Galin Tihanov, George Steiner Professor of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London, reports on ‘Language, Foreignness, Openness: Three Disciplinary Perspectives’ held at QMUL on 17-18 November.

The two day workshop was held on 17-18 November 2017 at QMUL under the auspices of the AHRC Open World Research Initiative. QMUL is a satellite partner of the research programme ‘Cross-Language Dynamics’, led by Stephen Hutchings at the University of Manchester. Within this research programme, Galin Tihanov (QMUL) is collaborating closely with the Translingual Strand of the project directed by Catherine Davies, Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London.

The workshop brought together scholars from Brazil, China, Germany, Russia, Spain, the UK, and the United States: Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool), Christian Moser (University of Bonn), César Domínguez (University of Santiago de Compostela), Shital Pravinchandra (QMUL), Ghazouane Arslane (QMUL), Florian Mussgnug (UCL), Alexander Beecroft (University of South Carolina), Yulia Ivanova and Pavel Sokolov (Higher School of Economics, Moscow), Bruno Gomide (University of Sao Paulo), Zhang Hui (Peking University) and Francesca Orsini (SOAS, London). In the four panels they presented papers exploring how notions of ‘foreignness’ and ‘openness’ are produced through the institutional research, teaching practices and respective methodologies of Classics, Modern Languages, Comparative Literature and World Literature. These issues were approached both historically (with a focus on the Italian eighteenth century and on early twentieth-century exilic writing in Arabic and English) and with reference to contemporary debates (especially, but not solely, within Postcolonial Studies and Ecocriticism).

The exploratory workshop helped us break new ground in research on the interaction, past and present, between the fields of Modern Languages, Comparative Literature, and World Literature. The idea informing the workshop was to gauge the specific weight and significance of Modern Languages in the current epistemological and institutional context, and thus also their distinctive role in the construction of an Open World. To do this, the workshop brought in the perspectives of Comparative Literature and World Literature, two academic fields that are closely related to, and have a considerable stake in, Modern Languages research and teaching. The pivotal question, an extremely topical issue and a veritable apple of discord, guiding this workshop was how should one understand and interpret literature and other discursive artifacts: within the horizon of language or beyond it? By seeking to offer answers to this question, the workshop has contributed to shaping the future agenda of Modern Languages research, drawing on approaches honed in exilic and diaspora studies and in recent research on cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. Our primary task was to understand the specific meaning and relevance of three fundamental concepts, ‘language’, ‘foreignness’ and ‘openness’ – in each of these fields (Modern Languages, Comparative Literature, and World Literature). At the same time, we wanted to grasp the validity and the specific modus operandi of these three basic concepts in two types of communities (translingual and transnational), mindful of their differences but also overlaps. This work is truly innovative and hugely original: such focused examination of the genealogy and subsequent trajectory of the three interrelated fields, what this has to tell us about the specific research agenda of Modern Languages today and, crucially, the likely directions of its evolution tomorrow and the ways in which Comparative Literature and World Literature impact this agenda and are in turn affected by it, has not been undertaken so far. Thinking historically and institutionally has allowed the participants in this workshop to ascertain the extent to which shared notions of ‘foreignness’ and ‘openness’ operate in translingual and transnational communities and was one of the most important aspects of the research agenda this workshop endeavoured to articulate.

The research has considerable potential for impact within and beyond academia. Several of the papers delivered and discussed at the workshop pertained to the history and methodology of language pedagogy, the wider implications of teaching foreign languages and literatures, and the blind-spots of Comparative Literature and World Literature in their encounters with undomesticated foreignness.

Galin Tihanov, QMUL