Randomness and Culture in the Age of Quarantine


Session 1: Speakers

9.30 am Welcome by BCLA President, Professor Susan Bassnett

9.35-10.05 Professor Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (Aaarhus University), The Values of Imperfection
Watch the video of the talk by Professor Rosendahl Thomsen
Copyright: Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

10.05-10.35 Professor Kylie Crane (Potsdam), Decay, Ruin and other (Un)Becomings: Random Readings
Watch the video of the talk by Professor Crane.
Copyright: Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

10.35-10.45 – break

Session 2: Speakers

10.45-11.15 Professor Maghiel Van Crevel (Leiden), No One in Control?
Watch the video of the talk by Professor Van Crevel.
© Maghiel Van Crevel 2020. All rights reserved.

11.15-11.45 Professor Peter Arnds (Dublin), The Lost Art of Happenstance: Randomness in Travel Literature
Watch the video of the talk by Professor Arnds
© Peter Arnds 2020. All rights reserved.

11.45-12.00 – break

Session 3: Roundtable discussion

12.00-1.30 Chaired by Professor Ben Hutchinson, BCLA Hon. Secretary

Chance encounters with people or texts, unforeseen opportunities, and impulsive decisions play a bigger role in our life and work than we wish to acknowledge – we wrote in our initial blurb, and then the events and unpredictability of the Covid-19 epidemic overtook us.  It is only retrospectively – we continued – in shifting scale from the individual to social or perspective from reading to interpreting, that randomness becomes regularity and can get explained away as purpose and design. 

In launching the project Culture and Quarantine, we then asked: 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? These questions are 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? How do we think about our future and the future of our discipline together?

Keynote speakers, titles and abstracts

The values of imperfection
Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (Aarhus University) 

Georges Perec’s Life – A User’s Manual was famously based on a number of meticulously crafted lists, including a list of errors that should be made in the writing of each chapter. The engagement with imperfection in Perec’s novel is almost emblematic for the way it balances structure and composition with random and exchangeable elements. In this presentation, I will move from Perec’s work to a wider discussion of the values of imperfection in two distinct domains: the idea of the classic and the vision of the posthuman. 

Mads Rosendahl Thomsen is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He is the author of Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures (Continuum, 2008), The New Human in Literature: Posthuman Visions of Changes in Body, Mind, and Society after 1900(Bloomsbury, 2013) and, most recently with Stefan Helgesson, Literature and the World (Routledge, 2019, in press), as well as several edited and co-edited books in English and Danish, notably Danish Literature as World Literature (with Dan Ringgaard, Bloomsbury, 2017) and World Literature: A Reader (with Theo D’haen and César Dominguez, Routledge, 2012). At Aarhus he directs the Digital Arts Initiative and the Human Futures research programmes.

No One in Control?
Maghiel Van Crevel (Leiden University) 


No literary genre is fully predictable or controllable—but some genres are more unpredictable and uncontrollable than others, and China’s “battlers’ poetry” (打工诗歌) is a case in point. In China, up to three hundred million people have left the countryside to escape rural poverty and make their way into city life. Exposed to the extreme dynamic of local and global capitalism, many of these migrant workers live and work under gruelling conditions and are deprived of basic civic rights. They are the foot soldiers of China’s economic miracle. And they write poetry. What does this poetry mean and do, in China and abroad? The force field around battlers’ poetry is dizzyingly complex and rife with opportunity for disconnect and the unexpected. In battlers’ poetry, how do “logics” of ideology and aesthetics collide or coincide with the “circumstance” of individual lives? And as a foreign researcher, where do you even start?

The Lost Art of Happenstance: Randomness in Travel Literature
Peter Arnds (Trinity College Dublin) 

Dr Peter Arnds, Associate Professor and Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. is President of the Comparative Literature Association of Ireland. He was Visiting Professor at Middlebury College, the University of Kabul, JNU Delhi, and the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of Lycanthropy in German Literature (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), Representation, Subversion and Eugenics in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (Camden House 2004), Intertextuality in Wilhelm Raabe and Charles Dickens(Peter Lang, 1997), and has edited Translating Holocaust Literature (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015). His collection of poetry A Rare Clear Day appeared in RedFox Press in 2015, and he has translated Patrick Boltshauser’s novel Stromschnellen (Rapids, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014, nominated for the Dublin International Literary Award). He is a member of the PEN Centre.

Decay, Ruin and other (Un)Becomings: Random readings
Kylie Crane (Potsdam University) 

Random: amongst other things, what exceeds human control. 
Random: also ‘running’, things that transform in haphazard ways. 
Random: in its peripheral etymologies, Rand (German: peripheral).

Nonhuman agencies—despite human (scientific) endeavours to contain their meanings and regulate becomings—do ‘random’ things: Things that ‘run’ in haphazard patterns, that shift the margins, and that exert forces beyond human control.

Decay, Ruin and other (Un)Becomings draws attention to the processes that shift attention from human-directed intention to grapple with the oft unpredictable agencies of the nonhuman. Unbecomings attend to processes which are not fitting, inappropriate, or otherwise not-quite-right, and becomings suggest the ‘random’ ways new worldings emerge. This entails a practice of attentiveness towards “open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life” (Tsing) and the ways in which literary texts render ruins not as what is left but what we are left with (Stoler). 

Accordingly, I draw on texts whose forms that reckon with edges and incidentals, with wonder and the unanticipated, be it fragments, as in Dany Laffèire’s The World is Moving Around Me; iterations on recurring themes, as in the essays of Arundhati Roy; or elemental coalescences, as in Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey. Forging meanings through disaster, threat, waste, and other adversities, such texts (amongst others) engage with randomness as theme and as form. In a world of climate crisis, in a world that continues to sear with the effects of colonialism, in a world that is not-quite-right, engaging in a practice of reading for—with—the ‘random’ affords a space for grappling with unintended agencies and barely comprehensible effects.

Prof Kylie Crane teaches at the University of Potsdam, Germany. Her research interests encompass literary studies, postcolonial studies, environmental humanities/ecocriticism and material cultures. She is author or Myths of Wilderness in Contemporary Prose Texts: Environmental Postcolonialism in Australia and Canada (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and has edited, with Renate Brosch, Visualising Australia: Images, Icons, Imaginations (WVT, 2014). .

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