The Book: An Economy of Cultural Spaces

International Conference

Basic Info

November 25, 2010 at 09:30 to November 26, 2010 at 18:00
ZRC SAZU, Mala dvorana, Ljubljana

Organizer: Slovenian Comparative Literature Association


Through books and magazines as its main media, literature helps create the networks of cultural spaces. Books are not merely the material bearers of texts, but also cultural products or even artifacts and
symbols with their own history, codes, value, and meaning. Together with the textual worlds of literature, into which the semiospheres of their contexts are inscribed, books are factors in the interactive and
processualformation of cultural identities. They are the memory and archive of a given culture, as well as its virtual windows into the world.

In both cases and from today’s perspective, books are a necessary prerequisite of creative thinking, through which a specific cultural space reinterprets itself, develops, and projects its utopias. The cultural transfer of literary texts in manuscripts, books, and magazines – as well as institutional forms and social models of literary life associated with them – has always crossed linguistic, ethnic, geographical, and
national/political borders. On the one hand, the symbolic exchange and market of representations, and their translation into linguistically localized and geocultural codes, regenerate the traditions of individual ethnic groups and nations. On the other hand, these processes permanently establish and reshape regional, transnational, and intercivilizational networks, through which literary ideas, mental spaces, textual structures, and conceptual germs of institutions and practices spread. This involves a cultural diffusion similar to epidemics in terms of contagiousness, viral mutations, and defense mechanisms. Without
the unique economy of book transfer, in which the logics of the symbolic or cultural capital and market capital intersect, it would be impossible to speak of Goethe's idea of “world literature” or our participation in it, or international movements such as the Enlightenment and Modernism. With their economy, books and literature are mediators of cultural spaces: they materially and mentally establish both their “inner” coherence and continuity as well as their “outer” or “transnational” integration. The transfer of books and their systematic collection, cataloguing, analysis, commentary, and interpretation – all of these are factors that have shaped the history of the cosmopolitan awareness and consequently also the modern “system” of world literature.

This is the background to the conference, which will consider the relevance of the history of books and related media for contemporary, transnationally oriented comparative literature and its reflection on the concept of world literature. The following issues will be discussed:

How did literary manuscripts circulate around the world, and what was the geocultural distribution of the centers where they were created, preserved, and copied? What did the invention of printed books and the expansion of literary journals signify for the distribution, dissemination, and reception of ideas, notions, and imaginary spaces of literature?

– Is the view that book printing, publishers, and libraries established the world literature infrastructure, as well as international literary movements such as the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernism, well founded?

– What were the roles of private, university, school, academic, and public libraries in cultural transfer? How did they shape cosmopolitan awareness and enable literary production to transcend provinciality and benefit from broader backgrounds, and richer cultural archives (namely “world,” and “European” literature)?

– How were works of fiction and information on them exchanged and collected through letters, salons, and other contacts between European intellectuals? How did this help form the transnational writers’ networks and the universal cultural space (i.e., the “republic of letters”)?

– How did changes in the physical characteristics of books (the “bibliographic code”) affect the global development of literature and its genres? What was the intermediary role of distinguishing profiles for literary and cultural periodicals?

– How did the economics of the publishing industry and libraries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries affect the global distribution of literary and cultural capital, and the asymmetric communications between the centers and the peripheries?

– Did the new media condense or expand the global literary space with the event of the World Wide Web, e-books, virtual libraries, and electronic archives in comparison to the codex book, and how?

– Which media and media hybrids from digital, electronic, technically reproducible, and traditional non-technical contexts are connected with the shift introduced by the new media? What are the roles of hybrids of visual and verbal modes of expression? And how to regard in such a particular light other hybrids (from Emblem books through artists’ books to experimental book forms)?

Since Slovenian culture is geocritically situated at the edges and marked by the permeability and fluidity of borders as well as by the intersection of heterogeneous regions (west and east, central European and Mediterranean), and has been decisively linked to the Slovenian language and Slovenian literature from the Reformation onwards, the book as a cultural document and a bearer of cultural, symbolic and economic values is all the more deserving of serious and conscientious consideration. As the “world book capital” from April 2010 to spring 2011, Ljubljana is an appropriate place for bringing together literary comparatists and book historians and opening a thorough interdisciplinary discussion of the history and future of books, especially their role in the development of European and world literature. The answers to these questions can define the challenges that a common European future poses to the book and the quests in art and knowledge connected with it.