Peripheral autonomy?

Longitudinal analyses of cultural transfer in the literary fields of small language communities

With the emergence of an autonomous literary field, a specific social sphere can be discerned where literature is produced and discussed on its own terms and where it is judged from within, evaluated by standards and norms that are defined internally, and agreed and disagreed upon within the community itself. The emergence of an autonomous literary field implies the emergence of several literary institutions (following S.J. Schmidt). Within the field different action possibilities arise along four dimensions, i.e. production, mediation, reception and post-processing, dimensions that, as the literary field develops, take shape in several institutionalized action roles, ranging from book publishers, book editors, literary agents and jury members to magazine editors, critics, literary translators, literary historians, etc. Besides these action roles and other forms of institutionalization, such as the development of a book industry, specialized media, literary prizes, etc., the autonomous literary field is also characterized by the emergence of a specific market that functions according to its own logic. On the one hand, a segment of small production is directed towards what could be called the core of the field, according to Bourdieu, aimed mainly at specific consecration and autonomous profit. On the other hand, a segment of mass production is directed towards a larger public, striving for more worldly, heteronomous profits.

Significant contributions to the description and analysis of the emergence of an autonomous social sphere in which literature constitutes a world of its own include those of Bourdieu and Schmidt. Their analyses concern larger language communities (French and German, respectively) characterized by a dominant language and a strong cultural tradition, and – in the case of France – also by a marked tradition of centralization. When it comes to the analysis of an autonomous literary field within smaller language communities, one has to account for an additional particularity, namely the fact that these communities hold a peripheral position within a global cultural system. This presupposes a greater exposure to foreign influences and a stronger dependence on the cultural production in the larger languages, which in turn increase the importance of cultural transmitters who can introduce foreign models (after Even-Zohar) to vitalize the home production.

The observation of the particular situation that characterises literary fields in small language communities with respect to their relationship with foreign cultures is the point of departure for the present research project. Starting from a metalevel, this project aims to investigate the role and functioning of cultural transfer in small language communities, especially its role and functioning within the literary fields of the Swedish and Dutch language areas. This focus will not only enable an investigation of cultural transfer within small literary fields as such, but also offer interesting opportunities for comparing the mechanisms of cultural transfer in two small language areas that are both similar and dissimilar in several respects. The Swedish language area, which is the smaller of the two, is characterized by a clearly dominant cultural centre (Stockholm, where – amongst other things – the main cultural institutions are centralized) and a cultural production that takes place almost exclusively within the boundaries of one nation. This is in clear contrast with the Dutch language situation, where there is a clear-cut binational language situation, with Dutch being spoken in the Netherlands and in Flanders, i.e. the northern part of Belgium. Although Swedish is also one of the official languages in Finland, due to, on the one hand, the fact that it is a minority language spoken by only 5% of the population and, on the other, its high social status (which it has achieved for historical reasons), the differences with the Dutch language area are apparent. Though the Dutch language area in Belgium is clearly larger than its counterpart in Finland, the status of the language has been, by contrast, far more uncertain, as Flemish has held the position of underdog for a long time. Amongst other things, this explains why Flemish literary production is to a large degree oriented towards the cultural centre in the Dutch language area, a centre that in its turn is geographically clearly located and delineated (Amsterdam, with its concentration of important cultural institutions). The Swedish and Dutch language areas thus offer several interesting challenges to map the interplay between foreign and native cultural production in the literary fields of small language communities.

The present research project aims to investigate the role and functioning of cultural transfer within these language areas over a broader period of time, from the end of the 19th century and the initial development of autonomous literary fields down to the present day. Rightly or wrongly, it is now questioned whether the autonomous status of these fields is threatened by increasing commercialization and mediatization, amongst other factors. Through this project we want to contribute to a better understanding of these specific literary fields from their origins to their present situation, especially the ways transferred literatures and their transmitters function in these fields. In addition to contributing to the knowledge of specific literary fields, we also want to contribute to a better understanding of how autonomous literary fields function in general, and especially to the general study of the mechanisms of cultural transfer.

