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Comparative Returns

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Organizer: Tom Eyers

Co-Organizer: Tom Ball

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What does it mean to return – to someone, to a place, to an earlier critical moment? One thinks of Heraclitus’ canard that one cannot step into the same river twice; that, in other words, to return to something as it precisely was is impossible. But surely something like the opposite is also true, namely that returning very often seems to involve a return to and of the same.


This, at least, holds true in certain literary and artistic portrayals of return, where a protagonist returns to gain a measure of stability. They may consider what they return to depressingly unchanged; think only of how the childhood American suburb and small town have been conscripted as sites of adult enervation. Meanwhile, narratives of return have fuelled some of the best post-colonial writing, wherein themes of exile, diaspora, and dispossession freight the figure of the ‘return’ with extraordinary thematic and political possibilities, and often enough with notes of dread. These notes resonate in a political context dominated by the return to atavisms, nativisms, and full-blown racisms. Psychoanalysis and trauma theory, needless to say, would have much to contribute here.


Of course, ‘return’ also brings along with it turning, leading inevitably to the trope (derived from the Greek tropos, turn). After the polarization of historicism and deconstruction in the 1990s, might a return to the trope and to figural language more broadly hold out the possibility of a reimagined historicism, one not imposed on the text from without (as in ‘context’) but derived from formal or tropic pressures themselves? Meanwhile, the Humanities themselves seem structured by a series of turns and ‘returns,’ one of the more interesting of which has been the ‘return to form’ since the year 2000. That this return’s interest lies as much in the fact that it has involved the attempted reinvention of the wheel as in its production of truly novel reframings of form and formalism is no real demerit. For, it is the whiff of desperation that may alert us to what might have motivated such a return: the dismantling of the institutional conditions that make formal reflection in the Humanities sustainable. To return to form in the heat of institutional breakdown need not be the apolitical regression some critics have suggested, for it will be radically returned-to forms, institutions, and structures that save the day in or outside the universities, if the day is to be saved at all.

 

We have articulated two broad clusters of returns, one that we might call existential-political, the other broadly formal-theoretical. This seminar invites contributions that address either of these two clusters or that offer the means for thinking the two together. We hope to gather as many returns as possible, the better to imagine the future of theoretically rigorous comparative scholarship

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