Why Area Studies Matters in World Literature: The Case of Southeast Asia

Date: 28 Aug 2017
Time: 10:00 am
Speaker: Dr. Nazry Bahrawi , Singapore University of Technology and Design
Topic: Why Area Studies Matters in World Literature: The Case of Southeast Asia
Venue: E-zone

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Abstract: Buzzwords like Trans-Regional Asia and the Global South have entered into the lexicon of humanities disciplines in recent years. But what do they mean to scholars of literary and cultural studies? Do these terms have legitimacy or are they faddish notions that will run their course in a few years? Do they run the risk of submerging the literatures of often ignored localities such as Hong Kong, Singapore or even the region of Southeast Asia within the greater configurations of East Asia, South Asia or the Islamic world?

Stemming from my experience of teaching a ‘Great Books’ course as a foundational year module at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, this presentation will respond to these questions by considering the case of Southeast Asia, a conglomeration of disparate political and socio-cultural nations. It will first speculate reasons relating to the literary marketplace that make Southeast Asia marginal to the study of world literature.

One possibility for getting minority cultures out of the cultural ghetto is the notion of ultra-minor literature articulated by Berger Rønne Moberg and David Damrosch in the Journal of World Literature. Yet this is somewhat still lacking for the way it entrenches the hierarchy of cultures prevalent in existing discourses of comparative cultures.

This presentation will articulate another method, one informed by the slew of cosmopolis configuration articulated by Sheldon Pollock (Sanskit cosmopolis), Rochard Eaton (Persian cosmopolis) and Ronit Ricci (Arabic cosmopolis) as a frame for researching and teaching world literature.

Taking the case of literature of the Malay world as a case study, it hopes to concisely articulate the continued relevance of civilizational configuration common to area studies – that is, the move to peg Malay and Indonesian, or Bahasa-phone, literature to the cultural unit that we can call the ‘Islamicate cosmopolis’. In so doing, I hope to arrive at a better understanding of the possibilities of incorporating the study of lesser known cultures into the fold of world literature without entrenching their minority status.