conflict, wherein intellectuals have subscribed, because of the opportunities afforded them, to Western European versions of cosmopolitanism founded upon the ideas of Voltaire, Goethe and Herder that originate in Western European crises of national identity whose resolutions necessitated the subjugation of Eastern Europe.

Elizabeth Marchant talked about a contemporary current of counterimagery that runs against the commodification and occlusion of Blackness in Brazil’s historic Pelourinho, a site that is transformed by images generated for consumption in a service economy.

I attended a variety of other panels throughout the weekend as well.  Some highlights are below:

Penelope Cartwright unraveled the lineaments of a minor transnationalism (Shih and Lionnet, 2005) from Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Gloria Fisk placed the development of the Booker Prize in the context of today’s globalized economy; identified prolepsis as the common device of novels that have won the award since the Man Group investment management firm began sponsoring it and opened the competition to American authors; posed the question of why this literary technique might be prevalent today; and compared the contemporary proleptic novel with the theatrical performance of tragedies in ancient Athens.

Tess McNulty applied techniques of quantitative analysis to the lexicon of a sample of book reviews, in order to develop a hypothetical profile of the climate of taste that is currently cultivating a readership for the global novel.

Angela S. Allan detailed the emergence of the MTV novel as an ironic form, and as the expression of an economy organized around perspective, and examined its mutation through a period of sincerity into a contemporary form of autofiction that reflects on the conditions of its own composition and publication.

At a plenary session, two authors and their translators—Eduardo Lalo with Suzanne Jill Levine, and Yan Lianke with Carlos Rojas—spoke about writing and translation and answered questions from the audience.

Levine gave a capsule masterclass in translation using the first sentence of Lalo’s Inutilidad as an object lesson, and Rojas evoked the dilemma of rendering the invented dialect words of Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses.

Lalo remarked that he is from Puerto Rico, whose inhabitants, while they are American citizens, are not Americans; and he noted that the neocolonialist attitudes conventionally attendant upon this condition are alive and well today, for example in the rejection of his book Uselessness by the German publisher Suhrkamp, who justified their decision with the rationale that the novel was too intellectual for a German reading public.  He mentioned that when the English translation appeared, he was not able to obtain a copy, because in the wake of Hurricane Maria, there was no postal service, and the island was unable to receive and process mail; so that he first saw the book while at the University of Texas, Austin for the opening of one of his photography exhibits.  He described the experience of reading the book for a long time before reflecting that it was his own and that he had been reading himself. He reminded the audience that literature is a question of literary culture, a fact that he said is often forgotten nowadays, and stated that the translation of literature expands the geopolitics of a culture.  He observed that a domestication of genres is in effect in our time, and that many books are made for the bookstore; he dismissed this trend with the comment that there is only one genre, that of writing.

Lianke reflected that since his books are now banned in China, and since he does not read English, he can write with complete freedom; and also that, even though he would have almost no audience at all if it were not for those reading his work in translation, he still imagines himself as an author writing for his Chinese public.  He said that since he can’t read translations of his work, he doesn’t care about the reactions of those who read his novels in other languages. A writer, he said, should only care about writing, not about translations; but he also said it is always important to provide the translator with some material that is impossible to translate.  Finally he noted that he had flown sixteen hours to speak to us for ten minutes, and he invited us to dine with him and his wife at their house in Beijing, for a longer and more comfortable conversation.

The audio of my talk is at the top of this post, and an abstract is below.

In the United States today, the terror of free expression animates the consolidation of media conglomerates and the corporatization of universities.

The pressure exerted by these entities stamps many authors and their works with the character of the times: a slickness, an all-knowing way of generalizing, so that a plurality of fine distinctions becomes a single stark contrast.

If a novelist or poet rises to global stature today, it is because they can convince us that the artwork is a vicarious experience, and the official narrative is a zeitgeist. Claiming a special translingual accessibility, their mannered verbal product will be advertised as conferring cosmopolitan status on the consumer.

Other contemporary literary works position themselves outside or on the fringes of the establishment. In these texts, cosmopolitanism manifests itself as a formal ambivalence, a shimmer or throb to rouse the reader from one state of being into another.  

Reading these books, we attend to a story, it is true, but also to the way that story is told.

Considering a selection of literary texts of various orientations, along with recent commentaries and precedents from literary history, the paper “Human Cosmos” explores some of the tropes and techniques of cosmopolitan form in modern fiction, and suggests their implications for the fields of comparative literature and creative writing.


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