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The Material Turn in Comparative Literature: The Old and the New, A Conversation

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Organizer: Oliver Aas

Co-Organizer: Hedwig Fraunhofer

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Recent times have seen a proliferation of ontoepistemologies centered on the more-than-human. From object oriented-ontology, speculative realism, ecocriticism, animal studies, or plant studies to new materialisms (to name just a few approaches), we are witnessing a surge in rethinking the boundaries, borders, community and intra-action of the human and the nonhuman in planetary or cosmic life. Though these new strands of thought are no doubt brought on at least in part by concerns over anthropogenic climate change and rogue capitalism, we might wonder whether these intellectual strands constitute a complete, radical break with previous “materialisms.”

Comparative Literature as a field as well is increasingly turning its eye toward new forms of materialism. In 2018, the eponymous journal dedicated an entire thematic issue to thinking about “the material turn” in comparative literature. What might this turn mean for the study of literature, culture, and the environment today? Should we replace “outdated” theoretical models with newer ones or is it possible to establish a productive dialogue between seemingly disparate generations or paradigms of thought?

Among other questions, we want to ask what would it mean to read not only contemporary, but also older (canonical or non-canonical) works through the lens of new ontoepistemologies. In his The Great Derangement (2016), Amitav Ghosh, one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 ACLA, laments the centrality of individual human adventure in and the banishment of the collective from the modern novel, justifiedly calling for a new literature or aesthetics that goes beyond collusion with the status quo by seeing nonhuman materialities as more than as constraints to be overcome. At the same time, we might wonder whether agentive nonhuman phenomena have been altogether absent in the literary or cultural tradition. If we were to notice more-than-human forms or ecologies in canonical or non-canonical works of the present or the past, how should we approach them today?

We should moreover be mindful that literature is by no means the only format that deals with the questions we are trying to tackle. Increasingly questions concerning “materiality” are brought up by performance, theatre, film, or visual arts more broadly. How do these forms contest or bear witness to the workings of different “materialisms”? As such, we welcome proposals that deal with our theoretical interests through “traditional” means like literature as well as through new media ecologies or any other format and genre.

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