Genealogies of Literary Form

 dal 22/06 al 23/06
Immagine dell'evento Genealogies of Literary Form

Multiple literary experiences, since the end of the Maoist “unification” of the literary system, have
emerged in China bringing about a multiplicity of literary expressions articulated in different forms
and through different media. In some cases, following the urge of bringing Chinese culture “to the
world”, this gave rise to trends and genres conversant with the more consecrated developments of
modern Western literature – however claiming proudly their distinctive “Chinese characteristics”. In
some others, stemming more directly from indigenous cultural sensibilities and social experiences, it
gave rise to popular genres with a distinctively local circulation and readership.
Whether called to join the noble ranks of “world literature”, or more humbly catering to local tastes
and concerns, all of these literary expressions, rooted as they are in the terrain of the Chinese social
life, typically respond in their emergence to the specific historical circumstances that enable or
prompt their very existence. In other words, the processes of their formation are motivated and shaped,
in multiple and variable ways, by the intricate webs of social factors that co-operate in constituting
them as forms even before inspiring their contents.
Given the awareness that literary signification is inseparable from form, and that form is not just a
matter of individual choice but is always steeped in some wider historical and social grounding, the
purpose of this conference is to invite for a series of interventions aiming to capture significant social
processes in the creation of literary forms in contemporary China, observing on the one hand how
specific social dynamics – political, economic, technological, cultural at large and more narrowly
literary – participate in shaping the formation of certain specific literary configurations, and on the
other how particular formal arrangements within these configurations tend to inform the very body
of the specific texts structuring their particular articulations of meaning.
In short, why do certain forms emerge at specific times? How, once they have emerged, do they
function, both internally as textual constructions and externally as socially symbolic acts? What do
they aim to do, what are their social “affordances”? And, in view of their functions and aims, what
are they able to express through language, what are they not able to express? How are they interpreted
by their readers, professional and amateur alike, what kind of effects – aesthetic, political, cognitive,
affective – do they elicit in them?
While much has been done in European and American scholarship to connect the genesis of literary
forms with their specific historical environments and discourses in the late Qing, Republican and
Maoist periods, less attention has been paid to historicize the constitution of forms in contemporary
China. On the one hand, literary studies on contemporary China in the West tend to be focused
primarily on the analysis of broad cultural-historical themes and contents; on the other, interpretation
of contemporary literary trends in China seems often driven by the double impulse of either inscribing
Chinese literature into universal historical trends of development or producing some quintessential
images of Chinese culture. A more systematic inquiry into the processes of the constitution of forms
could help us better understand the concrete workings of contemporary Chinese literary
representations by observing how they are at the same time influenced by, and able to exercise agency
on, their social and historical environments.
In light of the already long historical trajectory since the beginning of the Reform era, and the recent
historical reinterpretations called forth in the Xi Jinping era evoking perceptions of a more fluid and
organic relationship among the Maoist, Reformist, and present (“new”) era, the time is suitable for
engaging in a retrospective review of the processes of the last decades placing them in a larger

historical perspective, one that sees the contemporary relation with the Communist period not only
in terms of “breaking out” but also of continuity within discontinuity.
As to the analysis of “social processes”, this should begin with and be focused on the ways in which
communities of literary producers (critics, theorists, authors, readers) react to, and refract in literary
terms the particular solicitations arising from the shifting social conditions, reflecting on how these
reactions morph first of all into literary discourse; that is, those public ways of talking about literature
with the power to solidify certain preferences, hierarchies, epistemologies, canonisations,
thematizations etc., with the result of opening up to certain literary expressions and closing down to
others, valorising certain languages and depreciating some others, favouring the emergence of
specific texts and authors with their specific contents formed through literary language.
Thus, “forms”, here, are generally understood as these particular languages, both at the broader level
of literary trends and that of specific literary outputs by specific authors. This includes the
development and transformation of genres (with their recurrent themes and conventions); modes of
representation (with their distinctive ways of establishing textual relationships with the world); or the
specific narrative, rhetorical and figurative devices characterising the compositions of particular texts.
Given the necessarily fragmentary and historically volatile nature of the “contemporary” as a field of
inquiry, and the multifarious interests and approaches of the scholars participating in the conference,
the conference favours the investigation of specific case studies that obviously do not claim to draw
broad maps characterised by sweeping historical generalisations. The goal is instead to provide a
variety of examples capable to offer some insights into the “genealogies of form” in contemporary
China, and perhaps envision the possibilities of a methodology apt to combine “historicist” analyses
of social contexts with textual “readings for form” as recommended by the recent “new formalist”
approaches, breaking more ground for the study of a “poetics of social forms” – to put it in Fredric
Jameson’s words – in contemporary China.


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