Author in focus: Norbert Bachleitner (Series Editor IFAVL)

In celebration of the 200th Volume of Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft (IFAVL), to be published December 2019, we interviewed Norbert Bachleitner, IFAVL’s Series Editor for the past decade. He shared with us his thoughts on the Series’ progression, the past of Comparative Literature, as well as the discipline’s future.

Could you describe in which direction comparative literature was headed 10 years ago when you became the Series Editor for IFAVL, compared to where you foresee the field moving to now?
"I grew up with ‘classical’ Comparative literary studies: we were interested in the reception and distribution of works, in their influence and the intertextual traces they left in other works, we analyzed translations, criticism, reader response, and so on. The leading principle of comparison, confrontation and relation was ‘contact’. I still stick to this kind of study. I think it is important for literary history, which is still organized mainly according to linguistic and/or ‘national’ borders, to draw attention to the plethora of links and connections that contribute to making literature a cultural network transcending all these boundaries. Even if such an understanding of ‘world’ literature is still rather a theoretical idea that is virtually impossible to be actually handled in individual comparative literary research projects, we can rightfully imagine world literature as the sum of everything that was ever written, forming a vast cultural continent reminding of Borges’s Library of Babel. This said, we must come down a few steps and be content with reconstructing a few filaments of the global net. Moreover, I am also an advocate of combining literary studies with the history of the book. We should not forget that texts ‘travel’ in particular and variable formats reaching from ancient manuscripts to digital ‘twitterature’. The medium is as important as the semantic contents, the ‘message’, often such formats address a particular readership."

"Even if the ‘classical’ model of Comparative literature still has its benefits, we are, of course, under the influence of new concepts and approaches such as cross-, trans-, and interdisciplinary, postcolonial and global studies and feel their respective gravitational pulls upon literary studies. Comparative Literature is expanding its parameters, in a sense, it has already lost its way in a galaxy of possibilities and alternate realities. It is not easy any more to define our discipline – the multitude and variety of topics and approaches represented in IFAVL bears witness to this statement. But maybe it is better, anyway, not to define and limit a discipline as versatile a Comparative literature."

Have we moved away from the Eurocentric view of Comparative Literature? If we have, where are we now?
"Yes, we definitively have moved away from Eurocentrism; at least we are conscious of the fact that culture has become globalized and that cultural transfer is not a one-way-street from the ‘first’ to the ‘third’ world, but a network of exchanges. In the introduction to the ‘jubilee’ volume 200 of IFAVL the editors (Achim Hölter, John A. McCarthy and myself) write: "We used to speak simply of Comparative Literature in capital letters. We were unconcerned by the discipline’s indebtedness to European Enlightenment thought, accepting of the cosmopolitan world view, and untroubled by the resulting Eurocentrism. We gave little thought to the discipline’s lack of a home in a single national, literary, or critical tradition." And, hesitatingly, we propose a provisional definition: "Comparative Literature contributes to a sense of being at home in a world that is heterogeneous and fractured, rather than affirming a monolithic canon marked by territory and homogeneity.""

"The advent of fields of study such as Cultural Memory, Migration and Cultural translation, and Electronic Textuality changed Comparative Literature and the humanities in general. We have to deal with ‘literatures with no abode’ (Ottmar Ette), with deterritorialised and essentially narrated communities. But the task of analyzing the underlying literary and textual structures has remained the same as in the beginning of the discipline. Thus, Comparative Literature will still be relevant in the 21st century global setting."

You mention in the introduction that you foresee the next generation offering “new perspectives on the discipline.” What changed in the past ten years that makes you sure of it?
"Comparative Literature is more than ever a ‘peculiar’ discipline, better understood perhaps as a trans- or meta-discipline, for it has no clear textual corpus, no distinct methodology, and no identifiable center of inquiry. Because of this heterogeneity it can fit into our culturally heterogeneous world anywhere and can provide a ‘knowledge for living’, even if this knowledge implies a consciousness of being in the world which is not the cultural world one physically inhabits. From its early stages, the IFAVL series has tried to provide both a forum for established academics alongside early career researchers, therefore it is predestined to serve as a sensor for changes of approach. The commitment to include younger colleagues is also represented in the ‘jubilee’ volume 200. Perhaps even more so than other disciplines, Comparative Literature is changing fast with methodologies, topics, and research interests emerging and remerging. The next generation seems to concentrate on post-national, and particularly on post-colonial studies, on minority literatures, on gender and identity studies, and on new genres such as autofiction – regardless of whether they will call the discipline ‘Comparative’, ‘International’, ‘Global’, or ‘World’ literary and cultural studies."

Do you have any final remarks regarding this 200th volume of IFAVL?
"In 1993 the IFAVL series started with Rodopi publishing house located in Amsterdam which laid a solid basis with producing the first 175 volumes. In 2015 the series moved to Brill where we have recently released the 200th volume that also celebrated the 25th ‘birthday’ of IFAVL. I very much enjoy the intellectual expertise, the solid craftsmanship, and the cooperative spirit which together are the hallmark of this publishing house. On the commercial side, Brill handles the book and takes the necessary care to make our series as marketable as possible. Thus, I am confident that Brill will continue to steer the series successfully during the next decades."

To read more on Taking Stock – Twenty-Five Years of Comparative Literary Research click here.