Culture and Quarantine



This page is intended as a hub and repository for all with an academic and intellectual interest in Comparative Literature, national and international, to collaborate and engage with the unprecedented times the world is presently living through, which will mark society and culture for decades to come. In the process, it is hoped that we may all reflect on the purpose of Comparative Literature and what it means to pursue comparative approaches to culture in the age of confinement.

Read the BCLA’s  statement and call for contributions below.

Statement by the BCLA on the role of Comparative Literature in the age of confinement

                                            Call for Contributions       

          Larvatus prodeo: I advance wearing a mask. Descartes’s dictum could be the epigraph to our age. Images of doctors and nurses with their faces obscured have become the icons of our era, as evocative of viral modernity as Venetian plague masks were of early modernity. By order of the state, human contact has been reduced to a bare minimum; even when we do encounter someone while out exercising, a wry smile – equal parts complicity and suspicion – is our default mode of interaction. Paranoia and panic shopping are ‘the new normal’, ugly terms for an ugly epoch. For the first time ever, untold millions across the world are doing the same thing at the same time: staying at home. We have become our own prisoners.
          If the Cartesian mask symbolizes the sudden barrier that has gone up between our minds and our bodies – between the res cogitans and the res extensa – how can culture help us come to terms with this unprecedented situation? What does it mean to cogitate in gated communities, to think and to write in enforced isolation? The obvious initial answer is that thinking is the one thing we still can do: even under quarantine, the life of the mind remains unfettered. From Boethius to Braudel, from More to Mandela, the consolations of philosophy have long proven their worth in prison conditions. ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’, in the celebrated words of Hamlet. Perhaps such cultural precedents can help us delineate the limits of our nutshells.
          Like Hamlet, however, we also have bad dreams. The grave new world outside us guarantees it: we feel the net tightening as we read the horror stories and statistics. Here, too, literature provides precedents, all those plague narratives by the likes of Defoe, Giono, Mann, Camus, or Saramago that no doubt come to all our minds. For those of us sitting in the safety of middle-class homes, though, such reflexes are accompanied by a degree of bad conscience: what of those who don’t have the luxury of leaning back and reading? What of the millions of illiterate people across the world who barely even know about the pandemic in the first place?
          The question is particularly pertinent for the discipline of Comparative Literature, predicated as it is upon breaking down borders between languages and cultures. In an age in which borders have been re-erected almost overnight, how do we retain intellectual freedom of movement? In an era in which we have all been weaponized against each other, how do we avoid simply retreating to our castles and closing the drawbridge? How, in short, do we not become ever more self-centred? If we are paradoxically more connected now than ever before, Zooming towards each other from our Windows-led monads, such connectivity merely reinforces existing structures of power. In the viral-virtual regime, we are only as mobile as our Internet provider.
          Given the unprecedented changes that are happening around us, cultural criticism must keep pace. The BCLA accordingly invites reflection on what it means to compare in the age of confinement. To adapt Hölderlin’s famous question: What good are critics in destitute times? How can culture contribute to quarantine? Statements of no more than 1,000 words – to be submitted to the Honorary Secretary at – are requested in any of the major languages; they will be edited and published on the BCLA website, to be disseminated as broadly as possible. Now more than ever, the promise  and provocation of Comparative Literature remain indispensable.

Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any questions.

Reflections on Culture in the Age of Confinement

Read the reflections composed by the President of the BCLA Susan Bassnett, the BCLA Executive, Andrew Motion, and international specialists in History, Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature

The British Comparative Literature Association would like to invite members, followers of the website, and specialists in Comparative Literature and Translation, to contribute short essays, discussions, commentaries, translations and relevant critiques of existing fiction and poetry for dissemination via the BCLA website.  To reflect the nature of our discipline, and to encourage the principle of global collaboration at this time, written pieces may be composed in any language.

Links to relevant articles, books, historical material and images in the public domain, with commentaries on these, for the Resource Bank and Gallery will also be welcome.

Please note that, unless requested otherwise by contributors, all pieces will be published on the site under under a Creative Commons Attribution license, (CC BY) which enables retention of copyright while allowing some reproduction, distribution and non-commercial uses of the works.

There is no deadline for the submission of any text, image or other resource.

If you have a resource or text you would like to contribute, please write to us with your ideas or a file using this Contact Form.
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