Comparing the Contemporary

by Valentina Salvatierra and Carmela Morgillo

Wonderful universes lie unexplored at the very doorstep of our libraries, stories and people and histories often given for granted and never fully investigated. Voices from beyond the Channel and beyond the Ocean and beyond the West that have remained unheard. Voices that the sessions of ‘Comparing the Contemporary’ wish to discuss through a series of meetings aimed at travelling the literary world, bringing together the experience – and expertise – of the diverse Birkbeck student body.

Intended as a platform for discussion rather than a formal seminar, ‘Comparing the Contemporary’ is organised by Valentina Salvatierra (MA Contemporary Literature and Culture) and Carmela Morgillo (MA Modern and Contemporary Literature), two students whose international background has motivated them to create something that would diverge from an often Anglo-centric focus. Underlying the group is the belief that our learning can be increased by becoming aware of the selectivity that determines the texts we read as scholars, and opening up to texts that can showcase both the distinctiveness and the possibility for communication between literary traditions. We want to deliberately seek out moments of difference as well as overlap, in the spirit of comparative criticism as described by Reynolds, Omri, and Morgans:

Confronting radical difference is a decisive moment in critical and creative work alike. One may call it a border moment. It is open to possibilities, including rupture, rejection, indifference, conflict and communication or reconciliation. [1]

Exploring different themes and genres, the sessions will usually compare two texts from similar periods and different countries to seek out literary ‘border moments’ between works. Running every two weeks, students will be allowed enough time to either familiarise themselves with a new text or research different points of analysis for something already known.

 

Session Structure & Meetings So Far

We are meeting every 2 weeks throughout the Spring term. Each meeting has a designated chair in charge of starting and guiding the group discussion. The chair contextualises the text, provides a short extract or clip (if relevant), and a brief critical discussion of the text(s). This should take between 10-20 minutes, and the rest of the session is dedicated to seminar-style discussion around the topic and text(s). The first two sessions' topics were around post-WW1 novels and speculative fictions of North and South America. Read on for more details of each.

Starting on 2 February, the first session explored the themes of trauma and exceptionalism in two post-WW1 novels published in Germany and the U.S., each the ‘evil’ Other of the other and yet sharing the very same sense of national failure regardless of having won, or lost the conflict. Starting from Marinetti’s glorification of the war as ‘the world’s only hygiene’, the comparison focused on sections from All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun, with a close look at their exploration of the concept of trauma, of the impossibility of social reintegration and, most importantly, their disappointment with the mythicisation of heroism despite its functionality to the preservation of an idea of national exceptionalism and superiority.

Particular attention was paid to Trumbo’s novel with the purpose of generating a discussion on its deconstruction of patriotic duty and its socialist attack to the interventionism that characterises the nation’s ‘Manifest Destiny’. For this purpose, familiarity with the notions of American Exceptionalism as highlighted in Kissinger’s Diplomacy was relevant. Participants were invited to offer their opinion on the text as an ad hoc presentation of the post-WW1 contingency or as a sort of paradigm of the American military experience in the 20th and 21st century, animated by the desire to export democracy at the expenses of soldiers who, in the best case scenario, die. A full report of the session can be found here.

Our 16 February session homed in on two science fiction works of the 1940s – Robert Heinlein’s ‘—And He Built a Crooked House—’ (1941), characteristic of North America’s ‘Golden Age’ of pulp magazine science fiction, and Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, from the tradition of South American literatura fantástica. We explored the differential degrees to which these texts aspired to scientific ‘accuracy’, as well as their literary status: while Heinlein is in the domain of ‘pulp’ mass fiction, Bioy Casares was a friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges and might be associated more strongly with highbrow, ‘literary’ fiction.

We deepened the discussion by considering Baudrillard’s analysis of the levels of simulacra in science fiction. This theoretical text, although published decades after the primary texts in discussion, can shed light on how levels of reality – the four dimensions in the case of Heinlein’s text, and perhaps human experience itself for Bioy Casares – and hyperreality intertwine in science fiction texts. The group considered whether The Invention of Morel was somehow prescient of Baudrillard’s analysis of simulacra, and the possibility that Baudrillard’s postmodern framework is not truly applicable to 1940s fiction.

Comparative criticism involves paying attention to ‘family resemblances’, in Wittgenstein’s terms: the possibility that gaps between cultures can be bridged even through partial communication, and that divergences can also be areas for fruitful discussion [2]. This sort of analysis, then, is the one that will be developed through these student-led, informal sessions.

We look forward to welcoming any interested Birkbeck BA, MA and PhD students to participate in these sessions and collaborate in their organisation. Get in touch with Valentina Salvatierra (MA Contemporary Literature & Culture, vsalvatierrad @ gmail.com) in order to sign up for emails and get access to the shared folder where texts will be uploaded whenever possible. If you wish to chair a session or get involved in the organisation of the group, we would love to hear from you.

Notes

[1] Matthew Reynolds, Mohamed-Salah Omri, and Ben Morgan, ‘Guest Editors’ Introduction’, Comparative Critical Studies, 12.2 (2015), 152 <https://doi.org/10.3366/ccs.2015.0164>.

[2] Reynolds, Omri, and Morgan, 155.

 

 

 

Image by Markus Splske, used under a CC BY 2.0 licence. 

Author: CCL

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