In order to achieve these goals, the project will examine a number of well-defined case studies that deal with several aspects of cultural transfer in the period under consideration. These case studies will share a theoretical framework and address the same methodological issues.

In a number of case studies, the institutionalized role of cultural transfer will be mapped by investigating which roles translators, literary agents, publishers, editors, critics, etc. and their networks play in the transfer of foreign literatures. In addition to this mapping of the different agents involved in the process of transfer, the social profiles of these cultural transmitters will be investigated, paying attention to the social and ideological background of these agents, to matters of gender, to questions about the extent to which transfer is combined with other roles in the field, etc.

Further, a number of case studies will be devoted to the development of the institutional conditions for cultural transfer by paying attention to the functions of literary magazines, publishing houses, subvention possibilities, etc. These case studies will also focus on a quantitative description of cultural transfer, mapping which authors, languages, genres, etc. have been introduced into the field.

Finally, a number of case studies will analyse the discourses that accompany the process of cultural transfer, investigating the images that are transmitted along with the foreign literatures that have been translated and introduced into the Swedish and Dutch language areas. Of equal interest is the question of how these foreign literatures function in the target system.

In order to streamline the different case studies and to clarify the theoretical and methodological points of departure, we plan to organise three workshops. The project will will be rounded off with a conference. In the first workshop the theoretical and methodological points of departure will be discussed and illustrated. In the second and third workshops the main focus will be on the case studies. In the concluding conference the outcome of the three workshops will be discussed and the theoretical and methodological frameworks will be evaluated.

Workshop 1: Reflection on Theoretical and Methodological Points of Departure (Ghent, 2006)

This workshop will be devoted to the theoretical and methodological issues involved in the project in order to design a sound framework for the case studies on cultural transfer in the literary field. Eminent speakers will be invited to focus on problems of studying literature as a field. One point of interest will be the question of autonomy, which comprises a number of sub-questions, including how to understand and study the relationship between the literary field and other social spheres, how to understand and study the dynamics within the literary field and the exchanges between literatures, how to understand and study the relationship between positions and position-takings, etc. Speakers will be invited to deal with these theoretical issues not as such but in relation to concrete research strategies.

Workshop 2: The Development of Literary Fields and the Influence of Foreign Literature from the late 19th Century until 1950 (Groningen, 2007)

Workshop 3: ‘The Invasion of Books’. The Influence of Foreign Literature on Small Language Communities 1950 – present day (Uppsala, 2008)

The second and third workshops will be devoted to the presentation and discussion of case studies that illuminate several aspects of cultural transfer in the literary fields of small language communities. The case studies will be based on the theoretical framework delineated in the first workshop and will deal with questions concerning the social role of cultural transmitters, the institutional conditions of cultural transfer, and with analyses of the discourses that accompany the process of cultural transfer. During the workshops, contributions by the participating members will be discussed as well as contributions responding to calls for papers.

The final conference (Groningen, 2009)

The final conference will be organized in Groningen (2009). The key figures of the project will give a presentation of the results of each workshop, held in Gent, Groningen and Uppsala. Furthermore, the theoretical and methodological frameworks will be evaluated and further research will be planned. Some selected articles will be published in a peer reviewed journal.

The Peripheral autonomy? Longitudinal analyses of cultural transfer in the literary fields of small language communities project will be implemented through three workshops and three publications. The project aims to create a scholarly environment favourable to intellectual exchange at all levels and in all partici¬pating categories. The directors of the programme will invite selected scholars from other countries to participate in the workshops in order to further international collaboration in the years to come.

The results of the workshops will be published in coherent volumes. Young scholars (post-docs and PhD students) will be encouraged to participate in the activities of the workshops with contributions related to their individual research projects.

Key figure Groningen: Dr Petra Broomans, Associate Professor
Key figures Uppsala: Prof.dr. Margaretha Fahlgren and dr. Marta Ronne
Key figures Ghent: Prof. dr. Godelieve Laureys and dr. Daan Vandenhaute