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Comparative Realisms

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Organizer: Aaron Bartels-Swindells

Co-Organizer: Jane Hu

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It’s a commonplace to say that realism is having a moment again, or that realism has never left. This seminar recognizes both that realism is always important and that realist critical projects have proliferated in the past decade. The majority of these renew our interest in literary realism as an aesthetic tradition. Where realism was previously defined in contrast to modernism, naturalism, or more speculative genres, what distinguishes this recent revival in realism seems to be its increased interdependence with these other aesthetic categories and modes. Fredric Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism, for instance, takes realism not as a static epistemological or narrative structure, but as an increasingly affective mode of estrangement. In “Denotatively, Technically, Literally,” Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt highlight how non-literary language permeates and generates reality effects. Jed Esty and Colleen Lye’s “Peripheral Realisms Now” exhorts us to examine neglected realist texts from around the world, and expands our notion of realism in Lukacsian terms: as a mode of representation that, through its efforts to represent totality, “interrupt[s] the quasi-natural perception of reality as a mere given.” Other recent projects are realist insofar as their methodologies presume what we mean by “real,” and thus constitute new “realist” objects. Speculative realism in philosophy and the new materialisms offer fresh ways to think about the veridical world available for textual representation. Methods like “surface reading” and “language-in-use” encourage us to look “at rather than through” objects and the socio-cultural processes in which they are embedded. This sampling of the new work on realism suggests how broad and plastic our understanding of realism has become.   While the current realist turn has expanded the range of realist artifacts far beyond the nineteenth-century novel, such expansiveness presents a potential problem for critics who seek to theorize realism. This seminar invites submissions from scholars from different subfields to share and compare new work on realism. Participants might consider the following questions: how do we historicize across the periods and geographies within which we have identified realist literatures and applied realist methods? How might realism allow us to understand the relationship between geopolitical and aesthetic formations? In a moment when period labels are losing their hold in literary studies, how might realism open up new possibilities for comparison across periods? In asking how our understanding of realism is shifting with the boundaries of our discipline, we are particularly interested in abstracts that speak to realism’s capability to represent critical articulations of class, race, and gender.    Send 300-word abstracts & short bio to Jane Hu ( and Aaron Bartels-Swindells (

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