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Thinking Modern Epic

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Organizer: Benjamin Paul

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What can be said about epic today? Although M.M. Bakhtin famously declared the impossibility of epic in a modern, polyphonic world in 1941, the category has remained a dynamic source of artistic and critical interest. The works considered in studies like Franco Moretti’s Modern Epic (1994), Sneharika Roy’s Postcolonial Epic (2018), or Václav Paris’s Evolutions of Modernist Epic (2021) re-evaluate epic as a multifarious category capable of shedding light on the global, postcolonial, and postmodern condition of contemporary literature—either as a site of resistance or as a form of cultural domination. Yet even in its new, polyphonic forms, the idea of epic is rarely severed completely from its classical roots. It is a category that is constantly balancing the new and the old, the cutting edge and the conservative, both uniquely alive and uniquely blind to the workings of history.

This panel asks what the category of epic means for literature of the past century and today. Does the idea of epic’s decline as a literary genre, as theorized by Bakhtin in the age of modernism, represent something that remains true about contemporary literature? If new epic possibilities have emerged, what relation do they bear to the epic of the past? And if epic is no longer possible, what position do the epic tradition and its artistic impulses now occupy? 

Panelists are invited to consider:
• 20th-century or contemporary works or authors that aspire to, or could be classed under, the category of epic.

• The state of the current critical and theoretical conversation around epic, and its relation to past moments in epic theory.

• The literary traditions and intertexts—classical, modernist, or otherwise—informing modern epic projects and their reception.

• The relationship of modern epic to the question of world literature.

• The possibility (or impossibility) of epic to serve as a site of discursive resistance. 

• The commodification of epic as an aesthetic category.

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